Once, jazz was primetime. While it is still in downtown New York — if you've got $80 for a one-hour set — in many places jazz's happiest homes are on off-nights: Mondays, Wednesdays and, most consistently, the Sunday brunch. Well, next time you're enjoying the tinkling of a jazz trio over some eggs Benedict, consider that, to some, you might be Benedict Arnold.
Or, to quote the bari-sax playing radical scholar Fred Ho, you might be advancing the “mainstream, pro-Yankee integrationist/imperialist political position regarding ‘jazz' as America's ‘classical music.'”
In his rich and sprawling book, Wicked Theory, Naked Practice, Ho eschews the conservative movement that is a dunce cap that Wynton Marsalis and other young musicians wear whilst playing music that “predates their birth,” opting instead for a jazz of the present. Or closer to the present, hence his celebration and restorative work of “The Black Liberation Movement Suite” composer Cal Massey's 10-part composition, originally commissioned by Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party in 1969.
The suite, which was performed at Black Panther fundraisers around the time of its inception, has never been recorded and rarely been presented, but on Feb. 22, the Brooklyn College Big Band, under the direction of Salim Washington, will play it in full at UConn's Von der Mehden Recital Hall [875 Coventry Road, Storrs; $7, free for students; (860) 486-4226, sfa.uconn.edu].
In one sense, Ho's argument that jazz “has [always] been about the present” is populist and reasonable; any living music reflects current life, and today that can be heard equally in the multi-media work of Jason Moran and the smooth R&B of George Benson. But Ho also suggests the music must move away from “predictable” harmony to live. Thus, we could gather that he wouldn't much care for Trombone Shorty, the New Orleans 21st-century-street-beat brassman whose band will perform at Infinity Hall on Feb. 27 [8 p.m., Route 44, 20 Greenwoods Road Norfolk $40, $55; (866) 666-6306, infinityhall.com].
Shorty, a.k.a. Troy Andrews, has quickly become the preferred export of that particular blend-of-everything music that makes New Orleans culture so appealing to outsiders. He is slick in an understated way, with a modern urban look rather than a Marsalisian suit; his music is fun but never corny, and he's funky on anything: jazz, second-line, soul, hip-hop, etc. However, one thing he most certainly is not is a harmonic innovator.
In her latest work Freedom Sounds, the eminent jazz scholar Ingrid Monson looks closely at the intersections of the Civil Rights movement and jazz, especially the meanings the music was prescribed, many of which resemble Ho's suggestions — the sound of democracy, a spiritual path, an inherently rebellious and progressive art — finding that jazz “has perhaps been all of these things, though not at the same time and not to all constituencies.”
Ultimately, Ho's path to personal jazz truth is legitimate for some, yet there's no reason to rule out the possibility that even commercially mediated, traditionally-grounded music like Trombone Shorty's is the real deal too. In other words, no matter which you choose, don't let it ruin your eggs.