In the Tradition

by Paul Hofmann

In painting and music (to name just two categories of art), a healthy knowledge of ‘what happened before’ has always been essential to mature development. As newer styles have supplanted the tried and true, this ongoing evolution has usually occurred as part of a seamless continuum. Even the most radical composers (Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok) and jazz improvisers (Herbie Nichols, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman) built strongly on what their predecessors had created while expanding the vocabulary of their art, and so in that sense can correctly be said to have been working within their art’s tradition.

Unfortunately, many of today’s listeners seem to have lost a basic appreciation for the continuing relevance of older styles of music – jazz in particular (in fairness, this has probably always been the case). Sadly, this is even true among musicians! Thus, if a young jazz musician is drawn to the language and vocabulary of, say, the 1950s hard bop style of Hank Mobley, or to Bud Powell’s bebop (from the 40s), or to Benny Goodman’s swing (the 30s), or even to the glorious style typified by Louis Armstrong in the 1920s (‘Dixieland music’), and chooses to write and play more within any of these styles instead of in newer, more current styles, he or she is invariably derided as ‘a traditionalist.’

A confession: I never have – nor will I ever – understand this disdain. After all, the creations of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and many of their contemporaries are still performed today, all over the world and often to large, enthusiastic audiences. The demand for classical recordings, although a small percentage of the overall music market, has remained strong and constant for decades.

Recently, classic art – whether it be music or Shakespeare (who wrote music of a sort!) – has even proven to be very popular to moviegoers: Amadeus, the 1984 movie about Mozart starring Tom Hulce; the recent batch of Shakespeare-oriented films in the late 1990s. The general interest in ‘traditional art,’ then, apparently still exists. Why then, does modern art (especially music, and particularly jazz music) continually suffer from an incessant need to be ‘new’? I believe there are two primary reasons:

First, the history of jazz – indeed, of most art forms – reflects sizable stylistic changes over a period of years. And jazz’s history has been much more compressed (measured in decades and not centuries) than most other arts. Indeed, if we accept the assumption, which I do, that the two primary defining characteristics of jazz are its unique rhythm (the swing beat) and the prevalence of improvisation, the complete development of jazz – encompassing as many as five or six major stylistic shifts – may be seen to have occurred between roughly 1910 and 1970.

It thus may seem only natural that the words ‘new’ and ‘jazz’ are virtually synonyms! Even bebop (dubbed ‘modern jazz’ almost sixty years ago) gave way to hard bop and cool jazz within ten years. Free jazz (or, ‘the new thing’) supplanted these styles even more quickly, and jazz-rock (now commonly called fusion) was soon to follow THAT.

Secondly, let’s not discount the general pressure from the common culture to ‘be new.’ Again, to be ‘a traditionalist’ is thought by many to be undesirable; the word itself conjures up old dusty images. New is the thing! Indeed, don’t we live in the ‘New World’? Our popular culture demands that we keep sharp eyes out for that new car, new pair of jeans, new pairs of shoes, whatever it may be. Why should musical tastes be any different?

Ah, but there’s the rub: so many things of lasting value in our world tend to be those most venerated ... the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and Jesus of Nazareth come first to my mind. Movies? Citizen Kane. Artists? Michelangelo and Rembrandt. Literature? Shakespeare, of course – and the King James translation of the Bible. Political thinkers? John Locke, James Madison, John Jay and Thomas Jefferson. Jazz? Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman! All ‘old,’ relatively speaking.

How, then, to reconcile the ‘new’ with the ‘old’? May I suggest the phrase ‘in the tradition’? To me, this implies a creative blend of the best of both worlds. Perhaps nobody was more proficient at this than the late jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-91). Miles’s constants (the ‘old’) were his tone, his wonderful way of phrasing melodies (including his expert use of space), and even his basic vocabulary. His innovations (the ‘new’) were best seen in his ever-expanding use of non-traditional rhythms and personnel. He thus was able to consistently create important music in several styles, while maintaining the essence of his artistic identity throughout his long career.

Of course, one need not incorporate the latest fads and fashions to successfully create ‘new’ and vital art. Indeed, I wonder: what would make a newly-written Classical or Romantic symphony, or Baroque keyboard invention, any less creative than ... anything else? Food for thought as we’ve entered a new millennium.

[Note: Since the original publication of this essay, MHR Records has released a number of additional discs which feature the same sort of ‘traditional jazz’ referenced here, including an original composition by Paul appropriately entitled In the Tradition. Here’s an up-to-date, comprehensive, linked list: “Things Are Looking Up!;” “There With A Smile;” “My Conception;” “Topsy Turvy;” “’Bout Time!;” “The Pulse.”]