Preserving That Which Is Intangible: On Why Ron Westray Is Important (重要無形文化財保持者)

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The great legacy of syncopated music in America – in whatever form(s) it evolves into – will be with us all for a long time. And, in the case of jazz, the supposed “death” of a style does not mean the death of the values it upheld. Which is why the debate over whether we as humans are publicly evolving or devolving musically with every passing generation, in part, I think misses the point.

On his blog “The Cherub Speaks” trumpeter Nicholas Payton continuously calls for the renaming of jazz to “Black American Music”, as if this is a/the solution to the endemic cultural problems the music faces. This term, to Payton, more appropriately reflects and represents the historical significance of African Americans in the cultural history of the United States, and certainly reflects what any serious jazz musician anywhere would want the general public to remember about the music’s history. But Payton also makes the claim that he alone is the epitome of the jazz tradition personified, as evidenced by his post on December 4, 2011:

“There is no living soul who can walk on a bandstand anywhere in the world and play more horn than me. Period. Not a single one of you sh*t talkers. Never has there been a musician who can represent the entire scope and tradition of this music from its inception in New Orleans through Chicago, from Basie’s idiom to Charlie Parker’s, Monk’s language, Ahmad Jamal’s, Miles’ style, Trane’s, from James Brown to Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire, George Clinton, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, James Williams, Bobby Watson, Donald Brown, Duck, Dilla, etc., than me. Never…”

Payton certainly is a trumpet player of the highest caliber, and has proven himself as such in his many years of performing. But to assert that he carries the tradition on his shoulders as an exemplar, or that jazz legitimacy is purely instrumental would seem to be hubris of the highest order. Because the jazz tradition, if anything, contains a legacy that is not tangible, nor does it “exist” on a trumpet or saxophone; one that I would argue is more appropriately ascribed, borne, and musically promulgated by trombonist Ron Westray.

Japan has a tradition of acknowledging and celebrating what are known as “preservers of important intangible cultural properties” (jūyō mukei bunkazai hojisha), informally known as “Ningen Kokuhō – “living national treasures” (人間国宝). Ron Westray, as an instrumentalist and as an educator, would fall under all three categories of Ningen Kokuho: as an individual who has attained “high mastery” (Kakko Nintei:  各個認定) of an art, as a band leader who organizes events that demonstrate the “collective mastery” of the music via interplay and arrangement (Sōgō Nintei: 総合認定), and as a member of a generation of musicians who worked in the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra to preserve and promote American achievement in music equally across race and gender, “subsuming their individuality” into a unified group for the greater good of the music (Hoji Dantai Nintei: 保持団体認定).

Much of what Ron Westray preserves and promotes is indeed tangible or traceable: scores, compositional techniques, and written patterns for improvisation. But Westray also carries intangibles vital to the making of jazz in potent manner. Two of these intangibles are:

  1. Openness to new forms: not the blind acceptance of what happens to be new, but rather the foresight to investigate what is new without bias before making a decision on its viability as a mode of expression which suits the making of jazz. Where I find Wynton Marsalis to be more conservative on this issue (backing Eric Clapton), Westray makes reasoned, forward thinking choices to promote collaboration (writing new, collaborative music with hip-hop artists, for example).
  2. Westray is willing to forego his own image as a jazz musician in order to promote and support the true legacy of the music, which is taking risks demanded by the music. This does not result in the usual tributes shows and covers of modern pop tunes as “jazz” but rather Westray stepping outside of convention. There are certain things that society demands of an artist, one of which being safely ensconced in one’s category. This ensures a “safe” concert experience in which the audience will not be surprised with the unexpected. Thus traditional repertoire and historical forms still holds a certain power within the jazz economy. Westray is of the character that he will go left, without question, when the politically and economically “correct” thing to do is hold right. Westray’s example teaches us that jazz can hold ideals, ideals which may not sound like the jazz music we know, but are the very essence of what it means to be, to actually be, a jazz musician, not just sound like one.  I have personally seen Westray partially lose an audience by moving out of their expectations and subsequently win them all back by continuing to proceed!

Jazz music is being tangibly preserved on film, on recordings, in education, and in part, live. Where it must be preserved, where it is best preserved, is in the human spirit…in the legacy of humanity within jazz. People who lovingly pursue the music no matter how little money they make, virtuosity they attain in comparison with their heroes, or fame they acquire…because the music is too wonderful and important to put aside in pursuit of the more shallow of our socio-political standards. People who gather together to make jazz who, through their collective effort, achieve something sweeter, more wonderful than their sum. People who in part forego their individual ego in order that something greater than them exists in the world, now and beyond their own lifetime – teaching others to cherish what we share and achieve as humans together.

The spirit of humanity and love in jazz must be there to ensure its potency…and Ron Westray embodies the necessary intangibles of each to carry the music forward….

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