Mort Weiss: On the state of jazz, Coltrane clones, and the noose of technology

Some thoughts and comments — bound to piss some people off and others smile. Do I feel that I am an expert on what I’m about to say? The answer is a resounding yes! Onward.

I’m not overjoyed that my parents gave me a clarinet to play. If it had been damn near any other instrument, I would be a jazz household name by now. “Fuck it.” Jazz as I know it is on its deathbed now, for many reasons. It’s never gotten any better since its inception circa 1900-1960. It has gotten different.

Giant Steps was a masterpiece and a curtain lowering on an era. Ornette opened the door to all the “emperors and their new clothes,” — ergo, the onset of free jazz. There is nothing free in the working dynamics of the universe. If you defy the second law of thermodynamics — you lose! Chaos ensues. Free jazz = bullshit, jive — and a way to get laid if your audience is from the class of ’65.

Back to Giant Steps, most of the sincere young cats today spent many hours practicing all of the scales and extended chord changes of Giant Steps, et al. They’ve incorporated these in their solos and all sound alike: Trane-clones, if you will. After two choruses, it becomes tiring and boring. Oh, Mr. Weiss, you’re just not in tune with the self-searching inner peace and exploration of the tao of their musical singularity. Yeah, sure.

Change is inevitable; I’m down with that! Change is based on the demands of society at the time. As I write this, there aren’t any valid new movements in any of the art forms, and the need for emotion-based creativity is now passe’. With the onset of all the technological advances, the impact on visceral and cerebral feelings has gone by the board.

Maybe the Luddites knew something? Art has always been dictated to by the need and the realization of creature comforts. It’s difficult to be digging Tosca or Bird when you can’t find a cave to take shelter from the wind and rain, dig? People must have a diversion or a source of meaningful entertainment to take their thoughts off of their inevitable demise, and the bullshit of politics essential that they understand how the game is played so they can make a living at their 9-5 slave.

As a result of this brave new world, the need for emotional and physical stimulation such as music (i.e., jazz — singing and dancing, plus the primal demands that must be satisfied to make our double helix happy in essence … and other major cities) is going the way of the bare-knuckled fist fighters of the 1930s as a form of diversion from the realization of their part in the hard-scrabble existence on this veil of tears and so little laughter — on this cosmic joke that one finds themselves not only as a participant but the leading performer in this circus with out clowns, balloons or elephants.

That being said, 200 years from now certain people will revere the music called “jazz,” and dig what it says to them. J.S. Bach had nothing published for 50 years after his death. Am I comparing myself to Bach? Hell, yes! Certainly not to Genghis Khan. Bach and I both had and have something to say and we did, and are doing it, with the language we knew and know best — music.

To sum up, I feel that technologies that are destroying the art form I love are analogous to what the onset of barbed wire did to the free and open ranges of America’s western frontier in the late 19th century. Once again, I remind you that I realize change is inevitable. I’m “hip,” but that doesn’t mean I have to like it!

Finally, what I’m about to tell you some of you will enjoy and say uh huh! I told you so: If my very life depended on it, I could not name you one chord out of the thousands I’ve played in my nine albums. BUT — then again you’re reading this aren’t you? Yes I’m bitter, cynical, frustrated and amused. But I am a man that does not live a life of quiet desperation.

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Mort Weiss

Mort Weiss is a bebop-oriented clarinet player with 11 albums as a leader. During his teens, Weiss studied with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra's Antonio Remondi, and later soloed on several TV programs with the Freddie Martin Orchestra, aka “The Band of Tomorrow.” Since a return to music in 2001, he has worked with Joey DeFrancesco, Dave Carpenter, Roy McCurdy, Luther Hughes, Bill Cunliffe and the late Sam Most. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • tony soley

    Mort, I could not agree with you more. I present a Jazz programme on 10Radio in the south west of England.
    I play very little British Jazz because I personally think that most of it is rubbish. There is some good Jazz in this country, but not much. My playlist is 95% American Jazz, the rest from other areas of he globe.There is so much good Jazz coming from your side of the pond, why should I play rubbish.
    Keep producing excellent Jazz & I will continue to play it.

    Tony Soley, Jazz presenter,10Radio.

    P.S. I happen to think that Bach was one of the best Jazz composers of all time !!!!!

  • Mike Schweid

    I salute you,Mort,and all the musicians,writers,and artists that filled our life and times,but as the horse and buggy turned into 747’s, the hallow branches turned into clarinets,drum messages into e mails,the only thing that stays the same are changes.

  • Jeff Compton

    I’m a little remiss to comment on your pronouncement on the death of jazz. I’m a philistine in these matters and lament the idea that what you say … could be so. I actually choose to believe that it’s on hiatus. When we’ll see its renaissance, or rather if we’ll see it, I don’t know. But jazz is real and not a contrivance. If Coltrane is the tether that keeps it alive, so be it. As an art form, it’s proven itself. At some point, another generation prepared to take up the mantle will breathe new life into its soul. None of us may ever see it, but it will surely come. P.S.: I think it’s great that the breath and heart of it is kept alive by guys like you, Mort — till it finds its relevant voice again. Thanks for all you do, brother. Your brilliance may not be universally appreciated, but for those of us who do, we are deeply in your debt. Keep on scribblin’ … I dig it!

