Mr Bojangles is a beautiful, bittersweet modern classic, still in regular rotation by folk and jazz singers alike.
But the homeless character in the song was not the original Bojangles. In fact, the history of Mr Bojangles stretches back a century or so, and sheds light on some of the most important figures in American entertainment.
Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson
Most of us have largely forgotten the ‘original’ Mr Bojangles, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.
Robinson was one of the biggest stars of the early 20th century, arguably the best dancer in the world at the time, and one of the most important African American performers…ever.
It’s hard to overstate how important he was, especially in the New York scene. He regularly performed alongside Duke Ellington, Fred Astaire, and Cab Calloway, and was friends with Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Bob Hope, Jackie Robinson, and Joe DiMaggio (the last two being star baseball players).
While Robinson is best known for his early cinema tap dancing, he made his name on the Vaudeville circuits before the first world war. He was one of the first minstrel performers who, on account of being black, didn’t wear blackface.
His signature stair dance featured in one of Robinson’s four films with Shirley Temple, marking the first on-screen interracial dance couple – which was surprisingly controversial at the time.
The Bojangles nickname apparently came from his childhood in Richmond Virginia, after he and a friend stole a beaver hat (the colloquial name for a beaver-skin top hat) from a hat maker named Lion Boujasson – which the children mispronounced as ‘Bojangles’.
The name was transferred to Robinson to make fun of him for stealing such an obnoxious hat.
It’s also around this time that Bill Robinson claims to have invented the term ‘copasetic’, meaning in excellent order – which he’d later popularise in his shows.
Despite his place in history, the song Mr Bojangles was not written about Bill Robinson.
The ‘Real’ Bojangles (from the song)
The song, Mr Bojangles, is a waltzy cowboy ballad, written and recorded by country singer Jeff Walker in 1968, almost twenty years after Bill Robinson’s death.
The song was covered by country-adjacent acts like Neil Diamond and John Denver before the breakthrough hit was released by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Walker wrote the song about a homeless street performer he met in a New Orleans jail who went by Mr Bojangles, to hide his true identity from the police.
They got to talking to the other inmates, and at one point Mr Bojangles told a story about his pet dog – who had died. To lighten the mood, Mr Bojangles started tap dancing around the cell. From that interaction, Walker got his lyrics.
Being a dancer, it’s likely this street performer did in fact take his name from Bill Robinson.
The link between Bojanges: Sammy Davis Jr
That’s the core story, but besides a nickname and a flair for the dramatic, there’s something else that links the real and original Mr Bojangles – that link is Sammy Davis Jr. Davis had a long and sometimes scandalous life, and is probably the most noted performer of the song Mr Bojangles.
Sammy wasn’t the first jazz-ish singer to record the tune – Nina Simone had done so a year earlier – but Sammy would make it a feature of his live show for decades.
As well as singing about the ‘real’ Mr Bojangles, Davis was a fan of and friend to the ‘original’ Mr Bojangles, Bill Robinson. Then later, Davis would sometimes be called Mr Bojangles himself.
So to summarize, we have three different Mr Bojangles to keep in our minds:
- The ‘original’ Bojangles, the tap dancer Bill Robinson
- The ‘real’ Bojangles, the dog-loving street performer from New Orleans
- The ‘modern’ Bojangles, Sammy Davis Jr
Three final numbers
Like the song, the story of all three Mr Bojangles ends with mixed emotions.
Despite earning millions in his career, Bill Robinson died penniless in 1949 – party due to a lifelong gambling habit, and for his habit of giving money to anyone in need. He was beloved by fellow performers – his Harlem funeral, organized by Ed Sullivan, was attended by a who’s who of Broadway.
But he copped flack from the black community, sometimes accused of being an Uncle Tom, an old term used to criticise African Americans who pandered to white audiences.
As for Sammy Davis Jr, his life was possibly even more complicated. Also labeled an Uncle Tom early on, he later got slammed for his endorsement of Richard Nixon (despite Davis having been a friend and benefactor to Martin Luther King). Davis did come to regret the Nixon situation, for what it’s worth.
But Davis also received vitriol from the white community, largely due to his marriages to white women. His marriage to Swedish-born actress May Britt reportedly led John F Kennedy – of all people – to refuse to have Sammy sing at his inauguration.
