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The Body Eclectic

David Hajdu on Music


If this paragraph were a piece of music by Dave Douglas, it would make a summing-up statement here at the beginning, then proceed in reverse motion until it ended with an introduction of its main theme. Or it would start with a core idea and build through accretion, amassing in layers instead of progressing conventionally in any direction. Phrases would be planned exactingly to sound spontaneous, and improvised parts would take off on subtle compositional elements such as timbre. The vernacular and the formal would conjoin. You would recognize the musical vocabulary as jazz, but in averting conventions it would seem like a strange new language.

And if this paragraph were a second piece by Douglas, it would sound very little like the last one. It would differ in style as well as form, and the piece to follow it would be wholly unlike both its predecessors.

Not long ago Douglas performed for a week at the Village Vanguard with a jazz group modeled on one of Miles Davis’s classic quintets (trumpet, saxophone, Rhodes electric piano, bass, and drums). Less than a month later he was at Carnegie Hall, playing lyrical obbligato trumpet with the jazz singer and pianist Patricia Barber. Within two weeks of that, he was at Tonic, the artsy club on the Lower East Side, where he experimented with electronic music—one member of his band was doing record scratches on a turntable, another was generating digital samples with a PowerBook. Nine days later Douglas showed up at CBGBs to do a “free-jazz” session, improvising without prepared music. It is difficult to imagine any other person working in all of those settings, even if he or she were doing the sound or the lights.

A record store could stock Dave Douglas CDs in at least seven different categories: jazz, avant-garde, chamber music, electronic music, world, folk, and (perhaps most accurately) miscellaneous. One of his albums is a tribute to the big-band composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams, its music played by a traditional jazz combo; another features variations on “Vanitas Vanitatum” by Robert Schumann, arranged for trumpet, guitar, and drums; another has an adaptation of a folk tune from Burma, scored for violin and cello; another includes a re-write of the Goldfinger movie theme for trumpet, violin, accordion, and bass; another is a modern-dance score with Japanese drums. Douglas’s last CD, Freak-in, was an all-electronic recording, his first in that element, an amalgam of processed sounds and digital samples with a couple of traditional jazz instruments (Douglas’s trumpet, a saxophone, others) mixed in; and his latest release, Strange Liberation, is a vintage-style album of small-band jazz with the guitarist Bill Frisell joining Douglas’s working quintet. While others in the music business grouse about the fragmentation of the marketplace, Douglas is a step ahead: he has himself fragmented his own career.

JAZZ IS GOING THROUGH A NEW phase, and Dave Douglas seems to embody it neatly. For most of the previous two decades, a period anticipating the centennial of jazz’s origins around the turn of the last century, the jazz world had seemed fixated on its history. A generation of young musicians, led by the gifted and charismatic Wynton Marsalis, challenged its immediate predecessors (as every musical generation tends to do, one way or another) by charging that the electronic experimentation and rock-oriented “fusion” of the 1960s and ‘70s had not advanced the music through innovation, but had debased it by forfeiting the musical elements that had made earlier styles of jazz feel jazzy—and also black: that is, the blues and the syncopated rhythm of swing. In the name of restoring jazz to its past greatness, honoring the legacy of its iconic masters, and preserving its identity as a mode of African American expression, Marsalis and his acolytes institutionalized a canonical approach to jazz, a jazz like subscription concert music, and as in all canons the music began to harden in that mold.

More recently, jazz has been refreshed and rejuvenated by many of the same external influences—pop and rock, world music, the Western classical tradition, the avant-garde—that classicists were disclaiming as corruptive just a few years ago. Cassandra Wilson is singing Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson songs; Bill Frisell has made a bluegrass-style CD; the tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano has recorded an homage to Enrico Caruso, arranged in the vein of an Italian street band; the alto saxophonist Greg Osby is composing for jazz instruments and string quartet; and the pianist Danilo Perez has composed a suite inspired by the music of his native Panama. “The world is scattered—I think it’s just the way things work now,” Douglas has remarked.

He speaks and comports himself as he plays his trumpet, with seemingly effortless vigor. He is equally adroit at cooking up musical experiments and articulating their intent. “Everyone’s looking for where is jazz going, where is music going?” he told me. “It’s going up and down and in every direction at once. Everybody’s doing a million different things. It used to be that you look at Coltrane’s career or at Miles’s career and they went from this to this to this and then to this, and it was kind of a progression. There’s no logical reason other than me learning that I’ve gone from one group to a different one and then another different one. Having all the different bands and writing different kinds of music is me trying to not be in a trap. How differently can I play? How different can I make a new project? Without the pressure, what are you really doing?”