    • Samuel Chell

      I’m worried about my frame of mind. All of this pretty much made sense to me–maybe not the “nexus” part. We all use a finite, limited number of words regardless of how many we understand. “Philistine” is not in my vocabulary though it’s certainly in my realm of understanding. But I’m too uncertain about how others understand it to use it with any confidence that the sender and receiver are in agreement. I associate the word with the law-abiding, holier-than-though, legalistic, Jewish right-wingers of Jesus’ time. They thought of themselves as superior to the degree they followed the “law” of the old order, so they’re a constant pain in the ass to Jesus, who has to put them in their place while showing them a spiritual realm that’s made all the more inaccessible to those who live by the law. But it doesn’t seem that Jeff is using the word in that sense. Regardless, it usually has a negative context. The dictionary gives a number of synonyms–none of which strikes me as on the mark–e.g. “barbarian,” “ignoramus,” “Yahoo”–none of which a Philistine would admit to (though I do like Yahoo, which comes from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels).

  • James Mooney

    I’ve been so fortunate to have recorded some of the best jazz players in the world. But some of it was actually boring. In my opinion, there are not many jazz players that rise about the rest and make jazz a real emotional experience.

    Bird, Miles and Bill Evans come to mind when I think of truly great jazz innovators. Of course, there are – and have been – many truly great jazz players. But there are only so many that rise above the rest and produce music that will still be listened to 100 years in the future.

    The players that play a million notes just to show off their technique are not what I choose to listen to, and as far as free jazz is concerned, I have heard a lot and never found much of its that wasn’t total ******** and truly boring!

    I don’t mean to say that only the very gifted ones should try to play jazz. It is a wonderful way to express yourself and can be very rewarding, but in my opinion, less is more. That’s something we should always try to keep in mind.

    JAMES MOONEY

  • Sam Most

    I read your article, and agree with you. You have a gift … keep it going. — Sam Most

  • Chuck Mitchell

    I’ve been composing and recording music for over 30 years. Fortunately for me, the 2nd half of those years have included recording many of the traditional jazz greats of the day. What a privilege it is to be there, capturing the moments, unrehearsed, being poured out from an unknown place into a cauldron for me to mix into a blend of harmonic textures. This, for me, was an ultimate place to land as a recording engineer. Luckily, it came about after years of maturing so as to understand and absorb all that is jazz, and to be able to give it the rich, deliberate quality that it requires.

    Where else can you experience music with structured improvisation. But that’s the growing question; where? The few surviving clubs with traditional jazz are becoming a novelty that house the now sacred appearances of those established greats that are preserving an era. These are the musicians that know no other but to move through the harmony and rhythm in a way only found in jazz, with motives and transitions that feed each other to the next, and cueing from the most subtle looks. These people are like great, honored vets that have seen and accomplished something rare for humanity. Jazz is a wondrous expression that, because of living in the moment, brings about a direct connection to the soul through the universal language of music. Add to that the lyric, rhyme, and classic melodies that jazz brought to the world of music and you have something worth preserving.

    Often people eventually understand that appreciating jazz trumps having an affinity for its musical style. Some of that may be attributed to its improvisational nature. Perhaps this is what drives some of the recent success of “jam bands” that are embracing the art of improvisation in a rock context. Like entering another dimension, there’s something sacred inside of us that connects improvisation to a spiritual, timeless part of our nature.

    Luckily, while public demand for jazz is waining, many junior and senior high schools are housed with music teachers who, without fail know the value of this special musical ability. Aspired by competitions throughout the country, some of the most amazing players, still in their teens have dedicated themselves to this extreme level of musicianship. I’ve walked into high school music rooms where these kids are spending their free time doing what they love; JAZZ, and sounding like they have decades of it behind them ! I’ve often been completely blown away with the musicianship of these kids.

    Yes. As it APPEARS, jazz may be dying off. But I believe that its the award-winning teachers like Chuck Wackerman, Jim Hahn, and many many others that have dozens of years of inspiring young players to refine their talent. And the mature jazz players and singers that are finding less demand and less venues for their craft? Why they are, and have been the inspiration that has fed these instructors for years. Not a note in vain. Jazz lives on.

    Thanks,
    Chuck Mitchell

  • William Middlemiss

    “The players that play a million notes just to show off their technique are not what I choose to listen to, and as far as free jazz is concerned, I have heard a lot and never found much of its that wasn’t total ******** and truly boring!”

    Thats pretty much it about any of it. Make paintings sound, and you can write the same words.

    Art critics are even worse than most musicians. At least you play; but that doesn’t mean you’re perspective has any truth. Look forward and bring it; the next generation will follow whether you approve of them or not.