I recently read a great essay by trumpet player Gordon Au about playing traditional and modern jazz styles. I’ve played a couple of times with Gordon in swing dance bands at Lindy Focus. Gordon was such a fantastic swing player that I assumed that he specialized in playing in older jazz styles. As it turns out, he is equally skillful in modern jazz playing and has quite a bit to say about the different “camps” promoting different jazz styles.
As a musician who has extensively studied and performed both traditional and modern jazz (alternatively, read: early, Dixieland, 1920–30s; vs. contemporary, avant-garde, post-bop, etc.), it saddens me to see fans in either camp bashing the other. On the one hand, I don’t understand it because they’re so similar—part of the same tree!—blood relatives separated by hardly any time at all. (More practically: how far can you subdivide an already miniscule fan base, and why would you?) On the other hand, I totally understand it because while they’re both jazz, they’re quite different, separated sometimes by very contrasting goals and aesthetics. And that surface similarity concealing inner difference is a prime recipe for sibling rivalry.
I too find it interesting and somewhat disconcerting how otherwise accomplished jazz musicians don’t demonstrate stylistic playing outside of their particular area of interest. In particular, I’ve found that excellent modern jazz players will often not be able to play a convincing solo in a swing or early jazz style. Frequently musicians that I hire to play big band don’t know standard Swing Era phrasing and nuances that make a chart by Fletcher Henderson, for example, sound different from Maria Schneider. There are some musicians I frequently play with that specialize in earlier jazz styles and struggle if the music is more modern. At least, that’s not uncommon among the musicians I happen to work with most frequently. I should also say that there are some musicians in my area that are virtual chameleons, like Gordon, and you would swear they specialize in whatever they happen to be playing.
In my opinion, attentive and extensive listening is the key to performing whatever you’re playing in an appropriate stylistic manner. You must know what it’s supposed to sound like before you can interpret it. Serious jazz musicians should spend some time doing some transcribing in all styles in order to make they phrasing, note choice, rhythmic language, vibrato, articulations, and other nuances sound natural while playing in any jazz style.
Gordon has some great points to make regarding the different arguments between traditional and modern jazz enthusiasts and is a great read. Go over and check it out and if you have the chance to hear him play live, jump on it!