Special Book Review: Howard Mandel’s Future Jazz

By Benson Knickerbocker

Do you want to hear the State Of Union address for jazz in the post-Cold War era? Then look no further than Howard Mandel’s Future Jazz (Oxford Books). Mandel, who has been a freelance jazz writer for the last 25 years, uses years of interviews and stories to relay a compelling state of affairs for America’s finest music form. Through these stories, Mandel uncovers the influences of today’s musicians, the techniques they employ and the roots of their passions. As the book comes to an end, the reader realizes that modern jazz is more eclectic and diverse as the idiom has ever been in its entire existence.

For a book that covers a wide range of 1990s jazz styles and musicians, I was initially surprised by Mandel’s use of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis as the thematic lynchpin for the book. As I soon discovered, that despite the existence of more experimental musicians such as Greg Osby, John Zorn, Bill Ware, Gerry Hemingway and Myra Melford, Mandel’s choice of Marsalis was apropos. Without Marsalis’ use of traditional, and subsequently more popular, jazz styles, the more experimental musicians would have no basis for comparison. Using a series of 1984 interviews with the 22-year-old Marsalis, Mandel reveals the roots of the young trumpeter’s jazz triumphs – everything from his talented pianist father to the legacy of New Orleans music. Through the interviews and accompanying narration, Mandel emphasizes the role that Marsalis and his fellow "Young Lions" had on the resurgence of jazz popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. Mandel explains: "There’s the notion that young musicians lost their senses of direction when presented with too much freedom, not knowing what to do- then came Wynton Marsalis to save the CBS jazz catalog; polish the names of Armstrong, Morton and Ellington for the canon; and knight the Lions whose chief distinction, at the start, was an acceptance of conventions, despite their roaring youth."

Although Marsalis receives criticism for his mainstream approach from many of the today’s avant-gardists (The New York City "downtown" scene), his impact on jazz in the 1989s-1990s cannot be overlooked. The more experimental jazz players may feel that Marsalis does not push the envelope. However, without Marsalis’ mainstream playing, the avant-garde would lack a measuring stick for comparison. Without a dominating and popular mainstream, there is no avant-garde. To display non-conformity, there needs to be conformity. Marsalis and the "Young Lions" are a crucial component of "Future Jazz" for they serve as the beacon of light for all jazz styles. Although Marsalis is a traditional player who avoided the dissonance and cacophony of the free jazz and avant-garde, he is still valuable to all forms of jazz as he gave the entire idiom credibility in an age when jazz had virtually disappeared of the face of the earth.

After using Marsalis as an introductory foundation, Mandel sets out to cover the collection of artists who comprise today’s diversity of styles and methods to jazz improvisation. Before he could take the conversation further into the future, Mandel dedicated some time looking back as well, most notably to the roots of the avant-garde sound. Mandel credits the avant-garde with keeping the creative spark alive and well during the years when jazz had been beaten into the ground by the development of Smooth jazz and contemporary jazz. Although the avant-garde has been devoid of radio play and top selling albums, it was its artists who maintained the torch of creativity. Through interviews with pianist Don Pullen, Muhal Richard Abrams of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill of the World Saxophone Quartet, Mandel traces the growth of the musicians from their late 1960s debuts right up to the present day, Mandel sets out to show that the music of the 1960s avant-gardists is alive and well: " Their creations – and the work of legions of their peers – might be thought anachronistic, rooted in the big cultural bang of the late 1960s, so avant-garde to have no chance of being claimed by mainstream artists or audiences , so peculiar that they get put down by conservatives as less of an advanced front than a lost patrol."

This lost patrol, according to Mandel, seems to travel in small concentric circles, never straying to far from the center. Sometimes noted avant-gardists return to the fold with "traditional recordings" – Don Pullen, Roswell Rudd and Archie Shepp have all recorded "mainstream jazz. After brief moments of conservatism, the patrols will set out again for more experimental ways. It is this continuity of experimentation that has maintained jazz and its creative elements at a low-level of progression during the jazz’s dead years. With the return of the jazz to the limelight, the avant-gardists rose back to the surface to show that there are alternatives to familiar jazz icons and terminology such as Duke Ellington, Cool Jazz and "Time Out".

Mandel spends much of the book focussing on many of the artists who find a niche that is located somewhere between the young lions explosion of Wynton Marsalis and the never dying phenomenon known as the avant-garde. In between these two forms, many musicians have found there home. Mandel speaks of saxophonist Dave Murray in which Mandel asks, "Can young jazz musicians be both professional and wildly free, get their workouts and bring home the bacon? Murray and his compatriots address these issues regularly."

It is this dichotomy between creativity and basic economic needs that Mandel approaches throughout the book. The dichotomy continues onwards as he discusses the guitarists that make up of the jazz world. Should artists like George Benson attain popularity through vocals and covers of classic pop songs or should the maintain their integrity like James "Blood" Ulmer whose explorations of the Ornette Coleman harmolodics have kept him in relative obscurity. Do guitarists like John McLaughlin follow their spiritual path and play the music of the world’s cultures or do they remain rooted in the more accessible blues based funk a la John Scofield. The choices continue on beyond the guitarists as saxophonists Randy Brecker and Joe Lovano grapple with the use of electronics and playing traditional songs, respectively.

Finally, Mandel focuses on the new avant-garde sounds that dominate New York City today. Just as New York City was a hotbed for creativity from the 1940s –1960s with clubs like the Village Vanguard and Mintons and players like Monk, Rollins, Davis, Blakely and Parker; there is an equivalent in the 1990s led by the Knitting Factory and artists like Elliot Sharp, Vernon Reid, Wayne Horvitz, and John Zorn. Mandel describes the phenomena: " Few musical communities or shared states of mind provided so independent, quirky, distinct and prolific from the mid 1980s through the mid 1990s as the geographically abstract Lower East side of New York, There, experimentalists on the far shores of jazz, raw pop/rock, renegade classicism and free improvisation without obvious commercial potential tended to produce their own albums, which were often licensed for European manufacture, distribution and reimportation into the United States, rather than hailed at home and marketed widely." These artists have assumed commercial invisibility but critical notoriety.

Since describing music may be one of the more difficult tasks for an author to achieve as it is hard to translate the passion and energy that is put into a song, Mandel avoided this problem by selecting and accompanying CD titled Future Jazz (Knitting Factory) as well. The compilation features fourteen songs by artists covered in the book. The avant-garde is featured throughout – from Eric Dolphy’s "Hat and Beard" up through The Jazz Passengers’ ""If I Were A Bell." An example of an avant-garde artist paying tribute to his influences can be heard with James Newton’s rendition of Duke Ellington’s "Black and Tan Fantasy" while interesting enough, Wynton Marsalis is absent from the collection. Other featured artists are John Scofield ("Kool"), Vernon Reid/Elliott Sharp/David Torn ("Xenomorph") and the recently deceased Thomas Chapin ("Then"). The CD is a perfect soundtrack to the book, for all the artists are mentioned within the pages which allows the reader to truly understand that ideas that both Mandel and his interviewees are trying to get across.

In the course of one book, Mandel covers the world of jazz, as we know it today. Through very personal stories and interviews, Mandel provides a snapshot of the musicians themselves. He offers insights on what it means to be a jazz musician in the 1990s – the roots of their passion and what maintains their drive today. Most importantly, Mandel shows the reader that jazz is not a dead idiom in which the only good jazz can be found on records by Davis, Coltrane, Monk and Mingus but that there is entire crop of musicians who obviously pay respect to these masters but also move forward to create their own identity.