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October 5, 1998
by Lee Jeske

CitySearch Music

Gone, But Not Forgotten

Betty Carter's recent death removes another giant from the jazz playing field, another original who crafted her own style and forever changed the way jazz is played (or, in her case, sung).

Betty CarterYou can be sure that the Betty Carter tribute albums and concerts are just around the corner. If there is a pervasive jazz trend as we stumble toward the millennium, it's the tribute—the pallid one-two punch of lack of imagination and desire to hitch your wagon to a bigger and greater talent than yourself that has become rampant throughout a jazz world in creative crisis.

Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Blakey, Gerry Mulligan...hell, their names have been on numerous club marquees and albums this year, although each and every one of them is long gone.

Gerry Mulligan wasn't even particularly well liked by musicians, yet this year, two separate groups of players have gathered to pay tribute on an album and in concert (the Randy Brecker/Lee Konitz/Bob Brookmeyer group that just played the Blue Note, and the Ronnie Cuber/Gary Smulyan/Nick Brignola group that played the Texaco Jazz Festival). Ella Fitzgerald wasn't around to win a Grammy this year. No problem—Dee Dee Bridgewater's "Dear Ella" got it for her. Missed Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers when there was an Art Blakey? No big deal—the Jazz Messengers have been reconstituted this year.

I can think of at least five albums released this year with Miles Davis' name on them, but with no Miles in sight. In 1998, you don't even have to be dead to receive tribute—Wayne Shorter, Jackie McLean, and Freddie Hubbard are still with us, but this year each one of them has been musically eulogized by major young artists on major old labels.

When Glenn Miller died during WW II, at the height of the big band era and the peak of the Glenn Miller Orchestra's fame, somebody realized that although Glenn was gone, the Orchestra needn't be, and so the ghost band was born. The implication of the ghost band was that, although the leader wasn't there, the band would plow on, playing those beloved charts over and over and over and over again until the audience got worn out. A creepy jazz tradition was born, and the Miller band is still on the road.

What we have today, generally, are two basic variations on the theme. One is the alumni who go ahead and prop up their dead former leader's name (the Jazz Messengers, the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Stars, or the Gerry Mulligan All-Star Tribute Band). The other is the close or distant admirers who feel the need to sing hosannas to a greater jazz power. The names Ronnie Cuber, Gary Smulyan, and Nick Brignola don't sell records or fill jazz clubs; the name Gerry Mulligan always did. Trumpeter Marcus Printup is known by few; trumpeter Freddie Hubbard is known by millions. Can't hurt to have both names, or all four names, on a single album cover.

No corner of jazz is immune—from the hippest (Dave Douglas does Wayne Shorter) to the smoothest (Eric Marienthal does Cannonball Adderley). The most important jazz musician of our time, Wynton Marsalis, is going to be spending all of 1999 exclusively playing the music of Duke Ellington, in honor of Ellington's centennial. It's hard to imagine Ellington himself doing the same for, oh, Jelly Roll Morton or Fletcher Henderson.

Like anything else, this is not all bad. When Charles Mingus died in 1978, his widow, Susan Mingus, created the Mingus Dynasty, essentially a ghost band. But that has evolved into the Mingus Big Band, which is not really a ghost band, since Mingus rarely played his music with an orchestra, and Mrs. Mingus has commissioned all kinds of new arrangements of his small-group music for this rough and rowdy ensemble.

The question that keeps nagging, of course, is: Who from the '90s will be worthy of tribute albums in, oh, 2025? Nicholas Payton, the exceptional young trumpeter, who records for the label that's the worst tribute offender (Verve) but has managed to avoid putting out a tribute album, recently told Jonathan Tabak in New Orleans' fine OffBeat magazine, "I think sometimes it can be a crutch, a bit, to use tribute records. It's great to a certain extent, but to a certain degree is kind of killing the music, because it's becoming so repertory. It's like, ‘Where's your ideas? What are you about?... Let me hear what you have to say, so maybe fifty years down the line we can reflect on what YOU have to offer.'"

"Kind of killing the music"—I couldn't have said it better myself. You want an homage to Miles Davis? Buy a Miles Davis record. Feel like you need a Gerry Mulligan tribute disc? There must be a great Gerry Mulligan album or two that hasn't made its way into your collection.

And certainly go catch Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra playing Ellington, because at their best, no band since Ellington's has been able to play Ellington as well as the LCJO on a fine night. Wynton's Ellington year is admirable, but it loses some of its luster in this tribute-glutted marketplace.

In my CD pile is a brand new album, absurdly entitled "Count Plays Duke," which is to say the Basie ghost band plays tribute to the ghost of Duke Ellington. It would make a perfect Halloween gift.

Trust me: the next sound you hear will be the sound of the Betty Carter tribute album. And the sound you hear immediately after that will be the sound of the magnificent, fiercely original Betty Carter spinning in her grave.

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