A couple of months ago, I attended the premiere of a new film about Professor Cheng Manching at the Museum of the Moving Image. Cheng Manching was one of the principal importers of Yang-style Tai Chi to the West and his students head many of the schools in the NYC area. My teacher, William C.C. Chen, was a student of his back in Taiwan, and then split off to start teaching on his own. T.T. Liang, one of the Professor’s other senior students in Taiwan also started his own schools in the States. It appears that both men were cutoff from the Professor after this, as he had hoped they would continue to work under him.
This reminds me of how saxophonist Lee Konitz was estranged from his teacher, Lennie Tristano, after a while for going his own way and leaving the inner circle. In fact, at this event I couldn’t help but notice the parallels to my experience with veterans of the jazz world. Not only is there some actual crossover, with some of our finest musicians being Tai Chi practitioners (Tristano bassist Joe Solomon is a student of Master Chen’s, as is bassist Lincoln Goines), but the idea of lineage and the passage of time struck me tonight. I could have pictured this as a new documentary about Lennie Tristano, Barry Harris, the late Connie Crothers, or any of the great teachers that have affected so many. It was amazing to see these students who studied with the Professor in the 1960s, some now in their 80s and 90s gathering to talk to old friends and share stories. Then to step once further back to the Professor studying with Yang Chengfu himself, the originator of the current Yang form of Tai Chi and you can feel the continuity and the beauty of traditions being passed along, though everyone has added their own reinterpretations along the way:
Learning about the lineage and history of any field is fascinating to me, and is what I have enjoyed most from getting to know people like William C.C. Chen, Putter Smith, Bill Crow, Steve Little, Lee Konitz and Ted Brown. The field of expertise is not as important as the feeling of continuity with our predecessors. It is the oral tradition and trying to track back to see what made certain things go certain ways.
Traditionalism can get a bad rap, and sometimes is what irks my fellow musicians about people like Wynton Marsalis. Why should anyone have to adhere to the styles of the people that came before them? Why can’t they have their own expression and carve a new path? Then people like Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Andrew Hill are usually put forth as musicians who broke the pattern and took us into new territory. Which they certainly did!
The fun for me is in finding where these groundbreakers are coming from, as they all are deeply connected with those that came before them. Their innovations were not groundless, or out of thin air. Ornette’s main influence was Charlie Parker, to me his sound is the closest to Bird’s, and if anyone came close to Bird’s free rhythmic sense, it was Ornette. Charlie Parker came out of Lester Young. Listen to the early recordings with Jay McShann: Lady Be Good. Lester Young listened to Frankie Trumbauer, Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong. Of course, there were other influences, and everyone takes in what they can and molds their art from that. The ones that are the most successful create the most lasting art.
My music and craft move forward, in my experience, when I look back and study what came before. When creativity lapses, transcribing even four measures of something can start it up again. Speaking of which, next week I hope to post a finished version of the “Lester Leaps In” solo I am working on for the Jazz Research Journal, and also some other supplementary materials for the article which will be published next year. ‘Til then.