Some Reflections on Time Out New York’s List of New York’s “25 Jazz Icons”

It seems churlish to criticize the omissions in a piece so thoughtfully put together as Time Out New York’s list of New York’s 25 Jazz Icons, which covers a cohort of gifted musicians from an admirably inclusive menu of jazz food groups.  But in the spirit of their generous offer (“We focused on continued creative vitality (where these artists are at today, not just their past glories) as well as sustained live presence, influence, conceptual ambition, stylistic range and other intangibles. We admit to our biases, but feel that these 25 picks make a compelling case for why New York jazz is in the midst of a new golden age. We gladly welcome your comments, questions, gripes and rebuttals.”), I’ll say my piece.

In my view — and it’s only my view — a few too many of the choices privilege an aesthetic of recondite hipsterism.  Tom Harrell, in an efflorescent period, probably didn’t even make the short list. Where are Jim Hall and Kenny Barron, both truly iconic and creative. Or Ron Carter? Jeff Watts and Roy Hargrove and Chris Potter are deeply influential. So are Peter Bernstein and Russell Malone. George Lewis has transformed jazz education through his tenured sinecure at Columbia, not to mention his extraordinary musicianship. Kurt Elling lives in New York.  So does Brad Mehldau.  So does Robert Glasper, as conceptually ambitious and influential as any of the younger musicians mentioned. You could say the same for  Miguel Zenon. Then there’s David Binney.  Geri Allen and Christian McBride live in the same part of New Jersey as Bill Charlap (who belongs on the list). Joe Lovano and Steve Coleman, both true jazz icons, live far enough out of town that I can understand why they aren’t here (though Coleman, when not on the road, is a weekly presence at the Jazz Gallery). But Brian Lynch is a pioneer in synthesizing African-American and Afro-Caribbean vocabularies and an educator of increasing influence. Who’s more conceptually ambitious than  Dafnis Prieto? Or Eddie Palmieri, for that matter? Or  Uri Caine? (Ok, Uri, an Upper West Sider,  doesn’t play NYC that often.)

Don’t  get me wrong. I admire all the musicians mentioned. But I can think of 5 or 6 (and I won’t name names) who can in no way, shape, or form be described as “jazz icons.” Musicians who will make a mark? Sure. Is their musical production interesting and out of the box and virtuosic? Sure. But “jazz icons”? Really? How about Ellery Eskelin? Or Roy Nathanson? Where’s Marc Ribot? How about Vernon Reid? Jen Shyu? Butch Morris?

By the way, Wynton Marsalis, who gets a seemingly begrudging #3, is anything but a figurehead. I challenge anyone to name a more conceptually ambitious piece than “Swing Symphony,” not to mention “Congo Square” from a few years ago.

Again, it’s just a list. But when such  lists appear in the establishment media, they become the default playing field for “civilian” evaluators.  And can anyone under 50 who likes to swing or groove meet Hank and Steve’s criteria for “conceptual ambition” and “stylistic range”? Is it possible to be equally creative within an idiom?

I’m starting to get worked up, so it’s time to stop…

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Some Reflections on Time Out New York’s List of New York’s “25 Jazz Icons”

  1. Well put, and nice blog!

  2. Disagree all you want, of course you’re entitled to – I for one find it refreshing that a list stears clear of most of the regulars: they receive plaudits from all over the place anyway, ESPECIALLY in the mainstream media . But to pull out the “hipster” name calling just because their choices differ from yours is just low.

    • Hi, Chris. Thanks for the comment. I wonder if you can name a few of the “regulars” that their list steered clear of? I didn’t say “recondite hipsterism” because their choices differ from mine. I said it because they are using the word “icon” to describe people who are not, rather than artists — and I posited a number of possibilities; there are others — who are demonstrably more influential on the way jazz sounds circa 2011 than 5 or 6 of those mentioned in the piece, however strong the musicianship of those 5 or 6. I think the question about whether people who choose to groove and swing or to be creative within an idiom fit into their criteria is a legitimate one. What do you think?

  3. livex

    A lot of the problem is just the use of the word ‘icon,’ because I agree that strictly speaking some of the people on the list, while worthy of attention and admiration, are not icons in any meaningful sense of that word. Still, even under the meaning of ‘icon,’ I’d also concede they got a lot right, starting with #1 and #2.

    • I’d say they got 75%-80% right. It’s a big pool, and some have to be left out. That said, the reflexive exclusion by a lot of critics (and Hank and Steve are erudite and informed, and I would never argue with Steve in his evaluation of a piece of classical music or new music) of swing and groove based music, or idiomatic music from their canons is an increasing sore spot with me.

