BY ERIC MIN-TUNG
Some jazz critics are truly absurd. They tend to confuse music as an art form with their own philosophical, social or political ideology. In France, as in America, we have also had the same problem with lot of our jazz critics -- people like Hugues PanassiÈ, Boris Vian, etc.). But now, at least here, far fewer people seem to be using using the almost racist clichÈs that only African-American musicians can play "real jazz". For example, here in Europe we have not to decide between Wynton Marsalis and John Zorn, as far as who is more representative of jazz. They play different music, but it ¼s still jazz music to be appreciated.
I think it is easier for us French people, because we have not the same history as Americans. There is not the same passive - aggressive dynamics at work here that characterizes between black and white people. Then we can speak music and not race and hvae more often than in the US (I'm not naive : racism does exist in France too). We also have a long tradition of jazz in France: perhaps since the first world war with so many notable black musicians in the army's bands , and surely in the 1920s with musicians like the legendary Sidney Bechet -- notably when he came to play in the famous "Revue NËgre" with Josephine Baker -- and after with the recordings or concerts of the many American musicians who traveled here . Many jazz stars even came to live in France, like Bud Powell and Dexter Gordon where they were cherished. Charlie Parker himself in the forties and later Miles Davis in the fifties counted their receptions with French jazz fans here among their greatest triumphs. Throughout the 20th century, French musicians created a kind of "French jazz"-- mixing a purer American jazz with other influences -- Gypsy music (and Django Reinhard deserves a mention here), "musette", European classical, etc. During World War II and Germany's occupation of our country, it was not possible to hear American jazz here, and French jazzmen ended up playing a type of "localized" jazz . Today, two schools exist :some musicians try to sound like American jazz players, others play more in a "French tradition" of sorts. And it's all still jazz, since jazz itself is not simply a musical style but more a way to think about music -- yet within the recognized jazz idiom; only the conception may be colored by regional styles and methodologies. A kind of international musical "attitude" is proffered : improvisation, freedom of expression, mutual respect and hard listening, swing (even if many may differ on the meaning of the word). Americans, Asians, Africans, Europeans: all can play jazz, ostensibly. Perhaps they are different types of jazz ‚ uniformity would be poor and undesirable - but it's jazz nonetheless. It's sad that some American musicians and critics give still a bad example. For instance, several years ago --I am a non-professional pianist -- I would attend Archie Shepp's jazz clinics. He said to us all then that only African-American musicians can play "real" jazz. I was very displeased and frustrated : here was a renowned jazz musician who was taking money from French and white (or white and Asian in my case) musicians only to tell them bluntly that they never could play "real jazz". The case of Wynton Marsalis, who in the least has implied much the same, is curious too. It is sad and annoying , because he is undoubtedly a good musician of both jazz and classical music, and as a jazz spokesman he should be more considerate.
In France we have our own silly, though age-old debate : Can a good jazzman also be a "successful" or commercial musician? The music of Pat Matheny, a player I greatly admire, is a case in point. For music critics in France he's like "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" : both a proficient and expressive musician, who has played with Ornette Coleman and many others -- and a "bad" one -- who plays with his popular and more commercially viable jazz-fusion group. This debate is, in a sense, a caricature of an old query revisited: Is music that is easier to listen to than straight- ahead jazz less legitimate?
