It Don’t Mean a Thing
On our jazz show on WNUR, the Northwestern University station, my co-host John Corbett and I wheel happily among styles, forms and accents: swing, bop, free, harmolodic; Dutch, German, English, Ethiopian; honkin’ saxes, laptop squiggles, transportable schlock. Never mind “April In Paris” — have you heard Count Basie do James Bond?
And then there is the country component — not just western swing (we’ve worn out the Proper box Doughboys, Playboys And Cowboys) and Nashville a la Frisell, but also Georgia minstrel man Emmett Miller and cowboy crooner Gene Autry and pedal steel wiz Buddy Emmons and Willie Nelson making like Django. This music doesn’t occupy a major niche in the programming, but applied sparingly, and sometimes impulsively, it casts a penetrating light on jazz tradition with its shared influences and unexpected intersections, its willingness both to celebrate and subvert tradition.
I’ve always thought if I hosted a modern country show, jazz would have the same kind of reflective role. But if that makes perfect sense to me, it offends the sensibility of some, like the guy who wrote ND last fall to express how “shocked” he was when he saw singer Lizz Wright on the cover of this magazine, and how worried he was that it was “branching out to jazz or whatever.”
It’s not that jazz doesn’t continually sneak through these pages. In its coverage of artists ranging from Sufjan Stevens to Little Miss Cornshucks, Junior Brown to Michelle Shocked, Ray Charles to the prolific Frisell, No Depression has shown if you scratch the surface of any roots artist worth his or her salt, you’re going to expose a debt to jazz. As lowly a status as jazz has in this country, it pervades American culture, and not only when it means a thing because it has that swing.
Lizz Wright records for Verve, a historic jazz label, but her earthy style is spun from gospel, R&B, and Tracy Chapman-esque folk. Cassandra Wilson (about whom I have written elsewhere in this issue) records for Blue Note, an even more historic jazz label. She is recognized as both a great jazz singer — “the only remaining jazz singer,” Diana Krall was heard to say — and a founder of the jazz-or-whatever genre.
The question becomes, should there be a place in ND not only for roots artists with jazz underpinnings and jazz artists with rootsy inclinations — and jazz artists who make conscious attempts to cross over, like Canadian singer Susie Arioli with her Roger Miller covers and guitarist Joel Harrison with his Johnny Cashes — but also masters of the jazz domain who share some of the same core qualities as the artists who dominate these pages?
I would argue that even though most jazz comes from deep in the heart of the city, the hardest-core soloists can have the baddest-ass country souls, summoning the same dissolute blues Hank Williams did, the same wounded romanticism you get from Merle Haggard, the same embrace of wide open spaces you get from (fill in your favorite Texas troubadour). Doug Sahm certainly knew that in employing a crack San Antonio horn section. T Bone Burnett, Mr. O Brother himself, certainly knew that in producing Cassandra Wilson’s new album, Thunderbird.
Ultimately, American roots are intertwined, inseparable. Willy-nilly, I think of tenor god Coleman Hawkins, whose deep-throated, brilliantly conceived ballads seize the heart with Orbisonian grandiloquence. I think of piano hipster Mose Allison, whose half-century on Long Island hasn’t softened his Mississippi moan. I think of tenor saxophonist David Murray, a product of Los Angeles’ South Central scene, whose gospel upbringing gives him shack-shaking power. I think of Detroit saxophonist James Carter, whose organ trio is as juke as any of rootsmeister Peter Guralnick’s off-road heroes.
In the end, of course, arguing for “jazz” is as problematic as arguing for “alt-country” or “Americana.” If it meant something when the major record companies actually had divisions to record and market the Duke Ellingtons and Dave Brubecks and Ornette Colemans of the world, the label is now often used to bestow cool on artists whose connections to the form are shaky at best. Like Blue Note’s shiningest star, Norah Jones. Like matinee trumpet idol Chris Botti. Like, God help us, Sinatra wannabe Michael Buble.
A magazine can’t be all things to all readers. I don’t see No Depression giving Down Beat a run for its coverage with stories on proto-jazz artists of the moment such as trumpeter Dave Douglas and pianist Jason Moran, whose stories don’t really resonate on these pages, any more than I see it initiating a new column on Broadway musicals. I do see the magazine giving vent to jazz, from the present and past — when it makes sense, when it does cast that penetrating light.
A jazz publicist wrote me recently to ask whether there was any chance that No Depression, having run a feature on guitarist James Blood Ulmer keyed to his 2005 solo blues album, would run something about the recent album by Odyssey, Ulmer’s spikey avant-garde trio. I said I doubted it, but the more I hear those country swing interjections by violinist Charles Burnham, the more I regret jumping that gun. You can’t be too open-minded in trawling among the sounds you love. Especially when you’re a publication as celebrated for its passionate open-mindedness as this one.