As for the Mr Bojangles Jeff Walker wrote about – he was a nameless street performer in 1960s New Orleans, which probably didn’t set him up for a long and prosperous life.
But the song doesn’t hit like an emotional tonne of bricks because of who it was written about. At its core, Mr Bojangles is a story of joy and hope in the face of tragedy and unfairness. Both Sammy Davis Jr and Bill Robinson had lives filled with that, but it’s also a universally human thing.
Over 80 years ago, a young composer wrote Take The A Train, one of the classic jazz standards, kind of as a joke. The lyrics were based on scribbled directions around New York City:
You must take the A Train
If you want to go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem
If you miss the A Train
You’ll find you’ve missed the quickest way to Harlem
But in the 21st century, is the A Train still the quickest way to get to Harlem?
It’s December 1938, and Billy Strayhorn was a 20-year-old composer from Pittsburg, working as a pharmacy assistant. His compositions went largely unheard – he’d occasionally play for pharmacy customers that he delivered to, so long as they had a piano.
Little did young Strayhorn know, he was about to become the right-hand man of the legendary bandleader, Duke Ellington.
Ellington might be the most important jazz composer in history, writing over a thousand songs and creating one of the best orchestras in 20th century America (including the classical orchestras!).
The song Take The A Train would end up becoming the band’s signature tune, and it’s still a popular jazz standard today.
The story goes that Strayhorn was taken backstage at an Ellington show in Pittsburgh. After hearing Strayhorn play, Ellington invited Billy to his home in Harlem, writing the directions on a piece of paper. Central to those directions was to take the A Train.
Strayhorn wrote Take The A Train before meeting Ellington a month later, to prove that he could write a song about anything. Weird flex, but okay.
Right place at the right time
That could have been the end of the line for Take The A Train, if it weren’t for the 1940 dispute between radio stations and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, or ASCAP. ASCAP then, as today, represented American songwriters and publishers, and had been significantly increasing the cost of radio licenses. That caused radio stations to boycott songs by ASCAP members.
The dispute meant Ellington couldn’t play his songs on the radio, as he was a member of ASCAP. But Billy ‘Convenient Loophole’ Strayhorn wasn’t. So Strayhorn, along with Ellington’s son Mercer, got busy writing a brand new catalog for the band.
Even then, Strayhorn thought Take The A Train was too old to be played – it was Ellington that reportedly saved it from the trash. It’s a good thing he did, as Take The A Train is still one of the best known jazz songs among both musicians and audiences.
The A Train is one of New York’s oldest subway lines, although it’s not quite the worst. A rigorous 60 second google suggests the C Train is considered inner-circle-of-hell territory. The A Train shares a track with the C though, so let’s call it the suburbs of hell.
When it opened in 1932, the A Train ran the length of Manhattan, from 207th street station to Chambers Street. Several extensions took the line through Brooklyn, then south to Far Rockaway.
The most important extension was in 1936 to Rockaway Avenue Station, because it connected Bedford-Stuyvesant to Harlem. Bed-Stuy would soon join Harlem as home to a large number of New York’s African American residents, making the A Train super important to black New Yorkers.
Now Take The A Train is a bop, but that cultural significance definitely played a part in its success.
Taking the A Train in 1939
Duke Ellington lived at 935 St. Nicholas Avenue, in a building now called Ellington House. It’s close to the original location of The Cotton Club, at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue, where Ellington made his name in the early 1930s.
Of course in 1939 the Cotton Club was actually in the theatre district, and a year or so later it would be shut forever.
For Billy Strayhorn to get New York 1939, he would’ve travelled from Pittsburgh to New York City on the New York Central System. That would drop him at Grand Central Station. But here’s where things get tricky – the A Train doesn’t go to Grand Central Station!
So, Strayhorn would have had to walk or take the 7 from Grand Central to 42nd street station, then take the A Train to 155th street, the closest station to Ellington’s home.
But today, the A Train only stops at 155th street at night. By day it goes to 145th street – at the southern edge of Sugar Hill – but you’d need to catch the C to get to 155th street.
Is the A Train the quickest way to Harlem?
So to answer our initial question – is the A Train still “The quickest way to get to harlem”
If it’s after 10pm, yes.
