Obstacle Course to Mecca: Jazz in New York

Obstacle Course to Mecca: Jazz in New York

The final tournament still takes place in New York. Here the jazzman from Detroit or Houston or Paris is tested. The judges who are by far most important to him are the other musicians. He is interested economically in being noticed by the critics, but with very rare exceptions, the young musician’s self-respect rides on what the established players say.

“This place,” says patriarch Coleman Hawkins, “makes all musicians sound kind of funny when they come around. When they first come here, I don’t care what they were in their home towns, when they come here, they get cut…. They have to come here and learn all over again, practically. Then when they come back they are all right. Or, if they stay around they can develop to be all right.”

Hawkins cited the case of a Florida alto saxophonist, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and his brother, Nat, a trumpet player. They arrived in the summer of 1955, and made an initial impression; but, according to Hawkins, “the boys were talking . . . his brother plays a nice trumpet, but man, Cannonball’s nothing! . . . Well, Cannonball left—he came back … he’s blowin’ now.”

Cannonball, now a successful combo leader, agrees: “No matter how much talent and experience a player brings here, there’s things to learn when he sits down with a seasoned band…. No matter what they bring here, New York shakes them. A young tenor player was complaining to me that Coleman Hawkins made him nervous. Man, I told him Hawkins was supposed to make him nervous. Hawkins has been making other sax players nervous for 40 years…. This town is like a world governing body of jazz.”

The key testing grounds used to be jam sessions, but these informal after-hours debates can seldom be found now. One reason for their decline is involved with the increased departmentalization of jazz. Nearly any jazz player could “sit in” twenty-five years ago. But now there are more generic “styles” than there were in the twenties and thirties—although not as many individual styles—and as a result, cliques have developed. Among the young modernists, for instance, the “hard” players generally stay by themselves. Gerry Mulligan is not apt to jam with Horace Silver.

There is also some amount of racial selection, with the selecting usually done by the Negroes. For some years, especially in the fifties, there has been a strong anti-white animus among many of the younger Negro players. (“You’re playing too goddamn white, man,” one leader snapped at a sideman on stand.) Part of the prejudice comes from the Negroes’ belief that whites have too often capitalized on what have essentially been Negro contributions to jazz (“You think Count Basie ever made the money Benny Goodman did in the thirties and forties?”); and part has arisen from a fi...