Apparently whenever jazz writers gather, they spend much of their time reassuring themselves that jazz isn’t dead. At the end of 2012 the New York Times jazz writer Nate Chinen convened a critics’ email round table for his blog, The Gig. The sum of their efforts suggests one of the music’s hottest sounds is that of whistling past the graveyard.
“Jazz not only survives but thrives,” Greg Thomas, the New York Daily News jazz writer, announced, despite “the usual mainstream media blackout of jazz,” the “sad closings of iconic, down-home venues such as St. Nick’s Pub and the Lenox Lounge in Harlem,” and “the attention on the Internet to yet another jazz obit, this time in The Atlantic.” (You’re forgiven if you missed the piece in The Atlantic. It received no attention on the Internet, except from jazz critics insisting it wasn’t true.)
“The ‘jazz is dead’ conversation,” Washington, D.C. blogger Giovanni Russanello wrote, “now feels like a crude joke that’s been told too many times: The punchline doesn’t have any bite left. Even the awkwardness of the suggestion is gone. Jazz isn’t dead, it’s just spreading its wings.” Ha! Yes. What? So the 1920s through 1990s, when millions of people actually listened to jazz and knew the names of jazz musicians from Louis Armstrong to Brad Mehldau, were just one long prelude to the current spreading of the music’s wings?
Fantastic. What does jazz sound like when it’s spreading its wings? “A struggle for donations and the technology-triggered decline of radio have quietly eviscerated jazz on the airwaves in Boston, Los Angeles and D.C.,” Russanello wrote. Excellent. Anything else? “The attrition of venues is a serious problem.”
Chinen, the roundtable’s host, also wore a smile that seemed forced at times. “Not to suggest everything’s peachy, since the shrewder jazz musicians have learned to write grant proposals by day and pass the tip jar at night.”
Peter Hum, whose jazz blog on the Ottawa Citizen’s website is widely read in jazz circles, took comfort from the popular response to the death of Dave Brubeck, whose most famous recording was 52 years old. “I’d love to extrapolate from the outpouring of attention to Brubeck’s passing – and, for that matter, in response to Austin Peralta’s sad, sad death – that jazz, whatever that means to everyone else, still matters beyond the jazz bubble, despite all the nay-saying.”
I do not like to be a nay-sayer. I have more or less stopped writing about jazz, after I wrote about it for the first 20 years of my career, rather than spend my time saying nay. But the response to Austin Peralta’s sad, sad death is a pretty good illustration that jazz does not matter outside the jazz bubble. Peralta, I learn, because in fact I had no clue, was a promising 22-year-old keyboard player in Los Angeles. His name appeared in almost none of the year-end wire-service obituary wrap-ups. Now that I know who he was I wish he had lived longer. But he would have lived in the jazz bubble.
It’s a bubble to this extent: almost no educated lay listener can name even a half-dozen jazz musicians active today. Most of the names they would mention – singers like Diana Krall, Nikki Yanofsky, Michael Bublé, even instrumentalists like the pop-jazz trumpet player Chris Botti – would not normally be mentioned in positive terms by most jazz fans. The names fans do get excited about – the trumpeter Dave Douglas, the saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Chris Potter, the guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel – could not mean less to a general audience. And frankly they’re not missing much.
Well, that’s harsh. All the musicians I just named are clever improvisers. They keep finding inventive little things to do. This season electric keyboards are big. Last year, or perhaps it was the year before, it was turntable DJs in otherwise straight-ahead acoustic bands. For several years before that, pianists were banished in favour of guitars as the main chording instrument in a band. The constants have been odd time signatures and long, intricate vamps. It’s a little dry, but they all seem to be concentrating mightily while they play. Everyone’s playing is so clean and tidy you could eat off it. And if a half hour later you’re hungry again, because by God you will be, there’s always more of the exact same on offer.