If you can walk from 145th street, yes.
But to get to Ellington house in the day – nope! In that case, the quickest way is to take the C Train.
But as we’ve mentioned, the C Train is a bottomless pit of eternal damnation – so maybe get off a stop early and walk?
In 1959, just months after John Coltrane appeared on the seminal Miles David album Kind of Blue, Coltrane recorded his own soon-to-be-legendary album, Giant Steps.
But once Giant Steps was put on wax by Atlantic, Coltrane never recorded it again, and to this day there exist no live recordings of John playing the song that would most define his legacy.
So, what happened?
It’s a numbers game
Let’s stay with our initial comparison between Kind of Blue and Giant Steps. The opening tune from Miles’ album, So What, had at least X live versions recorded within a few years of its release, many featuring John Coltrane.
Here are just a few live recordings of So What (there are many more out there):
- The TV Movie The Sound of Miles Davis
- A set from the Olympia Theatre in Paris
- A live recording from the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival
- The version found on Miles in Tokyo (1964)
- The take recorded at the Lincoln Centre for the album Four & More
Coltrane, however, never recorded a live version that was released. Jazzdisco does list five private or rejected recordings that can’t be tracked down. Two at Showboat in Philadelphia in July 1960, another two from September 1959 at Birdland and a New Jersey club, and one at The Olympia Paris in 1962.
Of course, Kind of Blue was a much more successful album – Giant Steps isn’t the most palatable tune, especially compared to So What or All Blues.
But commercial released live recordings of most classic albums from that period are plentiful, so the lack of a Giant Steps live cut is still extremely odd.
Here’s the conventional answer. Giant Steps is a really hard tune, for two reasons. First of all, it’s normally played really fast – which makes it hard for hackers like me to play a decent solo on it at speed.
Secondly, Giant Steps is an untraditional take on jazz harmony, heavily utilising chords moving in thirds, which Coltrane likely pulled from Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.
I won’t go into any more theory than that, but if you haven’t checked out the Vox video on Giant Steps, do it after you’re finished reading.
There is some speculation that the song was mostly written as an etude, or a musical study, of this idea. Certainly, for a long time after it was released, Giant Steps was, as sax player Petter Wettre has put it, a “tune that serves the purpose of competing with other musicians to see who’s the best.”
So Giant Steps was basically a dick measuring contest.
Now Coltrane was a humble man, but the weaponisation of Giant Steps didn’t come until years later, so his lack of live performances was hardly him railing against that. It is possible that Coltrane never meant to play it live, that it really was a way to explore a technical and harmonic idea, the way it’s been treated by many thousands of musicians since.
As for the unreleased recordings, it’s possible that Coltrane simply wasn’t happy with the playing, either by himself or a member of his band. Listening to the alternate takes of the song from Atlantic’s Deluxe edition, released in the 1990s, even Coltrane didn’t play perfectly on each take.
Both are reasonable explanations, and either might very well be true. But I’d like to consider one more angle, which has more to do with John Coltrane’s approach to art.
Play it again, Sam
Something I’ve always loved about music as an art form, especially in jazz, is that its creators get to reinvent the same piece of work again and again, with every gig and recording session a chance to paint another version of a masterpiece.
I’ve always compared it to the work of Claude Monet. Monet, along with some of the other impressionists, would regularly paint a series of works depicting the same scene. Water Lilies, Haystacks, and Poplars are some of the most famous examples.
In both cases, the base composition becomes a vessel to create new art with. Rather than starting with another blank canvas, it allows the player or painter to try new things in a familiar context. I’ve always liked that very organic approach to growing artistically, but it also makes it easier for audiences, who come in with some pre-existing knowledge of what they’re experiencing.
Art fast, die young
Now John Coltrane did take this Monet-esque, reinventive approach to many of his tunes. For example, he recorded dozens of live versions of Impressions and My Favourite Things. But he didn’t do it on Giant Steps. That is, on one hand, a shame, but it can also be seen as an upshot of Coltrane’s incredibly fast-paced musical development over his working life.
Which, by the way, was incredibly short. Coltrane’s first album as a leader was recorded in May 1957, while his last date with a recording studio was in April 1967. That’s a few weeks shy of a decade. But within that decade, John Coltrane established himself as a master of the art form, and one of the most important innovators in its history.
