What Is Jazz? Part 2 | Letters | Chicago Reader

What Is Jazz? Part 2 

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To the editors:

In response to Mark Ruffin's impassioned diatribe about jazz, WNUA, commercial popularity, and me (published in the November 12 Letters column), I need to start with a brief apology. As Ruffin points out, I am indeed aware of the presence of some "acoustic" and/or "mainstream" jazz on WNUA -- particularly the program hosted by Ramsey Lewis, on which I have been a guest (at the invitation of Mark Ruffin, that program's producer). In fact, upon reading my own remarks in the Culture Club article about jazz radio in Chicago, I felt a distinct wince, because I indeed should have excepted Ramsey Lewis's program and one or two others from my general characterization of WNUA as a faux-jazz station. It was an oversight. But beyond that, a few of Ruffin's points require clarification or correction.

First, and most important: despite Ruffin's surprising claim, I have never sought employment at WNUA, a fact to which station manager John Gehron and program director Lee Hansen will assuredly attest.

Second, Ruffin offhandedly suggests that the new-music performance artist Meredith Monk is a staple of my programming. In fact, I vaguely recall playing a recording by her in (I think) 1982. I have, however, presented plenty of jazz as progressive or more so than Meredith Monk's, and am proud to have done so. Such music represents the leading edge of this music, and I think it's important to give it exposure along with all the other jazz idioms. (And I'm flattered that Ruffin still remembers details of my programs more than a decade after the fact.)

Third, I don't believe that Ruffin's characterization of WBEZ as being prissily divorced from the thrust of today's jazz can be borne out by our music log. A typical broadcast--last Wednesday, November 10, between 8 PM and 3 AM--included popular new recordings by Shirley Horn (in a vocal tribute to Ray Charles) and Paul Wertico (of the Pat Metheny Group), modern jazz stars T.S. Monk and Eliane Elias, the Panamanian steel-drum player Othello Molineaux, and the new-music pianist Myra Melford--in addition to historically significant giants Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, and Duke Ellington.

These details aside, I think that Ruffin's letter--however unintentionally--may well open a public debate on issues that have been simmering for a while now. In redefining the jazz mainstream to fit his station's needs, he has opened the questions of "What's in a name?" and "Who does the naming?" These are questions almost as old as jazz. For the answers, Ruffin suggests we turn to product-oriented industry publications like Billboard. I suggest you ask the musicians themselves, and see how few of them agree with Ruffin's analysis.

Ruffin's letter actually frames the debate rather nicely with this comment: "If a young kid who has listened to rap all his life falls in love with David Sanborn on WNUA and discovers that Sanborn is a disciple of Hank Crawford and Charlie Parker, WNUA has done jazz a huge service." The problem, of course, is that this hypothetical kid will have to change stations to hear Charlie Parker. Some Chicago-area stations present Parker, and others whose innovations laid the foundation for modern artists, on a regular basis; WNUA does not. For most of its broadcast day WNUA offers a mix of jazz-based music significantly removed from the very sources Ruffin mentions. The real question is: At what point does such dilution change the essential nature of the music carrying the name "jazz"? And at what point does continued use of that name become an Orwellian intrusion on the legacy of its true creators and artists?

With its carefully researched and clearly deserved popular success, WNUA has posed these questions. But despite Ruffin's plea for respect, I don't think we can look to that station for the answers.

Neil Tesser

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