“Blues Up and Down” by Tom Piazza, and “Blue: The Murder of Jazz” by Eric Nisenson


By Ray Sawhill

A collection of a writer’s short nonfiction — what in the 18th century was called a miscellany — can be a ragtag thing. It can also be a showcase for the writer’s mind, freed from the effort to make statements for the ages and unbothered with self-consciousness. Even a so-so collection will feature a variety of subjects and attacks, and is likely to have a little of the rowdiness and informality that some readers treasure in 18th century essays.

Which is by way of giving a hand to St. Martin’s Press for bringing out Tom Piazza’s peppery, bristling “Blues Up and Down.” In more freewheeling times, it wasn’t unusual for a major publishing house to release such a collection; in these concept-is-all days, the unkempt miscellany is a rarity, and the streamlined, one-idea theme book is the rage. Piazza’s new book is an inspired grab-bag of features, reviews and profiles that for the most part makes sense of the advent of neotraditionalism in jazz.

What does it mean that young musicians are mastering old arrangements? Does “classic” have to mean “lifeless?” Piazza is exploring territory opened up by Albert Murray in “Stomping the Blues,” and he often takes as his antagonist jazz writers who maintain that jazz is freedom, man, it’s self-expression, the unconscious and the revolutionary. To Piazza, that kind of thinking isn’t just sentimental, it’s one of the reasons why jazz ran into one dead end after another in the ’60s and ’70s.

He tosses off ear-and-brain openers at an exciting rate. On one page comes a throwaway descriptive dazzler — a reference to “the slowly exfoliating logic” of a Thelonious Monk performance. On another is an inspired summing-up passage: “The evolution that was needed at the point when [Wynton] Marsalis came along was not the imagining of a new solo style, but was rather a reimagining both of the nature of ensemble playing and of jazz’s place in the culture as a whole — a reimagining of context.” This is useful in explaining why the ensemble playing of the neotraditionalists is often more convincing than their solo work. Taking on where-are-the-brilliant-new-innovators objections, he makes the often forgotten but essential point that when such legends as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker were at their peak, “The language itself was healthy and widely practiced.” (Critics writing for the ages aren’t likely to make such bold and entertainingly provocative assertions.) If you’re one of those people who find Wynton Marsalis cold and reactionary, Piazza’s profile of him may change your mind.

Trying to make a virtue of a mistake — signing up two books that concern the same subject but argue opposing points of view — St. Martin’s is releasing on the same day as Piazza’s book Eric Nisenson’s “Blue: The Murder of Jazz.” Nisenson agrees with Piazza that, with free jazz and fusion, jazz ran itself into a cul-de-sac. For Nisenson, though, it’s the neotraditionalist response that spells the death of jazz; this is a theme book, and that’s Nisenson’s theme. A good attack on Marsalis could conceivably be made, but Nisenson’s argument runs out of gas a quarter of the way in, and he offers only a few pages on the performers he does enjoy. His language — that of a well-meaning, beleaguered social-studies teacher — doesn’t exactly stir the reader’s blood: “Armstrong, needless to say, was a man deeply affected by the society in which he lived and his own hopes and dreams for that society.”

Nisenson is one of the “jazz is freedom” guys, and he doesn’t want to see jazz defined, let alone redefined; Piazza is convincing when he writes that, for such writers, jazz isn’t “something objective to be loved and studied … but an occasion for total immersion in purely subjective affect.” Weighed down by his theme and his one drippy idea, Nisenson seems punch-drunk from the opening bell. Piazza — loose, quick and focused as he dances from one subject and idea to the next — wins round after round. I’d like to think that Piazza’s victory also represents a triumph for the miscellany over the theme book.

© 1997 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.