Ellis Marsalis has died of complications from covid-19, one of several jazz icons to fall victim to the pandemic illness. (Sophia Germer/AP)
The best piece of jazz advice I ever received wasn’t a cool tip in a record shop or a firm nudge into a nightclub. It was a ritual: Cue up a free-jazz record first thing in the morning and see if it helps your brain open up to what’s possible in the day ahead. On mornings when I remember to take that advice, one of my go-tos is “The Giuseppi Logan Quartet,” an album recorded in 1964 by a free jazz multi-reedist whose distinctive style of play still has broad, cosmic, everyday implications.
This music sounds as if it’s shaking itself loose, but even as Logan uses his horn to smear and smudge different notes, he’s being decisive, shifting his priorities as the moment demands. That agile kind of playing debunks the idea of improvisation as some serendipitous expression drawn from thin air. Instead, it reminds us that the human experience is an ongoing improvisational act, one that’s continuously shaped at the intersection of purpose and chance. Jazz isn’t magic. It’s life.
Logan’s sound-smears felt particularly affirming on my stereo Saturday morning after I had learned that he had died of complications from covid-19, making the 84-year-old the latest victim of a pandemic that continues to decimate the jazz world with horrific swiftness. It’s been crushing to watch so many meaningful lives end in such a meaningless way. Among the dead: the venturesome bassist Henry Grimes, the graceful saxophonist Lee Konitz, the impeccable trumpeter Wallace Roney, the erudite pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr. — and there will be more. A uniquely American art form is being killed by a uniquely American incompetence.
And while our government’s mishandling of this pandemic remains incomprehensible, the fact that covid-19 appears to be disproportionately killing jazz musicians shouldn’t be. First, New York City remains the capital of American jazz, as well as the pandemic’s current global epicenter. On top of that, before social distancing measures were put into practice, jazz musicians were out and about. They had to be. For most jazz players to survive in an era of digital music streaming, they have to get out there and perform live. Has jazz’s reputation for being cerebral and remote ever felt more wrongheaded than it does right now? Jazz requires physical participation. It’s social music. What a horrible way to be reminded.
If it’s possible for something as expansive as jazz to have a second unifying principle, maybe it’s this: Jazz always has to do with starting something. It’s the music of possibility, and it’s never too late to keep starting. So while many of us would be delighted to live 92 yearson this Earth, it still hurts to lose Konitz at that age. Across the final decade of his life, the alto-saxophonist was still playing, still performing, still starting — all while drawing on an inventory of life experience that grew deeper by the minute. As human beings, the longer we extend the twilight of our lives, the more unique our perspectives become. Jazz elders are especially well-positioned to refract those perspectives back out into the world. Listening to Konitz breathe into his horn near the end of his life was an opportunity to hear hard wisdom manifest in a caress.
Lee Konitz was 92. (Juan Herrero/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Wallace Roney was 59. (Fernando Aceves/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Every jazz musician lost in this pandemic had a unique start that sent them on a distinct trajectory, but the sounds they made often overlapped. Marsalis was an educator and a New Orleans jazz patriarch who — along with his sons Branford, Wynton, Delfaeyo and Jason Marsalis — formed a musical dynasty that championed mid-century jazz values. Roney was a protege of Miles Davis who began his career in the traditionalist mode of the Marsalis brothers, but eventually adopted an exploratory approach that allowed him to reimagine the music of OutKast. Konitz famously broke ground alongside Davis in the cool-jazz era of the 1950s, then spent subsequent decades distilling melody to its essence.
For each of these players, jazz was a way of experiencing freedom within the framework of a tradition. We like to idealize life in America the same way.We structure our lives around a sense of possibility.
The volatile trajectory of Grimes’s life feels especially American, for better and for worse. In the 1960s, the Philadelphia-born bassist was blazing thrilling new paths alongside Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Pharaoh Sanders and other innovators. Then, in 1968, Grimes moved to California, failed to find work, sold his bass and disappeared from the public eye so completely that some thought he was dead. When he finally returned to the stage in 2003, his music sounded so alive, it stung — the jolt of his inspiring comeback tempered by a painful reminder of how easy it is to vanish between the cracks of a system that does little to invest in the health and financial well-being of artists.
The arc of Logan’s life bent in astonishing parallel to Grimes’s, as the critic Nate Chinen noted in twinobituaries published within hours of one another. Like Grimes, Logan made historic noise in the mid-’60s, then fell into poverty and homelessness for decades, only to make a heroic 21st-century return.
Their parallel paths didn’t stop there. When Logan and Grimes climbed back onto those stages, they didn’t run victory laps. These were bright minds that had survived some dark years, and now they had something new to communicate. There was more music to make because there was more life to live. We start until we stop.
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