Will Layman has on PopMatters.com an incisive piece on the commercial pressures jazz artists face. The gist of the essay comes when he notes that it is “rare for jazz musicians to make a living from creative, improvised, instrumental music without some consideration of getting and keeping an audience. There’s an inevitable relation between the extent to which a jazz musician chooses to ‘sweeten’ his music and how we evaluate that music.”
Every person with a penchant for jazz’s storied history and a concern for its embattled future needs to read this piece. Here is an excerpt which, I fully confess, reflects my own feelings regarding one of my true jazz idols, Wes Montgomery.
In the ‘60s the innovative jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery – a guy who perfected the modern jazz guitar sound and is in the top-three of the jazz guitar pantheon – starting making records that were blatant attempts to move units in a marketplace where jazz musicians were trying to compete with chart-toppings artists like Frank Sinatra and rock groups. Montgomery was a purist’s delight—and then a sell-out.
From his early years in Indianapolis with his brothers, to his association with Lionel Hampton’s big band, through a series of early ‘60s recording sessions, Montgomery played with fire, with soulful jazz power. His session from 1960 with pianist Tommy Flanagan, “The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery,” is the kind of record that’s hard to resist on purely jazz terms: swinging, inventive, but somehow still raw. The story goes that John Coltrane asked Montgomery to join his band after a particularly amazing jam session.
But a musician must make a living.
And so Montgomery’s last album for Riverside in 1963 was called “Fusion” (long before that term meant ‘70s jazz-rock that attempted to sell records in a slightly different way) and featured “All the Way,” “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” “Somewhere” and “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” among other Sinatra-esque “standards,” all delivered against string-heavy orchestral arrangements.
A year later, Montgomery had moved to the Verve label and was recording the Barbra Streisand hit “People” and the Broadway hit “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” The year 1965 had him recording “The Shadow of Your Smile,” with the quotient of improvisation on the records fading a bit year by year. The next year brought more pop tunes, and more success, with “Tequila,” “Goin’ Out of My Head” and “California Dreamin,’” the title of each album making pretty clear what was going on here. He was a star. He was on pop radio.
By 1967, Montgomery changed labels again, now to A&M where he covered the Beatles (“A Day in the Life,” “Eleanor Rigby”), had a hit with “Windy” (the #1 hit by the Association, which reached #44 on the pop charts for Wes), and finally made the almost purely forgettable “Road Song” in 1968, playing two more Beatle tunes, “Scarborough Fair” and even Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
This was mediocre music: flavorless Don Sebesky arrangements of songs that were compelling as pop, rock, or folk became little more than “easy listening.” The music sold like french fries at the beach but, while I’m more than capable of defending “The Road Song” or even the hip conga groove on “A Day in the Life,” it was neither good jazz nor good pop music as the original versions of these songs were. And Montgomery’s heart was hardly in it. Out on the road, when he could, he was still playing live with the likes of Jimmy Smith or Wynton Kelly.
With a musician as towering as Montgomery, selling out was selling out. The bad kind. The kind that a jazz critic would be right to criticize – not because pop music influence on jazz is inherently bad but because watering down soulful music into fluff is bad.
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