So why are there no live recordings of John Coltrane playing Giant Steps? We’ll never know for sure, but had John slowed in his reinvention of the art form, even to the pace of Miles – which was sluggish compared to his own – would he have been able to innovate as much as he did in the brief time he had to work?
Whether Giant Steps was a technical study or a carefully crafted piece of art, it’s clear that John didn’t feel like he, or his composition, needed to be constantly reinvented on the bandstand.
John Coltrane died of liver cancer, likely caused by hepatitis, which was very probably linked to his heroin use. Despite that, it came as a surprise to his contemporaries, even his friend and past colleague, Miles Davis.
John was a deeply spiritual man through his final decade, best encapsulated by his inspired, tribute to God, A Love Supreme (which, by the way, was only recorded live once). It might be a stretch to posit that Coltrane foresaw the short tenure he would have in this life. In any case, it seems he rarely lingered on an idea for longer than was necessary.
John Coltrane changed jazz. The fact we don’t have film or tape of him playing his most iconic song out in the world shouldn’t be seen as a tragedy. Rather, see it as a testament to his insatiable desire to innovate, and an apparent inability to rest on his laurels.
When you picture a jazz musician, you’re probably picturing someone holding a saxophone or trumpet, sitting by a piano or behind a drum set, or maybe slinging a guitar or leaning on an upfront basis.
You probably don’t think of a Highland Bagpiper.
And yet, in the mid-1960s, jazz bagpipes had a place in the public eye, thanks to the talents of Rufus Harley – along with a public taste for novelty.
The ballad of Rufus Harley
Rufus Harley was born in North Carolina in 1936 but soon moved to North Philadelphia, picking up the saxophone from age 12. As a young adult, he continued playing but was working as a maintenance worker for the city when his life as a piper started.
In late-1963, Harley watched the funeral of John F. Kennedy, along with the rest of the world, complete with marching pipers from the US Air Force. Struck by the sound of the instrument, Harley rag around pawn shops in Philly and New York to find one with a set of pipes.
He picked up a set from a New York pawnbroker for $120, tried them for a day, returned them, but had a change of heart as he left the shop a second time, and took them back again. Within six months he had what he felt was a handle on the instrument.
Jazz adrift in the Atlantic
Harley’s story might have ended there, if not for a changing of the guard in the Jazz division of the Atlantic record label.
Co-founded by Turkish immigrant Ahmet Urtegen, Atlantic is best known for its impact on 1960’s soul music, with a roster that boasted Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Picket, among others.
However, the label also had some incredibly strong jazz artists in the late 1950s and early 1960s, releasing several albums that grace many a top-10 list of jazz albums. These included John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and My Favourite Things, as well as Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come and Free Jazz. Alongside Coltrane and Coleman, Atlantic hosted other hard-hitting artists including Joe Zawinul, Freddie Hubbard, and Charles Mingus.
Most of these acts were recorded under the supervision of Ahmet’s older brother, Nesuhi Ertegun, who looked after the label’s jazz catalog. In the early 19690’s however, Nesuhi was moving his focus to other areas of the business and gave a fella called Joel Dorn his job.
Dorn was an ex-radio DJ and was keen on stretching out on more left-of-field acts. He felt that just as Blue Note was the home of hard and post-bop, Atlantic Jazz would be the home of the experimental and avant-garde.
It’s with this mindset that Rufus Harley secured his first recording contract as a jazz bagpiper.
Success and critical confusion
You’d be justified in doubting Dorn’s judgment with his decision to sign Harley, but to Dorn’s credit, Harley was relatively successful. Dorn has said in an interview that Harley’s first record – Bagpipe Blues – sold five or six thousand records, a big deal for a debut jazz act.
Harley would go on to record another three albums with Atlantic, Scotch & Soul, A Tribute to Courage, and King/Queens. A Tribute to Courage even made it to 32 on the Billboard jazz chart. Alongside touring, Harley appeared on a series of TV shows, with the public lapping up his accessible combination of originals and pop covers, while getting off on the novelty.
Critics, on the other hand, told a different story. They weren’t so much critical as they were confused. Critic Stanley Dance called Harley “a good gimmick by the decade’s standards”, referring in part to the full highland outfit Harley was photographed in for the liner notes of Bagpipe Blues.
