It has become a truism in the arts that, in order to create anew, the artist must be thoroughly acquainted with the old. The innovators throughout the history of jazz -- Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman -- were first of all steeped in the jazz tradition, then inventors of the new. Alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe is perhaps the most striking exemplar in contemporary jazz of the roots-oriented visionary. The very sound of his horn sings with the blues, and he leads a combo called In the Tradition, with which he has recorded compositions by Fats Waller, Ellington and other early jazz masters, but with a decidedly modern attack. Blythe will perform tomorrow night at d.c. space, with Bob Stewart on tuba, Kelvyn Bell on guitar and Bobby Battle at the drums.
"I was raised in the tradition," the Los Angeles-born Blythe says. "You have to have the tradition in all that you do, whatever you deal with. It's like making cornbread without cornmeal -- it becomes another type of bread."
Blythe's originality had been noted in the inner circles of jazz before he left the West Coast for New York City in 1974. His association with Los Angeles pianist Horace Tapscott, with whom he recorded in the late '60s, provided early inspiration. An even earlier inspiration was the collection of blues and jazz records his mother treasured.
At the age of 10 Blythe "begged and pleaded with my mother to get me a horn and she did, an alto saxophone, for Christmas." Private lessons, playing in the school band and working with local jazz groups were all part of Blythe's formative years. An abortive move to New York in 1968 persuaded him to return to his native state after a few weeks. "It was intimidating," he confesses. "People did everything faster. California is a very manicured place, and my first impression of New York -- I came in on the Lower East Side -- was that it was deep in poverty. I hadn't ever seen anything like that."
When Blythe returned to New York in 1974, he says, "it was less intimidating," but musically, he admits, he had some catching up to do. "I was not abreast at all . . . You have to live in New York to feel what's happening," says Blythe, who has toured Europe and Japan. "It's hard to convey that to someone who hasn't been to New York." For jazz musicians, he says, New York is "the focal point. If artists come from New York, they're recognized more as being professional than if they come from St. Louis or San Diego or even L.A."
Blythe frequently collaborates with other strong leaders, such as Tapscott, trumpeter Lester Bowie, drummers Jack DeJohnette and Chico Hamilton and pianist-arranger Gil Evans. "It raises the level of the quality," Blythe says. "It has been like education to me. There are a lot of people you can get knowledge and information from, who can show you something to help the picture come together clearer. But then it's reciprocated, too, you know. I show them certain things as they show me.
"You know, it's always been a struggle," he says, "and I see the struggle as not lessening at this point. But I don't see it as deterring my efforts any. I'm going to stay positive so that I can keep on going on."