News and Features

Jose Bowen and the Visions of Jazz

The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz was a landmark box set when it came out – 38 years ago. Now, a North Texan has helped shape a new CD collection called The Smithsonian Anthology of Jazz. Jose Bowen talked with KERA’s Jerome Weeks about the new collection and its vision of jazz.

  • KERA radio story:
  • Expanded online story:

[sound of piano playing]

The dean of SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts happens to be an accomplished jazz pianist. In fact, Jose Bowen is a member of a band, JamPact (see video below), with fellow SMU teachers Akira Sato (trumpet), Kim Corbet (trombone) and Jamal Mohamed (drums). But at the moment, the release of the new Smithsonian Anthology of Jazz has led to an impromptu solo piano lesson. We’re in a rehearsal room at SMU, and Bowen is demonstrating different playing styles.

Weeks: “So how would McCoy Tyner sound?

Bowen: “Oh, everything was big and open and more” – [piano playing continues under]

In 2004, the Smithsonian sent out surveys to some 50 hand-picked musicians, authors, broadcasters and teachers — all in response to the many requests that it update its first jazz anthology, created by the late Martin Williams in 1973. The thousands of resulting recommendations were compiled into what Bowen calls a “spreadsheet.” Five jazz scholars and historians — Bowen, David Baker, John Edward Hasse, Dan Morgenstern and Alyn Shipton — were appointed the recording project’s ‘executive committee.’ They were the editors who ultimately chose the music and wrote much of the 200-page book that comes with the new anthology. Bowen himself wrote the essays for 27 of the 111 music tracks. That’s more than any other contributor.

All five editors, Bowen notes, are jazz educators like himself — which is why the anthology is ultimately devised as an educational tool. Since its original release on vinyl, The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz became the standard introduction and reference work for music classes. But it offered a very traditional narrative of jazz – as did Jazz, the celebrated Ken Burns documentary that aired on PBS in 2001. This is, more or less, the Wynton Marsalis neo-classic history of jazz (he was an influential figure in the Burns series). It traces jazz entirely as an improvisatory, African-American art form from New Orleans ragtime through the big bands to bebop.

So far as it goes, Bowen argues, this narrative is fine and accurate. But it limits jazz in ways that, among other things, excluded Jewish jazz [sample of "Kilayim" by Masada], avant-garde jazz [sample of "The New National Anthem" by Gary Burton], and what’s known as jazz-rock or jazz fusion [sample from "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" by Miles Davis].

Bowen: “I would argue that all jazz is fusion. It’s the fusing of the Delta blues and of ragtime and of brass bands that make New Orleans music jazz. It’s the fusion of improvisation from Chicago with society orchestras in New York that creates the big band. All of jazz is a fusion. And today, jazz is a world music.”

Compiling this new anthology took seven years of cross-country debates and annual meetings in New York.

Bowen: “The five of us sat around the table at the Hilton with deli sandwiches until three or four in the morning several years in a row. So we would meet once a year in person and then we’d do the rest of it by e-mail.”

[sample from "Iya" by Irakere continues under]

This is the group Irakere. Bowen says its inclusion in the new anthology reflects some of the thinking behind the entire set. First, it’s a legendary Afro-Cuban band, and Afro-Cuban jazz is another influential torrent of music that was absent from both the first Smithsonian collection and Ken Burns’ Jazz.

Second, the band mixed in large quantities of ’70s funk and fusion –”I definitely wanted to bring some credibility to the ’70s,” Bowen admits with a grin. He notes that people who tend to dismiss jazz fusion often cite examples from the end of the ’70s, when it had grown softer, mellower, more pop-radio-friendly. But fusion, he contends, started out very ‘in your face’ and funky with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters — as well as intense and improvisatory with the likes of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the early Weather Report.

Third, Irakere recorded much of its best work in Cuba in the ‘70s – meaning the recordings have been hard to find. Which is a chief reason the new anthology is being released on CD. Upfront, the Smithsonian decided that the anthology would be limited to a 6-CD set — to keep costs down and the price somewhat affordable (it sells for just under $100). But as editing the collection progressed, executive committee members began to wonder: We’re struggling to find shorter cuts and we’re trying to slip in some cuts out of chronological order — all to squeeze as much music as we can on the CDs. Why not just put everything online?

But they soon discovered a serious limitation of the internet.

Bowen: “People like to say, ‘Everything is available on iTunes.’ It is true that more music is now available than ever before. But turns out that 40 percent of the music we picked is not available on iTunes at all.”

Eventually, Bowen says, an expanded version of the anthology will probably be online — once digital rights have been arranged.

Inevitably, perhaps, there were grumbles in jazz circles about the Smithsonian’s new anthology — even before it was released. These reservations were articulated at length in Ben Ratliff’s review in The New York Times. The Smithsonian Jazz Anthology is the typical product of a well-intentioned committee. Compromises were made to make everyone happy. As a result, there’s no distinctive voice.

Bowen says there’s some truth to the accusation that, on occasion, tracks were chosen not because they feature the greatest solos by the greatest artists but because of what those tracks exemplify, the different trends in jazz.

Consider: Would you include that one soul-stirring number that’s atypical of an artist? Or do you pick something more representative of his achievement? A clear example of this dilemma is the 1944 recording of “Blue Horizon” by Sidney Bechet and His Blue Note Jazzmen, included in The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. It is one of the most gorgeous pieces of slow-blues jazz ever recorded. But it features Bechet on clarinet — not his signature instrument, the soprano saxophone, on which he was a virtuoso. Williams himself wrote that the performance is so beautiful it “speaks for itself” but also that “a literal identification of Bechet with the old New Orleans tradition can be somewhat misleading.”

Given that last statement, it’s both ironic and instructive that the new Jazz Anthology features Sidney Bechet on saxophone in his 1932 recording — of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. As exuberant, inventive and incredibly speedy as Bechet’s version is, it’s partly here for educational purposes. The same number is performed earlier in the CD set in a traditional fashion by Dick Hyman and then later it’s even more radically re-interpreted by Anthony Braxton. As John Edward Hasse is careful to point out in his notes, Bechet’s version is “a far cry” from “traditional New Orleans jazz.” But it is “an outgrowth of it.” Essay question: Compare and contrast these three takes and what they reveal about continuity, influence and adaptive development in the history of jazz.

Bowen maintains that any anthology inevitably includes such calculations and compromises. And he argues that critics and fans seeking a “greatest hits” package or a single narrative history are looking for the wrong organizing principle here. There is no single narrative for jazz — there are branches and flowerings and thorns and roots — so  this CD set is deliberately designed more like an introductory course, more like a botanical encyclopedia.

Bowen: “What’s presented here is a broad survey of jazz of the very, very greats but also of different movements. Jazz is constantly changing, constantly looking for new things. Which is partly what attracts those of us who play the music. We can bring other charts, other tunes, other rhythms.

“Jazz is voracious in its capacity to absorb other musics.”

[piano music]

  • Associated Press review of the anthology