WHILE EVERY COFFEE BAR in gentrified Brooklyn may be full of smart, bespectacled white men who can talk up the dernier cri, Douglas’s sort has not been at the center of the jazz world since the 1950s, when Dave Brubeck took the music northeasterly to the realm of “third-stream” intellectualism. Douglas has become one of the most celebrated jazz musicians of the day, winning the major jazz awards for composition and performance, playing concerts around the world. Among jazz-heads as pedigreed as the historian and conductor Gunther Schuller, he has been praised as not only an important contemporary jazz voice but as a primary creator whose innovations may have the capacity to influence a new generation of musicians. “In my pantheon of composers,” Schuller says, “are those who not only write masterpieces and all of that, but who also write music which presents a new modus vivendi, a new way of going forward in music—composers who create something that is bigger than themselves even, so that others can feed on that contribution for decades, and [Douglas] has that already, not in the magnitude of a Beethoven or an Ellington—yet—but he’s certainly, in my view, in that league, on that level of creativity.”

Like Brubeck, Douglas has garnered acclaim in part for transplanting some ideas from Western concert music to jazz-oriented situations, in course raising questions about the authenticity of his work as jazz. More significantly and originally, Douglas has drawn from a range of other, less conventional influences such as Balkan folk music, Japanese drumming, electronica, and the American pop radio of his suburban youth. Douglas’s music, in its quirky globalist eclecticism and unorthodoxy, is an overt challenge to the primacy of the tenets of swing and the blues in the jazz aesthetic.

Douglas himself prefers not to call his music jazz. “I hesitate to use the word jazz now,” Douglas explains, “because it’s so fraught with tension. I’m perfectly comfortable with the fact that a lot of people feel that some of what I do is not jazz, and if I can grow into something that’s beyond a jazz musician, I would be perfectly proud of that. However, when I hear people use the word jazz in a way that I disagree with, I get this really angry and proprietary feeling of wanting to protect the word, so on some level it means something to me. When I see that someone is trying to limit what jazz can be and shut certain people out of the house, I feel that they’re cutting an avenue of exploration and ingenuity, and I feel that it’s bad for the genre, because the genre dies if it can’t change. There’s no artistic need to put a door on genres and styles, absolutely none.”

He does not see tradition and innovation as mutually exclusive in jazz or whatever you call it. To the contrary, Douglas considers innovation the essence of the jazz tradition. A former honors student at Exeter who was nearly expelled for breaking into a locked hall to play the piano, he listens to Duke Ellington and reads Ezra Pound; like Ellington he rejects generic labels as restrictive and thinks “beyond category,” like Pound he pursues creative invention as an artistic imperative, as “the necessity of making it new.”

“I think that the music that we now think of as traditional was incredibly innovative in its time, and music that’s innovative now will be traditional in another fifty years. I think the music that I’m making comes out of that tradition, and that’s why I get upset when I hear people saying things about jazz that I feel are putting it in the grave.” Those things are not only that jazz is inextricable from the African American experience but also that the music’s best days ended four or five decades ago, propositions that were rising to prominence in the early 1980s, just as Douglas was trying to start a career in New York. Watching Ken Burns’s documentary series Jazz, which devoted twenty hours to an exploration of these themes, Douglas resisted the urge to throw a hard object at his television set.

Like Wynton Marsalis, Dave Douglas is an artist of unyielding determination. After a year at Berklee, where he was told that the trumpet was probably not for him, Douglas tried the New England Conservatory, and left it in 1983 to move to New York, where he got his undergraduate degree at NYU’s Gallatin School for independent study. His trumpet style was still forming but already unorthodox; he was teaching himself how to produce unexpected, almost extra-musical tones on the trumpet, and his improvisations already incorporated ideas from pop radio and classical music, as well as jazz. Too odd-sounding to get hired for the workaday gigs in hotel bands and theater orchestras wherein New York musicians traditionally serve their apprenticeships (Marsalis had been in the pit band of Sweeney Todd a few years earlier), Douglas organized a group, bought a sound system and a gasoline generator, and set up shop on the sidewalk at Astor Place. “He will not be denied,” declares the saxophonist Joshua Roseman, who has played with Douglas for ten years. Programmed for a positively Hegelian response to negativity, Douglas has always seemed focused not so much on proving what he can do, but on disproving what anyone says he cannot do.