Jazz isn’t dead, it has simply ceased to matter to the broader culture. If you live in any medium-sized Canadian city I could take you to hear some jazz tonight, played competently or better. New York keeps getting reinforcements as musicians arrive from around the world to play the latest orthodoxies. Here on my iPod I have a new album by a Chilean tenor saxophonist in her mid-20s, Melissa Aldana, called Second Cycle. Aldana plays with a kind of ostentatious bookishness. In the opening bars of her first solo she quotes “I Mean You,” a Thelonious Monk tune from 1948, and “Chasin’ the Trane,” a John Coltrane line from 1961. Eventually she quotes a few dozen other old tunes. So apparently they have iTunes in Chile now. Her trumpeter, Gordon Au, is genuinely clever, relaxed and unpredictable. I’ll be keeping an eye out for him. The drummer is a chatterbox, always with the snare drum rat-tat-tat, but so are most drummers these days. It’s a perfectly good session. It’s certainly jazz. I find myself thinking that a lot as I listen to recent recordings, often because Peter Hum mentioned them on his blog. “Yes,” I say to myself, “that is definitely jazz.” Then I try to imagine urging it on my friends who are not big jazz fans, and I can’t imagine wasting their time with it.
A dichotomy between jazz people’s jazz and everyone else’s jazz has always existed to some degree, but it never used to be so stark. For much of jazz’s history, the musicians anyone vaguely literate had heard about were also musicians who mattered most to their colleagues. Armstrong, Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, even Wynton Marsalis at least into the 1990s, did much to define both the music’s cultural significance and its artistic content. Jazz was part of the broader culture. It acted as though it had something to say to humanity, not only to fellow initiates.
Of course there have always been unjustly overlooked musicians, as there have always been inexplicably famous ones. In 1959, the year Davis recorded Kind of Blue and Ornette Coleman recorded The Shape of Jazz to Come, two of the most important recordings of the 20th century, a dreary shuffle-beat trumpeter named Jonah Jones won the jazz Grammy for I Dig Chicks. But for most of jazz’s history, it was hardly obvious to most of its practitioners that there was a necessary conflict between the audience’s needs and the art form’s.
It would also have come as news to most jazz musicians before, say, the 1980s that innovation and tradition were antagonistic goals. One of the surprises in Chinen’s year-end critics’ roundtable was that his guests kept referring listlessly to some debate between advocates of “tradition” and “innovation” in jazz. I admit to some surprise. This was a new debate 30 years ago, when Wynton Marsalis started to reassert the value of swing rhythms and blues tonalities as central jazz values. It was an annoying debate 20 years ago, when everyone’s first or second CD – Joshua Redman’s, Brad Mehldau’s – featured an earnest little liner note treatise on how it’s important to follow the tradition and to innovate. Whatever time today’s critics don’t spend insisting the music isn’t dead, they fill up with proclamations that the tradition-versus-innovation debate should go away already. Which it would if they would stop talking about it.
For most of jazz’s history, the importance of conversing with the music’s tradition was not seriously contested for the same reason it did not constantly need to be asserted: because the tradition was not a theoretical notion, it was present and active in the work of every young musician’s own older colleagues. (When Martin Williams published The Jazz Tradition in 1970, he wasn’t looking for a fight with avant-gardists or fans of jazz-rock fusion. The tradition he was referring to was the entire body of the music up to then.) It used to be that a musician’s earliest serious musical experience came on a bandstand that was run and dominated by a veteran musician. You had to be able to play jazz – not some disembodied “jazz tradition,” but a certain way with a ballad, a written line, a constant conversation between soloists and accompanists, a set of ideas about appropriate bandstand demeanour, dress, humour, sexual bravado, a wary stance with regard to law enforcement and with whoever was handing out pay envelopes. And amid all that, you also had to bring your own ideas to the conversation. Eventually a young musician’s ideas and his accumulated expertise would inform bands he would hire, the gigs he would hustle, the music he would write or select. A tiny number of the musicians who went through this process would become recognized innovators, ringing changes in the music that Melissa Aldana is name-checking to this day with her two-bar winks at Monk and Coltrane.
