A Certain Respect for Tradition

By Mark Miller
Mercury Press

By Ken Waxman

Over the past three decades Canada’s national jazz and improvised music scene has changed immeasurably – for better in many cases and for worse in others.

Someone who has had a figurative as well as literal front-row seat for the passing show is Mark Miller, jazz critic for the Globe & Mail from 1978 to 2005. This notable volume collects 80 of his articles from that period.

Jazz critic at a time when the newspaper at least paid lip service to the idea of comprehensive coverage of non-commercial music, Miller had an unprecedented opportunity to observe and write about the changing sounds. As many of the pieces reflect, he made the best of this opportunity. Although a couple of his earlier books anthologized some of his earlier columns, A Certain Respect for Tradition is particularly significant because it represent Miller’s leave taking of daily journalism and summation of the scene’s evolution.

Except for a brief year-end round-up from December, 2003 and in the book’s preface, Miller doesn’t theorize overtly about the shape of the music. However skipping among the chapters – which include a long description of Cecil Taylor’s 1985 residency at the Banff Jazz Workshop not written for the Globe – and several unpublished profiles, the context in which he examines music arises.

Although his view is by necessity Toronto-centric and pressured by what could be termed the commercial Canadian jazz industry, shaped by American neo-conservative players, he never let those considerations stand in his way. Articles report on happenings in Edmonton, Montreal, Vancouver and Victoriaville, Quebec as well as Toronto. And while there’s coverage of deserving jazz stars such as guitarist Pat Metheny and Young Lions like pianist Cyrus Chestnut, they make up only a tiny percentage of the book.

Instead Miller devotes space to such commercial anomalies as a 1993 night club performance by relatively unknown Swing pianist Red Richards, for instance, or profiling veteran bassist Milt Hinton in 1984. His 1991 retrospective of the career of classic jazz trumpeter Jabbo Smith, who “very early in the history of jazz [was] in the avant garde”, points out that that the virtuoso suffered for this in a music under the sway of Louis Armstrong’s style in the 1930s, the way young musicians attempting a different route than trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ neo-conservatism may suffer today.

Often in these brief pieces written under daily deadline pressure, he manages to find the proper motes justes to succinctly sum up a musician’s art. Writing about pianist Mal Waldron in 1985, for instance, he says” his notes come in blacks and blues, like little bruises’. Dutch drummer Han Bennink is described in 2003 as “at once one of the great drummer and one of the great cut-ups in modern jazz, a master equally of stick and shtick”. Miller notes sardonically in 2002 that the intense young players in German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s Tentet could “… give Brötzmann a run for his money – if there was any money in the avant garde. It’s not called ‘free jazz’ for nothing”. And in a 1989 review of American saxophonist/composer John Zorn, he writes that, “In the lexicon of music in the 1980s, Zorn …is a four-letter word. Like most four-letter words these days, it has had at least some acceptance in polite circles”.

One of the book’s sub-themes is the gradual shift in improvised music and jazz from being exclusively an American export, so that by the end of the book brief profiles as such European figures as saxophonist Willem Breuker and pianist Misha Mengelberg, both of the Netherlands, are as frequent as those of American jazz stars.

Earlier on, Miller’s reports focus on the early, halcyon days of Canada’s burgeoning jazz festivals, at a time [1985] when such marginal figures as Third Stream pianist Ran Blake would play a concert in Edmonton or when in 1991 a Toronto jazz club would book the non-showy duo of pianist Carla Bley and bass guitarist Steve Swallow.

Most importantly among the articles set in since-shuttered jazz clubs and today’s more mainstream jazz festivals, he exposes a few generations of Canadian jazzers to a wider audience. Including members of Montreal’s burgeoning Music Actuelle community, the profiles take in a relatively well-known types like former Montreal pianist Paul Bley and pianist D.D. Jackson from suburban Ottawa, as well as Toronto bassist/pianist Don Thompson and guitarist Ed Bickert, as well as a cross-section of lesser-known figures like Toronto saxophonist Richard Underhill, Montreal baritone saxophonist Charles Papasoff, Ottawa pianist Jean Beaudet and then Peterborough, Ont.-based saxophonist Christopher Cauley.

A book that can be read beneficially and without dislocation chronologically or at random, in any sort of order, A Certain Respect for Tradition has a particularly apt title since it succinctly appears to sum up Miller’s philosophy. Unlike many other writers and musicians, Miler jazz scene is augmentative not reductive – while strongly acknowledging the music’s tradition(s). Each musician is treated with the same respect and offered up to provide the same insights, whether the subject is a generally accepted icon like Marsalis, pianist Chick Corea and [yikes!] crooner Tony Bennett, or decidedly non-mainstream figures ranging from pianist Cecil Taylor to Toronto’s own free music collective the CCMC.

In MusicWorks Issue #98