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What we talk about when we talk about populism; Miles Davis, Branford Marsalis and Jazz fusion


As a self-professed populist I believe that in a consumer society fiscal success is a hugely important part of artistic (or at least cultural) merit. In the 80s I championed as potentially big time stars: the dB’s, the Individuals, Bonnie Hayes with the Wild Combo, Marshall Crenshaw. All pop musicians.

Which lead me to a problem: my taste in music wasn’t particularly popular. I called the Eurthymics one hit wonders, R.E.M. dreary bores— so on and so forth. And for everyone I got right (I championed Prince as early as 1980) there were a relentless hoard of bands, hip hop stars, electronica, and just plain strangeness (August Darnell, any one?) that never did squat.

25 years later my taste is deeper and wider and I search out top ten albums and singles because i firmly believe in the sanctity of populism when it comes to music. But still, my tastes can get pretty out there.

So if I say I never remotely got jazz-rock fusion please blame jazz-rock fusion and not me. The thing is rock is like primal sludge -it fuses with everything it touches but it didn’t fuse with jazz. I am not sure why a band as potentially great as Weather Report ended up so ordinary and an album as great as Davis’ “Bitches Brew” and then a coupla years later the great Carnegie Hall concert with John McGlaughlin on guitar “Dark Magus”.

As great potentially as Weather Report were they didn’t live up to the names on the label and as great as Miles Davis rock fusion albums were, they weren’t popular at all. Weather Report needed a great garage band, a Stooges, to fuse with and Davis’, well, Davis needed Jimi Hendrix.

When jazz realized its mistake with the minor No New York movement and bands like James White and the Contortions and the Lounge Lizards, the sound was anti-populism -a skronky, aggressive mess. And, so, still, jazz didn’t sell.

This failure made jazz the classical music type genre it is today: a specialist sport and a middlebrow, high culture dead end. And this is where Branford Marsalis, whom I am eagerly awaiting to see tonight at Jazz Standard, comes in. Branford had his own hip-hop-jazz fusion band Buckshot LeFonque, and his problem is the old jazz problem: it was too damn middlebrow. Listen, a man willing to play “A Love Supreme” should be willing to allow he needed a great, out there, hip hop partner not a boring old get like Sting. Even today I could absolutely imagine a Branford, D’Angelo, Rakim mix: I think it could be something special and more importantly I think it could sell.

Instead this populist music fan has to continue to make excuses for why music that doesn’t fall into the popular category is being championed here.

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