      • I’m printing an emailed response from Hank Shteamer; he tried to post this, but it didn’t come through:

        Greetings Ted,

        I appreciate your thoughtful response. Leaning too “avant” or “progressive” was a concern of mine, but in the end—and I speak only in terms of my contribution to the project—I had to go with my gut, as well as with what I know. I make no claim to a 360-degree viewpoint. When it comes to jazz in our wonderful city, I keep up with as much as I can, but obviously I have my biases and blind spots.

        In a way, I was hoping for exactly this sort of naming-names rebuttal. Some of the artists on your list (Binney, Lovano, Reid, Ribot, Eskelin, Morris, etc.) are very familiar to me and came up during Steve’s and my discussion leading up to the final selection. Others (Harrell, Malone, Lynch) are less so, and I look forward to doing some research.

        As far as the use of the word “icons,” maybe there’s some hyperbole there. I guess that, word choice aside, what I was hoping for was a kind of representative cross-section. And per my admission above, we may have failed in that. In our defense, though, I think we made strong cases for our inclusions, leaving aside those we may have excluded; in a way, maybe that’s the best a list-maker can hope for.

        To address one specific point, the Marsalis ranking wasn’t intended as begrudging at all—No. 3 was simply where we felt he belonged. Another point re: the nitty-gritty of the rankings: To me, the most enjoyable aspect of making the list was the fact that Steve and I each independently arrived at Paul Motian as our No. 1 when this project was still in its nascent phase. In a way, that fact should tell any reader of the list where we’re coming from. A list on which, say, Wynton placed first would be a list written from a very different perspective, and it’s a perspective I totally welcome—if anyone wants to make that list, I’d love to see it! But going back to that issue of bias—let’s just call it taste—as anyone who’s stopped by my blog could probably tell you, I make no bones about my deep love for the mystery men of jazz (Andrew Hill, RIP), of which Motian is probably our greatest living example: http://darkforcesswing.blogspot.com/2010/10/mystery-man-paul-motian-and-unfair.html

        Anyway, our chief goal was to incite discussion and—if not ire—at least enough controversy to fuel some impassioned responses. I greatly admire your work, and I’m sincerely honored that you took the time to write up a thoughtful rebuttal to what we put out there. The fact that there’s disagreement signifies that we are surveying an extremely broad landscape re: “NYC jazz 2011.” On that note, I echo Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff—http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/03/arts/music/jazz-festivals-in-new-york-undead-vision-blue-note.html—in saying, more or less, bring on festival season! (I caught one of our TONY “icons,” Lee Konitz, kicking off the June jazz rush in high style this very evening at the Blue Note, on the recommendation of Jim Macnie, a writer who I bet could make an NYC-jazz-artists list to put us all to shame.)

        Thanks again, Ted, and welcome to the blogosphere. Icons aside, these blindfold tests you’ve been posting are blowing my mind.

        -HS

      • Thanks, Hank. Had you said “representative critical cross-section” rather than “icon” (and I realize that this is an article for an civilian magazine) I would still have disagreed with but wouldn’t really have had a reason to express high dudgeon. To call someone an “icon” denotes influence, of being an artist with acolytes, who has influenced a stream of musical expression or found a sui generis path from deep R&D on the fundamentals.

        Nomenclature aside, your “Time Out” list raises a broader point, the “sore spot” I mentioned towards the end of my post, which is the exclusion from the canons of all too many of my brother and sister journalist-critics of artists who work within groove- and swing-based contexts, who put some blues into their expression, and who endeavor to let their imagination and creativity operate within the idiomatic parameters of jazz and Afro-Caribbean traditions — not to recreate or xerox those traditions, but to deal with them in a present-day context on their own terms. The “mystery men” who fascinate you reached that point through long apprenticeships spent working through these vocabularies (or, as Henry Threadgill discussed with Ethan, the various tributaries of European music and other American and World vernaculars) and allowing their voices to emerge in an organic way.

      • artists who work within groove- and swing-based contexts, who put some blues into their expression, and who endeavor to let their imagination and creativity operate within the idiomatic parameters of jazz and Afro-Caribbean traditions

        Doesn’t this describe Jason Moran? He may do other things as well, but these are some of the things he does.

  4. Greetings Ted,

    I appreciate your thoughtful response. Leaning too “avant” or “progressive” was a concern of mine, but in the end—and I speak only in terms of my contribution to the project—I had to go with my gut, as well as with what I know. I make no claim to a 360-degree viewpoint. When it comes to jazz in our wonderful city, I keep up with as much as I can, but obviously I have my biases and blind spots.

    In a way, I was hoping for exactly this sort of naming-names rebuttal. Some of the artists on your list (Binney, Lovano, Reid, Ribot, Eskelin, Morris, etc.) are very familiar to me and came up during Steve’s and my discussion leading up to the final selection. Others (Harrell, Malone, Lynch) are less so, and I look forward to doing some research.