In the mid-1980s and early 1990s, contrarians interested in jazz gravitated to Lower Manhattan and the experimental music scene centered in and around the Knitting Factory, then a musty little hostel for outré and Bohemian elitism on the perimeter of SoHo. Jazz was entering one of its schismatic phases, with polar phenomena developing contemporaneously, largely in reaction to each other. One group of young musicians—most visibly Marsalis, as well as Terence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove, Cyrus Chestnut, and others, the majority (but not all) of them African American—were leading a much publicized movement into classicism, reviving the music’s traditional elements (especially swing and the blues) and the canonical works of its past masters (particularly Armstrong and Ellington); while a mirror group of musicians roughly the same age—John Zorn, Don Bryon, Bill Frisell, and their peers, most (but not all) of them white—were pursuing an equally rigorous nonconformity, avoiding the standard jazz texts, drawing from the musics of far-flung cultures, and essentially making lots of noise. The neat geography of their home bases, the Knitting Factory on Houston Street and Marsalis’s jazz program at Lincoln Center, led critics to call the phenomena “downtown” jazz and “uptown” jazz. Both were fortresses of orthodoxy.

FOR ALL ITS AMBITION AND DARING, Douglas’s early music was susceptible to the usual criticisms of the avant-garde. It could be cold and overly cerebral. As the pianist and composer Fred Hersch, who has played with Douglas and considers him his friend, has remarked, “Dave and some of the guys around him, they had a way of playing a kind of jazz in quotes. They played it sort of like, Now we’re going to play ... jazz. Sometimes, it seemed like some of the players in that particular axis might kind of look down a little bit at people who play things that sound more like straight-ahead jazz. I respect what they’re doing, but I also think that playing jazz on its terms from a deep place is such a wonderful and difficult thing to do.”

After a stint co-leading the probative band New and Used with the saxophonist Andy Laster, Douglas formed a group to play his own music in 1992 and recorded the first album of his own compositions the following year. He already had a distinctive trumpet style. He used a splash palette of startling tonal colors and textures, and he showed a knack for crafting witty, elliptical, oddly structured improvisations, although his compositional voice was just forming. Struggling to develop mastery of his instrument, Douglas studied technique with the classical trumpeter Carmine Caruso and still takes lessons from the late teacher’s protégé, Laurie Frink. Before every gig at the Knitting Factory, he would arrive two to three hours early and practice in an empty office. As the jazz-classicism movement began to wane in the late 1990s and the jazz press’s interminable arguing about Wynton Marsalis lost currency, critics needed a new New Thing, and Dave Douglas was ideally equipped: forward-thinking, “downtown,” soft-spoken, and white.

At the Village Vanguard recently, Douglas proved the value of his effort. His band, configured like a Miles Davis group that had been considered wildly adventurous in its day, was a wink at jazz history. Douglas was playing on the music’s sacred ground, in tribute to the jazz musician whom he reveres for his obdurate unpredictability. Douglas used the old Davis ensemble as a launching pad, then zipped to uncharted points.

One of the first pieces that he played on the opening night, his original “Deluge” (from his album The Infinite), set the mode. It started with some dissonant electric-piano chords playing off a jagged, halting beat. Douglas, in crumbled green khakis and a black short-sleeve shirt tucked out of his trousers and opened to the third button on the top, closed his eyes, lowered his head, and put his trumpet to his mouth. He raised his head slowly as he played, at full force from the first note, his eyes piercing ahead. Douglas’s solo, typical of his mature playing, was a rush of unexpected musical ideas—a passage of staccato notes toying with the piece’s zigzag time, followed by a long melodic line, and then a sudden flurry of offbeat phrases that would have seemed like a spontaneous eruption if Douglas’s band-mates had not jumped in, playing the intricate phrases in tight harmony. Listening, no matter how closely, you could rarely tell what was improvised and what was composed and tightly rehearsed.

I do not remember ever hearing Dave Douglas play a musical cliché, and he rarely repeats himself. In both respects, he is among the rarest of jazz creatures. For all his eclecticism, moreover, he retains his own musical identity. Few musicians other than Wynton Marsalis draw so freely from so many sources, and no one sounds at all like him.

This article appeared in the February 9, 2004 issue of the magazine.