Croton-On-Hudson, New York
Oct. 16 (Bloomberg) -- While the adversarial relationship between Dave Douglas and Wynton Marsalis, two of the leading jazz trumpeters, bandleaders, educators and producers in New York -- one white, one black -- may have been blown out of proportion, it is nothing new.
What is new is that after more than a decade, it's becoming institutionalized. ``It gets scary,'' Douglas says. ``It reflects the political climate in the country. It's like all those conspiracy theories out there.''
He is sitting on the porch of his rambling redwood house in a clearing on two acres of forest near the Croton Reservoir, just north of New York City. The only ambient sound is the wind rustling the trees. Douglas says that he doesn't have ``to agree with everything Wynton says to acknowledge that he's a master. The guy is clearly one of the best trumpet players on the planet.''
He calls the jazz complex that Marsalis was instrumental in building in the Time-Life building on Columbus Circle, ``a miracle. We owe him all our gratitude just for that.'' But he also says that the people gathered around it are ``some of the more conservative analysts of the music.'' Conservatives speculate that Douglas wins so many polls because he's white, and white critics relate to him more easily than to Marsalis.
Douglas, 43, whose album, ``Meaning and Mystery,'' has just been released on Greenleaf Records, and who will tour Europe in late October and early November, cites Igor Stravinsky, John Coltrane and Stevie Wonder as primary influences.
He busked the streets of midtown Manhattan when he first arrived from his native Montclair, New Jersey, in the mid-1980s, and he has toured with an eclectic assortment of employers, including Horace Silver, Don Byron and the Bread and Puppet Theater.
Currently, he is artistic director of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, in Canada, and he composes for and solos with adventurous formations such as John Zorn's Acoustic Masada, and with eight different combos of his own.
His composition ``Flemish Primitives'' was commissioned by the Vooruit Culture Center in Ghent, Belgium, and was performed in 2002 by the contemporary chamber ensemble Ictus. There have been other such commissions.
``What we do now on the frontier of composed and improvised music,'' he says, ``has to do with learning a lesson from all that crazy experimental freedom in the 60s and 70s. We're learning to harness that and most `free' music has some sense of structure now.''
He is about to expound on that, when his dog Finley arrives on the porch barking loudly. He stops to hook a leash on her collar. But then he does not attach it to anything. Although Finley is free to drag her chain around, she doesn't. It strikes me as a kind of metaphor for harnessed improvisational freedom. Whatever, the dog stops barking.
Wanting to ``help enlarge the narrow perception of contemporary jazz trumpet,'' Douglas founded the Festival of New Trumpet Music, the fourth edition of which just ended Oct. 15, to ``help trumpet players who were not getting the recognition they deserve. They had no umbrella under which they could perform.''
Actually, it's about more than trumpet players. By extension, Douglas is also talking about major improvisers on other instruments who have worked outside of the mainstream jazz tradition -- people like saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Dewey Redman, and the late German trombonist Albert Mangelsdorf, most of whom have been denied a place under Marsalis's Lincoln Center programming umbrella.
Nor were these musicians covered by the Ken Burns documentary ``Jazz,'' which starred and was largely informed by Marsalis, and was broadcast by PBS in 2001. ``Jazz'' angered some people who accused the two of them of hijacking the history of jazz. Watching it, Douglas had wanted to ``hurl a brick through my TV screen.''
Although race remains the subtext, this great schism mostly has to do with style and culture.
``I get disappointed when I go to Europe,'' Douglas says, ``and I'm sitting in some cafe and I'm talking with the musicians and promoters and somebody says: `Isn't it ironic that the country that gave us this music is only capable of looking back? In America, it's all about playing Louis Armstrong music, recreating the 50s, and wearing old-fashioned suits.' I hear this all the time. I'm trying to prove that there is also progressive music in the U.S.''
``Progressive music'' means improvised music that investigates elements of, for instance, classical music, world music, electronics, and rock -- music that conservatives don't want to encourage. ``The African-American heritage should be protected,'' Douglas says. ``Preserving it should be an essential part of the discourse. Race should also be part of the discourse, but it's not because everybody is afraid of saying the wrong thing.
``It's easy to fall into a dangerous kind of Mussoliniland. Mostly, it's such a waste of time. Let's just try and make some good music happen.''