The recent deaths of Ahmad Jamal and Wayne Shorter has deprived the jazz world of two of its longest-lived masters, each of whose careers ran for over 70 years.

I have recently finished reading Adam Levy’s superb new biography of Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus. Sonny was born in 1930 and retired almost 10 years ago. The book is filled with quotes from Sonny referencing the impact of an earlier generation of masters, particularly his near Harlem neighbour Coleman Hawkins on his musical development. And as he reached his own career mid-point and much beyond, the growing responsibility he felt as a mentor and role model to the upcoming generations of jazz musicians. As an example, the book contains a particularly evocative study of the relationship between Sonny and the sensationally gifted young trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who sadly died aged 49, too early to reach jazz elder status.

This got me thinking about the current generation of jazz elders on both sides of the Atlantic. Top line musicians now in their 50’s and early 60’s who not so long ago were being lionized as the new kids on the jazz block. Time passes quickly in the transition from being a new arrival to an acknowledged jazz master with the many responsibilities that that status invests.

Terri Lynne Carrington

The bass virtuoso Stanley Clarke burst on the scene barely out of his teens in the late 1970’s. In a recent interview in Jazzwise he really nails the transition between the apprenticeship and mastery stages in jazz,

“It’s great and it’s another reason that I do it. Because it was something that was done for me…. Horace Silver, Joe Henderson, Art Blakey, Stan Getz. At one point they were young, and these guys instinctively knew that what moves instrumental music, or jazz, or whatever you want to call it, through time, is not how much time a radio station plays it. What moves it is that it gets passed down, a very African kind of concept, though a lot of cultures have it too. You pass the music down!”

Of course, the context in which jazz is learnt and practiced has changed radically since the early 70’s. Stanley Clarke, now a youthful 71 was the last of a generation who learnt primarily on the road. With the establishment of jazz conservatoires, initially in the U.S., now right across Europe too. London alone has five music colleges specializing in jazz to degree ad post grad. levels. So, these days the intensive learning from and direct connection with jazz elders is more likely to take place in a college environment than on the bandstand.

Some years ago, I attended a week’s jazz summer school at Guildhall in London and have never forgotten the opportunity I had to sit with and learn from the great tenor saxophonist Jean Toussaint. Having direct access to his formative memories out on the road with Art Blakey.

In his excellent book Playing Changes Nat Chinen quotes Melissa Aldana the superb Chilean saxophonist now aged 34 on the impact of being taught by Mark Turner, born in 1965, at Berklee in the 2000’s,

Mark is as important to my generation as Michael Brecker, or Sonny Rollins or Coleman Hawkins were to generations before me”

In the same chapter Chinen quotes Bill Pierce, another Blakey alumni who chairs Berklee’s woodwind department, “The apprenticeship model doesn’t exist in the way it once did. So, it’s being incubated in institutions”

Stanley Clarke

Another important dimension of jazz’s late entry into academic institutions is that it has provided important alternative employment opportunities for jazz professionals. Since in reality earning a decent living through live gigs and recordings remains out of reach for most professional jazz musicians, joining the faculty of conservatoires provides another context in which to practice their metier while guaranteeing a core income beyond the band stand. Interestingly entry into the academic life provides jazz elders with an opportunity to recruit top line young musicians into their bands, a more recent twist on the tried-and-trusted jazz apprenticeship model stretching back to the earliest days of the music.

In putting together, a by no means comprehensive list of jazz elders, my guess is that the majority retain academic positions in addition to their touring and recording schedules. Here’s a selection of jazz leaders in their 50’s and 60’s who back in the 1980’s and 1990’s were being described as the new kids on the block,

  • Terri Lyne Carrington- drums
  • Brad Mehldau – piano
  • Joshua Redman -saxophones
  • Chris Potter- saxophones
  • Django Bates – keyboards
  • Clark Tracey -drums
  • Brian Blade- drums
  • Christian McBride-bass
  • Vijay Iyer-Piano
  • Jason Rebello-piano
  • Ian Shaw-voice
  • Julian Joseph -piano
  • Jason Moran-piano
  • Kurt Rosenwinkel-guitar
  • Courtney Pine- saxophones
  • Lionel Loueke-guitar
  • Dave Douglas-trumpet
  • Kurt Elling -voice

In reviewing this listing I’d like to briefly highlight two musicians- Clark Tracey and Chris Potter

The first live gig I attended back in 1969 was a performance by the great and distinctive London pianist Stan Tracey, with the equally legendary Phil Seamen on drums. Listening to Stan Tracey became a fixture of my musical life in London from that point on. I vividly recall Stan’s, at the time controversial decision to replace his excellent drummer Bryan Spring with his teenage son Clark in the late 70’s. Clark remained a fixture with Stan until the end of his life and now, in his 60’s leads bands made up principally of top line jazz apprentices. The legacy of Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers continues!

Clark Tracey

Chris Potter who is now 52 barely old enough for jazz elder status is one of the most technically gifted saxophonists on the current scene. I caught him in in performance most recently at Ronnie Scott’s in March this year. In his teens he came to New York, enrolling at the Manhattan School of Music but quickly gave that up to go on the road with Red Rodney, Charlie Parker’s trumpeter of choice in his Bird’s final years. Chris Potter’s jazz apprenticeship was a mixture of the old and the new.

The Playlist

I have curated a selection from my name-checked jazz elders, mainly but not exclusively drawn from recent recordings.