A Real Tradition
Miles Davis is reported to have commented on Wynton Marsalis’ retro “modern jazz” by asking rhetorically, “Didn’t we get it right first time?” This seems pertinent to the subject of “get it right” versus “make it new.” The most cursory look at the history of the various forms under discussion surely supports the apparently unadventurous, consensus seeking, liberal position which contends that making it new is the only way to get it right. Dull and liberal though it may sound in this arena of potential combat, in my view it is an unavoidable conclusion.
By changing and evolving, the essence of the art form is kept alive. Charles Olson’s epic poetry was not written in the language of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The language of epic poetry, which eschews a rhyme scheme in favour of rhythm and declamatory vigour, predates Milton and goes back at least to Homer and extends past Olson.
Eric Dolphy did not play the alto saxophone in the unmodified language of Charlie Parker but can be seen as his natural continuator, extending the range of the instrument by an octave and adding additional chromaticism and using new tempo superimpositions.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe did not make buildings like Palladino until we consider their shared concern with rigorous systems of proportion—a system which Palladino derived from the architecture of classical Greece and Rome. The school of Mies has been extended and arguably cheapened in the generic sameness of anonymous “modernist architecture” and reacted against in the post modernism of Gehry and Hadid.
This kind of revolt seems to happen when the dominance of a central figure like a Mies or a Charlie Parker has spawned so much generic, and inevitably inferior, imitation that the appearance of a Gehry or an Ornette sweeps the board clean for new thinking. Getting it right but adding nothing new seems always to lead to such ruptures.
The argument can go further and lead to Stravinsky’s struggle with tradition. He said in his conversations with Robert Craft something along the lines of “Music theory does not exist; it is simply derived from an analysis of practice,” but elsewhere in his Poetics he tells us “Une tradition véritable n’est pas le témoignage d’un passé révolu; c’est une force vivante qui anime et informe le présent. En ce sens, le paradoxe est vrai, qui affirme plaisamment que tout ce qui n’est pas tradition est plagiat […].” (A real tradition is not the testimony of a faraway past, but a living force that animates and shapes the present. This is the real paradox on the basis of which we say, in jest, that what is not tradition is plagiarism […])
Isaac Newton said something like, “If I have seen further it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.”
How else can it work?
Evan Parker plays the saxophone in a way that some people hear as having a connection with the jazz tradition. Just some.