“I don’t know where jazz is going. Maybe it’s going to hell. You can’t make anything go anywhere. It just happens”-Thelonious Monk
In 2012, Benjamin Schwartz, former editor of The Atlanitc, wrote an article for the magazine titled “The End of Jazz” where he basically sums up in the header of the article that “America’s most vibrant music” is now a relic, because the music has strayed away from the American songbook and that,
“There is no reason to believe that jazz can be a living, evolving art form decades after its major source—and the source that linked it to the main currents of popular culture and sentiment—has dried up.”
Since jazz has shifted from the cultural mainstream, articles like this appear every so often. Probably ever since the late 60’s and early 70’s, this has been an assumption made by many cultural critics and musicians alike. This belief that the music is dead or dying comes up ever so often and everyone makes the same arguments to why it is or isn’t dead. In the last year alone, there has definitely been an onslaught of these types of articles; almost likening jazz musicians to Civil War reenactors. Many jazz musicians seem to feel the need to justify him/herself to the culture as a whole. Sure, the music isn’t at the center of American culture anymore, the Record of the Year at the Grammy doesn’t go to a jazz artist, Rolling Stone doesn’t put jazz musicians on the cover, sure some condescend, disregard, and say that Jazz is nonsense and just “noise,” but that doesn’t mean the music isn’t relevant or that jazz musicians don’t have a place in the culture. It’s just that they have to function outside of the mainstream, possibly on the fringe.
In an interview with Ben Ratliff, music critic for The New York Times, Pat Metheny said something about in what state jazz should be kept that I think is profound,
“Let’s keep jazz as folk music. Let’s not make jazz classical music. Let’s keep it as street music, as people’s everyday-life music. Let’s see jazz musicians continue to use the materials, the tools, and the spirit of the actual time that they’re living in, as what they build their lives as musicians around. It’s a cliché, but it’s such a valuable one: something that is the most personal becomes the most universal.”
As an aspiring jazz musician and composer, and obsessive music listener, I believe for jazz to continue to grow and evolve, the music and its musicians must be part of a living and growing tradition. Artists have to use the times they live in. They can’t be solely bound to the past. They can learn from it, but can’t stay within its walls; they have to be true to their own time and place. Part of the problem, in my opinion, is the heightened struggle to define, canonize, and put jazz on a cultural pedestal, in many cultural and academic settings.
In the last 30 years, there has been a strong push for this push to fossilize jazz in the broad culture. Ken Burn’s 10-part documentary series, Jazz at Lincoln Center brought together by Wynton Marsalis, as well as other programs and historical explorations have pushed this philosophy forward. While these are important and have been beneficial to shedding light on the historical and cultural importance of jazz, some (not all) have overshadowed innovations in jazz music since 1970. For example, Ken Burn’s documentary series, while it is informative and brings historical context to the music, it is wildly fragmented. It ignores many groundbreaking musicians (Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, Eric Dolphy, Anthony Braxton, etc.) to the point of biased historical revisionism. In the last part of the series, Branford Marsalis basically says after Duke Ellington’s death “Jazz just kinda died. It just kinda went away for awhile”. The documentary has no coverage of jazz into the 70’s and onward – no free jazz movement, no 70’s New York loft scene, no AACM, no fusion. Much of this is due to the involvement of Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch. Wynton Marsalis is famous for his disregard for jazz after 1965, most notably free jazz and fusion; he served as co-producer and the artistic director of the series. Stanley Crouch, music and cultural critic, has a famous disregard for free jazz and the fusion movement. Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch have been on a mission, to define and canonize jazz for the general public. While this is a noble pursuit, Marsalis is asking the culture to define jazz the way he sees’ it; simply swing and blues. No cross-polinization. He has the loudest voice and the most visible public presence as basically a self-defined world ambassador of jazz. He’s won a Pulitzer Prize; he’s head of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the most successful educational institution for jazz in recent years. In Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense, Marsalis states that he believes the music must be defined, just like The Odyssey or Beethoven’s 5th.
Like the quote at the top of this post, maybe we don’t get to define it. Trying to define something as broad and widespread as jazz, and squeeze it into a neatly wrapped cultural box is controlling a language and suffocates a living organism. It stifles evolution, creativity and makes the music a museum piece instead of a moving, living tradition. Canonizing and defining language, in a bias way, is a form of cultural control, and as Matthew Shipp, a jazz musician and composer, says of this movements push to define jazz, “That’s fascism”. In the end, controlling language is fairly absurd.
For example, many countries have language “regulators” or academies, which create and edit dictionaries of that countries native language. One that is very conservative in nature is the French Academy. They are very well known for their tight rules and regulations on what words are added to the canon of the language. They believe in keeping the French language pure. Which is kind of unrealistic. Languages over time change radically. Your ability to talk to someone even 50 years ago would be a challenge. The languages we speak today are radically different and have encountered immense forms of cross-polinization over time. The structure of our sentences of simple daily talk would seem fragmented and disjointed to a person a few hundred years ago. These kinds of regulations are actually quite ridiculous because, you can’t fully stop the general public from speaking because of the natural current of change, interaction and movement of people. Deciding how people get to express ideas and themselves, through any form, is wrong. This is how unrealistic it is to define and freeze the language of jazz in time.
George Lewis, trombonist, composer and professor of composition at Columbia University, in his essay “Teaching Improvised Music” in the anthology Arcana: Musicians on Music, states the frustration of many educators and musicians on the teaching and learning improvisation. Many jazz musicians in recent years, have gone through many lick, pattern, riff, cliché, and lead sheet books in there time practicing, presented with the idea that this is how one must play the music. Lewis expresses the possible problems with this type of presentation of the idiom:
“A complex interaction between notions of literature, orature, tradition, canonization, personality, and innovation is seen by jazz improvisers as being directly linked to the nature of music learning. This interaction, more over, considers the articulation of music meaning, as an integral part of the dissemination of culture. Thus, expressed as an uneasy relationship between “clichés” and “creativity”, what is at stake in this debate is nothing less than the concept of originality itself. Thus, “improvisations” which appear to consist of mainly of unquestioning, rote regurgitation of prepared patterns are viewed by many improvisers as failing to display the kind of independent creative investigation and spontaneous invention that can lead to the discovery of what jazz musicians often call “one’s own sound”, or the original creations of one’s own musical material and lexicon”.
In the beginning these things can be tools as which to learn from, but moving forward, one’s own voice must come out and that persons personal vision of what there music is must step forward. Whether that’s the combination of hip-hop and jazz, spectral composition and jazz improv, free-improv bound by no harmonic logic, fusion, etc. it doesn’t make it non-jazz, and that kind of forward thinking creativity and boundary pushing is what keeps the music relevant and alive. Simply because it isn’t filled with turnarounds, ii-V-I’s, 12-bar blues structures, or modal scales doesn’t make it outside of jazz. Just because someone refuses to play standards and wishes to create original material, doesn’t make them a non-jazz player and spitting in the face of tradition, its simply how they wish to express themselves in there chosen idiom.
Has jazz in some ways become a museum piece? Of course. Can that be changed? Most definitely. Is it important for academic and educational institutions to exist to continue to educate and foster the next generation of musicians? Of course. But creativity and independent thinking must be encouraged. If we all want the music to continue.
Thoughts, comments, questions, concerns?
Please leave comments below.
Part 2 coming soon.