Stanley further said it was “A mercy that the pipes are heard on just three of the seven numbers”, with the other four tracks featuring Harley’s saxophone playing.
Elsewhere, Harley’s music was called “screeching, barbarous and provocative”. Melody Maker said of Harley “He manages to play jazz on [the bagpipes]. Not the greatest jazz you ever heard, but unmistakably jazz”.
‘Legit’ jazz instruments
Non-traditional jazz instruments have often had a hard time getting critical acclaim. In some cases, there’s a reason – for example, pedal steel guitar legend Buddy Emmons’ recorded several jazz albums in his life, including a team-up with Canadian jazz guitarist Lenny Breau. However, the PSG didn’t really suit the jazz aesthetic, and Emmons quickly returned to his country roots in every case.
Another example of a non-traditional instrument choice softening a career is found in the painfully underappreciated jazz harpist, Dorothy Ashby. Ashby put out a series of excellent records through the 1960s, many also featuring her skills as a singer. Ashby had the triple disadvantage of playing a non-traditional jazz instrument, being black, and being a woman, which perhaps made her a difficult sell. In any case, it’s criminal she hasn’t been properly acknowledged in modern times.
However, there are plenty of occasions that instruments, otherwise considered a novelty, find a home in the hands of a truly skilled player. The harmonica is an excellent example, first thanks to the skills of Belgian guitarist-turned-harmonica player Toots Thielemans, then later the Swiss-born Gregoire Maret. Both players proved the chromatic harmonica could be a legitimate if specialised, jazz instrument (of course, Stevie Wonder played a part as well).
Another woodwind player on the edges of legitimacy was Herbie Mann, also an Atlantic artist, who was a highly skilled and generally lauded jazz flautist. Of course, many saxophone players double on flute, but it could be reasonably questioned whether or not that would be the case without Mann and his contemporaries.
Why not bagpipes?
So why didn’t Rufus Harley do for the pipes what Mann did for the flute? It’s hard to know for sure, but I have a few theories.
For starters, he wasn’t a previously known jazz player. Toots Thielemans played guitar, while Herbie Mann played the saxophone before focusing on flute. Joe Zawinul, while respected as a synthesizer player in the 70’s and 80’s, was best known as a piano player in the 1960’s.
Rufus Harley did play the saxophone fairly well before he played the Highland Bagpipes, but his debut record was very clearly selling him as a Bagpiper first, even if the pipes were featured on a minority of tracks on the album.
The next problem Harley faced was that the pipes simply aren’t well equipped for the vocabulary of jazz. Jazz is a heavily chromatic language and requires some melodic flexibility to pull off properly. Great Highland Bagpipes only have 7 of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Two are doubled in a higher octave, leaving Harley with just 9 notes to work with. The result is a very limited vocabulary, the lack of which is very obvious when you listen. On top of that, Harley’s bagpipes featured Bb and F drone pipes, which played constantly. That effectively locked him into playing in either Bb major or G minor.
The bagpipes are also extremely difficult to tune while playing, with no mouthpiece to change the air-flow in real-time (the air comes from a bag held in the crook of the elbow). This isn’t a problem for a lone-piper, or even in a large pipe band, but not alongside traditionally tuned instruments in a small jazz ensemble.
Sitting in with Sonny
The closest Rufus Harley came to ‘legitimate’ jazz was when he went on tour with Sonny Rollins in the early 1970s. Harley would play the pipes occasionally but doubled on saxophone for most of the live set.
Perhaps the one Rufus Harley worth listening to comes from a Sonny Rollins live album recorded during this period, The Cutting Edge. Harley plays pipes on a rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. It’s the best example of jazz bagpipes I could find, at least partly due to the fact that Harley isn’t playing the entire time. On this cut, Harley truly adds something to the ensemble, rather than being little more than a novelty.
Unfortunately, while his bagpipes found a temporary place on The Cutting Edge, he was ultimately left on Sonny’s cutting room floor. Sonny said of Harley “I didn’t really get a sense that the bagpipe would be something which would find a place in the normal jazz group”.
Harley lived through to 2006, recording music until shortly before his death. He traveled occasionally, but generally remained defined by his novelty, rather than any lingering impact on music.
