Friday, August 17, 2007

A Little Max

Oh, shit.

I originally intended to use this post to write up something snappy on the 30-year-anniversary of Elvis Presley's over-the-toilet slump. (Elvis was a hero to some. Not to me -- though I do love all of those early Sun records, including his.)

However, given that Max Roach died yesterday, the idea of following through on that particular goal now seems somewhat sacriligious -- even for me. (Max was famously broad-minded in his musical interests, but I suspect he might have drawn the line at Elvis. If so, I would have understood completely.)

As in the past, there isn't much I can add to the existing eulogies, given the scope and the depth of the reactions by the rest of the jazz blogosphere (spearheaded by the usual suspect). Which is not to say that there isn't more to be understood about what exactly Max accomplished.

This morning I tried to pay some respect by tuning in to WKCR's memorial broadcast (which runs through next Wednesday, I believe). Here, perhaps, is a measure of the man's greatness: I got an error message telling me that "the streaming server cannot accept any more connections at this time." Yikes -- I have never had that happen before, and I listen to a lot of internet radio. (If you get similarly rejected, keep trying, cuz the marathon is well worth it.)

Of course, there is the lingering question, which resurfaces every time one of the big ones leaves us, of whether or not jazz really is "literally dying before our very eyes." And the related question of whether it is more appropriate to wring one's hands in grief, or to celebrate a life lived at the highest artistic level.

We all mourn in our own way, of course; what's "appropriate" is what feels right. As for me, I choose the celebratory mode, both in pondering Max's life and the "state of jazz." For one thing, Max's contribution to music (indeed, to art) was not limited to something finite, like the elements of a style (he swung in such and such a way, he pioneered the use of this piece of the kit, etc.). Those things are of course important, but like Ellington, Zappa, Mingus, Monk, and umpteen other heroes of mine, Max left behind what Joseph Conrad called a "how to be": in this case, a philosophy of artistic survival, vitality, and growth (one of the elements of which was a sense that art is socially important -- imagine that!).

So rather than being one of the last remaining guys to have the "jazz gene," how about this: Max Roach, simply by the example of his life, ensured that "jazz" would continue (even if, in the future, jazz doesn't always sound like the music he created, and even if it stops being officially called "jazz" at some point (now wouldn't that be nice?)). He put so many good ideas into so many people's heads that we'll be hearing from him for many years to come.

The first Max record I reached for today, incidentally, was Money Jungle (and what an apt title to describe the peculiar situation of the jazz musician -- or of any artist in a capitalist society, really). Friends I have tried to turn on to this thing over the years have tended to respond extremely: they either love it or they hate it. I suspect much of this has to do with a sense that the music, without being "aggressive" in the obvious ways (atonal, loud, or overly fast) does sound a bit like a protracted struggle. Several of the performances seem to come within a hair's breadth of total collapse.

And that may be the crux right there. On this recording, as on so many other great jazz recordings, the possibility of failure is tangible, and the participants don't seem interested in concealing it: the result is not artful, it is art. The willingness of certain talented people to risk everything, not as a platitude, but as a real choice with real consequences, good or bad: I can't think of a better definition of greatness.

Ah, the WKCR stream is back -- gotta go listen.

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