    As far as the use of the word “icons,” maybe there’s some hyperbole there. I guess that, word choice aside, what I was hoping for was a kind of representative cross-section. And per my admission above, we may have failed in that. In our defense, though, I think we made strong cases for our inclusions, leaving aside those we may have excluded; in a way, maybe that’s the best a list-maker can hope for.

    To address one specific point, the Marsalis ranking wasn’t intended as begrudging at all—No. 3 was simply where we felt he belonged. Another point re: the nitty-gritty of the rankings: To me, the most enjoyable aspect of making the list was the fact that Steve and I each independently arrived at Paul Motian as our No. 1 when this project was still in its nascent phase. In a way, that fact should tell any reader of the list where we’re coming from. A list on which, say, Wynton placed first would be a list written from a very different perspective, and it’s a perspective I totally welcome—if anyone wants to make that list, I’d love to see it! But going back to that issue of bias—let’s just call it taste—as anyone who’s stopped by my blog could probably tell you, I make no bones about my deep love for the mystery men of jazz (Andrew Hill, RIP), of which Motian is probably our greatest living example: http://darkforcesswing.blogspot.com/2010/10/mystery-man-paul-motian-and-unfair.html

    Anyway, our chief goal was to incite discussion and—if not ire—at least enough controversy to fuel some impassioned responses. I greatly admire your work, and I’m sincerely honored that you took the time to write up a thoughtful rebuttal to what we put out there. The fact that there’s disagreement signifies that we are surveying an extremely broad landscape re: “NYC jazz 2011.” On that note, I echo Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff—http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/03/arts/music/jazz-festivals-in-new-york-undead-vision-blue-note.html—in saying, more or less, bring on festival season! (I caught one of our TONY “icons,” Lee Konitz, kicking off the June jazz rush in high style this very evening at the Blue Note, on the recommendation of Jim Macnie, a writer who I bet could make an NYC-jazz-artists list to put us all to shame.)

    Thanks again, Ted, and welcome to the blogosphere. Icons aside, these blindfold tests you’ve been posting are blowing my mind.

    -HS

  5. Ted,

    Thanks for posting the comment. For the record, I posted an expanded/clarified version here: http://darkforcesswing.blogspot.com/2011/06/unpacking-25-nyc-jazz-icons.html.

    I understand what you’re saying about the dangers of privileging the outré over the bread-and-butter. And I’m very familiar with the history of, e.g., Motian, and what led him to his more abstract late work. At the same time, I don’t feel like anyone that Steve and I championed can be accused of ditching tradition in favor of novelty or lofty conceptualism. Take your description below:

    “…artists who work within groove- and swing-based contexts, who put some blues into their expression, and who endeavor to let their imagination and creativity operate within the idiomatic parameters of jazz and Afro-Caribbean traditions — not to recreate or xerox those traditions, but to deal with them in a present-day context on their own terms.”

    When I read that, the very first artists I think of are players such as Jon Irabagon, who engages in a very direct way with Sonny Rollins in his “Foxy” project and has a record out (“The Observer”) with Kenny Barron, one of the elders whom you cited as an omission on our list. Additionally, the Mostly Other People Do the Killing band, of which Irabagon is a member, is one of the most historically minded jazz ensembles in NYC, right down to their parodies of classic cover art and liner notes. Or I think of Matana Roberts, whose “Coin Coin” presentations seem to me like a very conscious engagement with the work of Mingus, Max Roach and John Carter (and maybe even Wynton Marsalis), artists whose work grapples with cultural history and sociopolitical reality. And Jason Moran’s ties to Byard, Hill, Abrams and others—not to mention Monk and the stride tradition—are well-documented. To their credit, I think a lot of the younger players who have been captivating the critics are doing so precisely *because* they’re demonstrating a very deep awareness of what came before and doing so in very novel, personal ways.

    There’s definitely such a thing as throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to jazz “innovation,” but I’d happily defend all the artists on our list (and again, I’ll concede that “icon” may have been too strong a word—in the end, though, the choices and the text are the real content of Steve’s and my piece) against such accusations. You’ll find tons of groove, swing and blues in the work of the Irabagons, Robertses and Morans of the scene.

    Thanks,
    HS

  6. I agree with your comments Ted. Sure I enjoy all those artists, but to leave out the folks you mentioned (and where is Pat Metheny? I guess he’s not hip by anyone’s standards anymore, but when they write the final jazz history, Metheny as a guitar player alone will top the list) is just crazed. In favor of relative newcomers and yes, hipster choices? Puhlease.

    • In fairness, Hank and Steve were considering active presence on the New York scene as a criteria, which would leave Metheny out of the mix here.

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