But with Harley lost to us, are jazz bagpipes having a resurgence?
Unfortunately… or thankfully… no. Perhaps due to its novel debut, it’s melodic inflexibility or an inherent mismatch between the double reeded, vaguely ethnic sound of the bagpipes and the aesthetics of modern jazz. Perhaps a more serious acolyte to Harley could have made an impact – John Coltrane reportedly owned a set of pipes, but never got to the point of actually playing them for an audience.
As far as modern bagpipe players go, there aren’t any, at least not in jazz. The experimental jazz musician David Watson plays bagpipes occasionally, and his pipe-centric album Skirl is worth a listen, but I wouldn’t consider it jazz, as such. Swedish performer Gunhild Carling plays bagpipes in a swing style, but her performances are probably better described as cabaret than traditional jazz.
If nothing else, the story of Rufus Harley reminds us to stay curious, and open our minds to changes in the way we do things, be it music or otherwise. Harley may not have hit jazz pay dirt with his pipes, but that’s not to say the next non-traditional player won’t.
As for the current state of bagpipe jazz, beyond the recommendations I made above nothing I’ve listened to will see regular rotation in my home. But as with all things – your mileage may vary. The next jazz bagpipe messiah could be just one inspirational record away.
Props to the essay that inspired this article and video, “Slightly Left of Centre – Atlantic Records and the Problems of Genre” by Daniel Goldmark. You’ll find it in Jazz/Not Jazz (Chapter 7) available here: https://www.amazon.com/Jazz-Not-Music-Its-Boundaries-ebook/dp/B008BJVL4Q
In 1985 Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis sat down for one of the most entertaining joint interviews about jazz that I’ve ever read. Despite being good friends and incredible musicians, Hancock and Marsalis had very different ideas about what constituted good jazz, and bad music.
But entertainment value aside, it was also a fascinating look into the way that perceptions of genre have made an impact on the development of jazz over the years.
Wynton and Herbie: Background
The story really starts a year earlier, at the 26th Grammy awards in early 1984 – but first, a little background on our two players.
Herbie Hancock is one of the most important American musicians in the last 50 years, not just in jazz. He grew up playing classical piano but was introduced to jazz in high school. He went on to release some really incredible solo albums and played in one of the legendary Miles Davis lineups in the 1960s alongside Tony Williams on drums. Importantly, Hancock then went on to be a pioneer of jazz fusion in the 1970s, especially with the record Headhunters. This was all while Miles Davis was pushing into jazz-rock fusion, alongside players like John McLaughlin and Zoe Zawinul.
Wynton Marsalis is younger than Herbie and played with Herbie Hancock’s band early in his career. In the 1980s ‘The Young Lions’ – a group of players that included Marsalis and his brother Branford – were tearing up the jazz world. There were all exceptional players, but they basically ignored the fusion and free jazz movements at the time, almost exclusively embracing older jazz styles, especially bebop and hard bop. Neo-bop is sometimes used to describe the music they played, although we’re really stretching the genre names at that point.
Turmoil at the Grammys
So back to February 1984, at the Grammys.
Wynton performed and won two statues that night: best solo jazz instrumental performance and best solo classical music performance. Wynton has always kept a foot in both camps.
Herbie Hancock had a good night as well, winning the Grammy for best R&B performance for Rockit, which he also performed on the night.
Rockit was a pop smash, coming from Hancock’s experimentation with synths, drum machines, and other staples of pop production. Rockit’s music video was also important, later winning 5 MTV video music awards. Along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Rockit was one of the first music videos by a black artist to be played on MTV, which made it much easier for other black artists to get on the platform.
But back to Wynton’s Grammys. His acceptance speech included a slightly controversial line. In accepting the Grammys, he thanked:
“Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong — all the guys who gave an art form to the American people that cannot be limited by enforced trends or bad taste.”
Were Wynton’s enforced trends and bad taste referring to Hancock? Or maybe Miles Davis, who’d recently returned from a hiatus with a series of funk albums? Was Wynton condemning them for abandoning jazz? Miles thought so – he was later quoted saying:
“He sounded to me like he’s supposed to be the savior of jazz – Sometimes people speak as though someone asked them a question. Well, nobody asked him a question.”
