Monday, October 15, 2007

Making the Scene

Making the Scene: Contemporary New York City Big Band Jazz
By Alex Stewart
University of California Press

When many hear the words “big band” it summons black and white images of hotel ballroom dances from the 1940’s—elegant, but distant. Those who follow jazz, particularly here in New York, know that there is still a great deal of exciting and adventurous music still being produced with big bands. To an extent, Alex Stewart’s Making the Scene illustrates that point, documenting the rich and diverse big bands playing in the City during the late 1990’s.

In addition to being an academic, Stewart is also a musician with a great deal of experience playing with various aggregations. The more valuable portions of Scene draw from those experiences, as when he explains the benefits of big band experience for musicians. Stewart writes: “soloing in a big band builds strength. Waiting for a turn to solo, surrounded by fifteen or so peers, is like sitting in a pressure cooker.” (p. 3)

Scene also benefits from the voices of many cooperating musicians, with their insights and personalities buttressing Stewart’s case on behalf of big band jazz. Maria Schneider for instance, is always eloquent in her comments, and sometimes shows a sly wit. Stewart recounts:

“Speaking to a nightclub audience about a commission for a ‘women in jazz’ concert at Carnegie Hall in 1994, she said with thinly veiled sarcasm, ‘Don’t you just love that.” (p. 144)

There are weaknesses in Scene though. The obvious being that as a study (of sorts) of late 1990’s big band jazz, it is already dated in some cases. Sometimes Stewart acknowledges this himself, as in the case of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band Jazz Band, which was led by Jon Faddis, but now is no more. While Stewart writes that the Lincoln Center’s former Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra: “fits into Marsalis’s vision of reinvigorating jazz as dance and popular music,” in a move that surprised many, the Afro-Latin band was let go by Jazz at Lincoln Center. (p. 255) Still led by Arturo O’Farrill, it is now temporarily in residence at Symphony Space. Also Andrew Hill, whose big band music receives well-deserved attention from Stewart, sadly passed away (when the book was likely well into production). The march of time can outstrip any nonfiction writing, but for jazz it can be especially fleet.

Though somewhat dated, Scene could still be a valuable resource, recording the recent past of New York big bands. It is when Stewart draws on his experience as an academic rather than as a musician that Scene really suffers. Stewart is obsessed with racial and sexual politics. To an extent, this is more than fair territory for academic inquiry, but it gets repetitive in Scene.

Even more frustrating is Stewart’s repeated misuse of the term “neo-conservative,” as when discussing Republican criticism of the NEA, he writes: “neoconservatives saw it as rewarding artists on the left of the political spectrum.” (p. 85) “Neoconservatism” refers to a relatively small movement of intellectuals who were at onetime partisans of the left. Represented by figures like Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, they have not traditionally been especially as hostile to programs like funding for the arts, which is one reason Pat Buchanan has consistently turned his fire on them. In most cases when Stewart uses the term neo-conservative, paleo-conservative would have been more accurate. When venturing into political discourse Scene frequently displays this kind of sloppiness.

Scene is much stronger when Stewart writes as musician rather than as an academic. He does have some real insight to bring to bear on the subject, having played in many big bands himself. Unfortunately, it is a little too dated to be a valid handbook of the current New York big band scene, and it has a little too much politically correct academic jargon to make it a readable history of 1990’s big bands.