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Who Can Play And Who Can't Play Arguments

Tom Brown
Jazz Audience Advocates


Here's one I was guilty of in the early days: I was never terribly fond of the tenor player Stan Getz and I was nearly always surrounded by those who chastised me for this opinion. When I compared him to Sony Rollins for example, I would argue that he simply couldn't play. However, after listening more to Getz over the years, I began to hear his ties to Lester Young, a tenor giant from the 40s. In addition I heard him on a concert with Sonny Stitt where he played quite well on a number of uptempo standard tunes. I began to realize that he was actually a good tenor player and it was his style, not his musicianship, that I wasn't too excited about.

I was also guilty of a similar mistake during the time I went through my early love affair with the swing drumming of Buddy Rich. At age 14, swing was the only jazz style for me, and since I considered Buddy the best at that style, he was the man, end of discussion. At that point I wasn't even aware of the fabulous seven, the bop and post bop innovators I would learn to love; Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Art Blakley, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette.

In fact, in both of these situations I was confusing style with musicianship. Those who played a jazz style I didn't particularly care for, in my estimation, simply couldn't play. Reflecting on this a bit, I've come to realize that it's a common mistake made by young or novice listeners, although, I must say that even today, there are a few older jazz snob friends of mine who tout the merits of this or that player or jazz style at the exclusion of all others.

This is simply a heads up to prevent you from making this mistake.

Who can play bebop and who can't?

When I was a teenager and a fledgling jazz musician in the late fifties, it was jazz dogma that African-American musicians were the ones who could play bebop, the style of a jazz genius, Charlie Parker. During that time, jazz at the national level consisted of two jazz camps, the east coast, Parker-orientated, black players, and the west coast, neo-swing, other-than-bop, white guys playing what was dubbed west coast jazz. This is all somewhat simplistic but essentially accurate.

Actually, white musicians who played bebop did exist although their numbers were relatively small and generally they were sequestered at local levels. In Detroit for example, there were several white guys in the fifties who were superb bebop saxophone players. They include Leo Osebold, (tenor), Jim Stefanson, (alto), John Schmidt (piano), Kenny Pinson (alto), and the most well known, Pepper Adams, (baritone) with whom I recorded on a local album. I have played with all of them except Kenny Pinson and I have recordings of them in the fifties. They all absolutely nailed the style.

Racial and ethnic crap

Even today, there are some fairly visible folks in the jazz world, journalists and musicians alike, who claim that white folks can't play any style of jazz as well as black folks because its a "black thing." This is countered by books and articles written on jazz and race arguing against this view praising the contributions made by individuals from one or another racial or ethnic group. I've heard the argument that black musicians can't play classical music because it's a white, eastern European thing. Of course all of these claims are ridiculous and I don't dignify their flawed premises by debating them.

Despite all this, it is great fun to argue about the musicianship of the individuals who play jazz. It's best to use a blind approach that offers no names and no racial or ethnic information, simply the performance evidence to make your case. But having said that, the resolution of these arguments can never be unequivocal because the beauty of jazz is largely in the ear and heart of the listener.

Remember, it's Gaussian distribution

Here are some take-home thoughts: There will always be a few very good players, a few really bad players, and a ton of mediocre players from all racial and ethnic groups that play all styles of jazz. It's the old bell shaped curve folks and it applies to all flavors of jazz musicians. It's best to judge players as individuals, avoiding all criteria but musicianship and, of course, your gut response.

This web site is all about empowering you —showing you the fundamentals of listening so that you can make your own informed decision. Remember, nobody can really ever convince you that this player is better than that player. I feel there are some standards that help one distinguish good from bad players and I will discuss them in another piece, but they can always be trumped by your individual preferences. This is because a critical component that helps determine your favorites is your personal emotional response to the individual or the style. Nobody can argue with you about that. It's all yours and it has 100% validity for you.

Furthermore, and most importantly, I predict that over time, you will find that the individuals in your growing stable of jazz favorites will come from diverse backgrounds.

Copyright © 2008
Thomas R. Brown
All rights reserved.

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