Wynton Marsalis later said Miles and Herbie weren’t in his sights, but Wynton has also said he likes drama, so he probably knew he’d ruffle some feathers.
Herbie and Wynton sit down
Jump ahead a year, where Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis are sitting down for a joint interview with Musician magazine. The Grammys are directly discussed early on
Hancock: “I have to congratulate you on [your speech]. You implied that there was good music and music that was in bad taste. Everybody wondered, “What music is he referring to?””
Marsalis: “The only statement I made was that we’re trying to elevate pop music to the level of art. Not just in music. Pop culture. Pop anything. I have nothing against pop music. Just understand what the music is about, because the function of pop music is totally different from jazz.”
There’s a great exchange later where Marsalis fleshes that out.
Marsalis: “To me what pop music is trying to do is totally different. It’s really geared to a whole base type of sexual thing. I listen to the radio. I know tunes that they have out now…It’s low-level realizations of sex.”
Hancock: “It’s not like that, Wynton. If it were, it would just stay the same. Why would the music change?”
Marsalis: “Because they get new computers.”
In a different exchange, Hancock does a good job of outlining the more open view on the relationship between genres.
Hancock: “When we have life, we have music. Music can be manifest in many different forms, and as long as they all have a purpose, they shouldn’t be pitted against each other as one being more important than the other. That’s stupid. That’s like apples and oranges.”
That final quote I’ll include from the interview is the one I enjoyed the most, but remember that these two men have a lot of respect for each other, so there’s no hostility here.
Marsalis: “The purpose of pop music is to sell records that appeal to people on a level that they want to accept it on. If you put out a record and it doesn’t sell, your next response is…”Let’s try to do this or that to make the record sell.””
Interviewer: “That’s terribly condescending toward pop. . . .”
Hancock: “Why are we asking him about pop music? What does he know about pop music?”
Wynton: “I know a lot about pop music.”
Hancock: “No you don’t.”
Wynton: “I played in pop…”
Hancock: “Wynton, you don’t. You think you know.”
They’re nothing if not blunt.
Two friends disagree
Besides the entertainment of a bit of drama, the interview illustrates something fascinating. These two, absolute giants of the genre, have two completely different opinions on what constitutes musical artistry.
Even if you think Wynton is the inspector general of the jazz police, there’s no denying his skill. And even if you think Herbie Hancock is a fame-hungry sellout, you’d have a hard time arguing against him being one of, if not the most influential jazz player of the last 50 years.
As it’s put in the original article, “Marsalis is in a bind: while he does not respect what Hancock respects, he cannot help respecting Hancock.”
As far as the actual definition of jazz, we’re probably a long way past it referring to a singular genre. Knowing that a piece of music is rock, pop, or classical doesn’t really tell you anything about the music. These are some of the broadest possible categories, and jazz should be considered the same. Whether that includes tunes like Pharaoh’s Dance, Rockit, or Lingus is up to you.
The importance of argument
The fact is, Wynton comes up short in the interview on a few occasions. It’s hard to say that pop music is a lower form of art than jazz in a room with Herbie Hancock, who’s been successful in both styles.
But I do want to defend Wynton, not for his opinions, but for how important it is for him to have them. Lots of opinions about jazz are controversial, but those debates about the meaning and importance of jazz are what give its relevance over time.
It’s not about saying who was right or wrong after the fact – instead, we should try to understand how people related to their music at the time it was being created, in order to really understand the true history of jazz, not some idealised history we think it should have had.
To get a real sense of this idea, you should read the article for yourself. You’ll find the full interview in the anthology Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History.
Marsalis and Hancock also spend a lot of time in the interview talking about the place of race in jazz. That’s not my story to tell, and they do a good job of it on their own.
No. 1 Green Street was one of the first jazz albums I owned, and I listened to it a lot. I love Grant’s playing, however un-modern it may feel today. It certainly informed a lot of what George Benson did though, so it can’t be all bad!
I do intend to add some analysis to this page when I get around to it, but for now here is the head and first three chorus’ transcribed (albeit with my crappy Sibelius presentation)
The main thing I love about Grant is how much he can get out of just a few licks, while still making his whole solo sound super fresh. The very last lick in the third chorus is one I’ve been drilling a lot the last week, especially the little descending thirds figure.