But now onto Bill Evans and his relationship to the French. At the end of the seventies, if you wanted to be an acceptably "orthodox" jazz fan you had to say that you loved only "free" jazz. (We have long had this bad habit in France (at least in artistic circles) to think that we are all intellectually-gifted people and that so-called "intellectual" people must only be concerned with avant-garde art forms). The silliness of jazz critics that was circulating at that time was that Bill Evans doesn't swing -- and that he played what they used to call "long-haired music" .i.e., classical-jazz, or even more beyond reason, that he sounded like a "piano-bar musician". It was totally absurd then, and it is moreso now. I recently read an interview with Michel Grailler -- a fine French pianist who has worked with Chet Baker and many others (and incidentally the composer of a tune in tribute to Bill). Grailler remarked that is that time, he couldn't go around talking about his great love for Evans' music, because he feared that he might be subject to ridicule, and that other jazz musicians would find him not "serious" enough. An old article in a jazz revue back then also said that Bill Evans is a "boring musician" and trying to sound like a European classical pianist -- a kind of "Paul Desmond of piano", it said . It's still a completely silly argument, and long defeated (though I enjoyed Paul Desmond too) . Regarding this perception of Bill Evans at the end of 1970's: At this time in France, we didn't really know so much about how Bill played with his last trio (with Marc Johnson and Joe LaBarbera) at least from any recordings. Not much of this was even available here until well after Bill¼s passing. We didn't have the recent representative albums to hear, for even most of the fantastic You Must Believe in Spring (though with Eddie Gomez and Eliot Zigmund) wasn't issued in France until much later -- and back then I lived in a province and I couldn't go to any of the Parisian appearances Bill's last trio occasionally made. The first time many of us heard this last trio was perhaps when we heard The Paris Concert CD.
All these years later. much has changed and virtually everyone agrees that Bill Evans was an influential jazz artist of high caliber and a major figure in the jazz history. He's become the primary influence of many a pianist in France, just as he has in the States. He often makes the covers of jazz publications: last year a special issue of the revue Jazzmen was dedicated to him. French critic Alain Gerber programmed a series of broadcasts of Evans music on French National Radio and even wrote a book on him [Bill Evans , Fayard, 2001, published only in Europe]. The French/German cultural TV channel Arte featured an Evans documentary recently and some broadcast concerts were on M6 ‚ a regular channel. Although some of his recordings are harder to get in Europe, many of his records can even be found in supermarkets here. There's also a music school in Paris called The Bill Evans Academy.
I believe that Europeans are still so enamored by Bill Evans because he was a "pure" jazzman, in the American sense that he never compromised his affinity with jazz traditions -- and we can, perhaps even more readily than the Americans, discern the strong European influence in his playing. Bill had Russian and Welsh parents, a classical musician's nexus, and the Romantic classical Russian tradition in his playing, as well as his love of the French impressionist composers, (such as Debussy) is well- documented. Yet he used what was best in jazz music. So it is no coincidence that world-renowned French classical pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet recorded an album of Bill Evans pieces and transcribed improvisations with as much seriousness and attention to detail as he brought to his many classical recordings. Neither is it a coincidence if pianists like the Italian Enrico Pieranunzi (who also wrote the book: Bill Evans : Ritrato di artista con pianoforte ) and the Frenchman Stephan Oliva or Michel Grailler claim their affiliation with and love for Bill Evans' music. As students of jazz piano know, the careers of noted world-class French jazz pianists like the late Michel Petrucciani and Martial Solal also attest to the power of Bill's mighty influence.
For me, as an avid listerner and amateur jazz player , the controversy that surrounded the Ken Burns "JAZZ" documentary-- and the issue of "who has played jazz better -- blacks or whites" -- is silly, and has passed into irrelevance in my view. The same asinine things have been argued a thousand times before and to no avail. If musicians had wasted their time on this kind of discussion, today we should listen only to Dixieland music or perhaps polkas or Gregorian chants! In fact, if we want to speak politically or sociologically, we speak politics or sociology. If we want to speak jazz, we speak jazz. Or even better -- listen to great jazz or play great jazz. Art is art, and the only question is whether its good or bad. Ken Burns, Stanley Crouch, Wynton Marsalis and the rest are not very different from some realist-socialist theorists or such academics who conveniently put ideology before art. Let the music play, whether by African-Americans or white Americans or Europeans or Asians or whomever. Good jazz is color blind, and all its influences have room for each other.
And Bill Evans, for one, knew that.
opinions expressed are
not neccesarily those of The Bill Evans Webpages site
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