“Tradition” and “innovation” became a debate when it became possible, indeed depressingly necessary, to try to create jazz music independently of the constantly-churning cycle of apprenticeship and mastery that defined most of the music’s first (last?) century. When you read interviews with any musician older than about 45, you catch glimpses of a world that’s simply gone now.
“Well, I found my graduate school at Bradley’s,” the pianist Fred Hersch told a former student of his, Ethan Iverson, in an interview for Iverson’s superb Do The Math blog. Bradley’s was a congenial piano bar in Greenwich Village, open late, where from the ’60s to the early ’90s all the greats played. “I started hanging out there a lot with the intention of getting a gig there. People were very nice about letting me sit in, and Jimmy Rowles let me sit in, and Kenny Barron finally let me sit in. And finally somebody said, I think Red Mitchell, ‘Give the kid a gig.’ And luck of the draw, I was hired by Sam Jones, and from there, I was in. If Sam said you could play, you could play. There was nobody more respectable in the Jazzy-Jazz tradition. . . . Late night at the piano we would all sit around and show each other tunes. Me, Tommy Flanagan, Joanne [Brackeen], Kirk Lightsey, Roland Hanna, all showing tunes. I got friendly with George Shearing; we’d go up to his place, he’d show me tunes.”
Hersch names nine musicians in that anecdote from the late 1970s. Six are now dead. The musicians who came up after them are far likelier to have learned at a music school. Which is an honourable way to come up, but it changes the chemistry. You get further and further from music that, as the pianist Mulgrew Miller has argued, is “part folk art.” Iverson, Hersch’s interviewer, is a product of that academic environment, though he is scrupulous about reaching out to older musicians while he can still learn from them. “I worry that not enough people know the dialogue,” he wrote on his blog. It seems like an odd thing to say, because today’s young musicians are technically fluent, but of course that’s not what he meant.
Phil Dwyer, a fine Vancouver Island saxophonist who’s my age, 46, reached similar conclusions in remarks he gave to Peter Hum for Hum’s blog. “I have spent a lot of time with young musicians, and I have found that the good ones have the same fire in their belly as young musicians always have,” Dwyer said. “But I think one of the big differences is that there isn’t as much consensus among younger players as there was when I was starting out as to what was important to listen to. And therefore there isn’t so much common ground, perhaps, as I remember.”
The hell of it is, no amount of dedication to “the jazz tradition” can compensate for the collapse of the ecosystem within which jazz developed through the 1990s. In the tradition-versus-innovation wars of the 1990s, I backed the traditionalists, but much of their music hasn’t held up well. I still have a lot of time for Wynton and Branford Marsalis, two very different musicians whose musical identities are rich and idiosyncratic. But the generation that followed them has run into some serious professional and aesthetic dead ends. Marcus Roberts, Benny Green and Cyrus Chestnut were the hottest young pianists of 1990, each a diligent student of earlier piano styles. None has recorded consistently interesting work over the past decade. They’re like immigrants struggling to preserve the way of life in a homeland that has since changed beyond recognition. Roberts has almost never worked a sideman gig since leaving Wynton Marsalis in 1990. He is as cut off from the support and discipline of his elders as any Berklee grad playing Radiohead tunes in 13/4 time, and his music suffers for it.
So the traditionalists may revere a tradition, but they have had no luck at extending it. As for the rest of the current crop of jazz musicians – well, first of all, I’m not even sure what to call them. Can’t be “innovators” because if everyone’s innovating the word loses all meaning. I like the pianist Eric Lewis’s distinction between “the nostalgic but geriatric brand image of jazz” and “the achingly academic yet snobbishly casual brand image of jazz.” Most are in the academic-casual camp. Cargo pants and odd time signatures. They are sincere and they are working hard, but they are making music with little past, no cultural resonance (how many Bjork fans listen to the dozens of jazz musicians who cover Bjork tunes? Not a lot), and, I suspect, little future. That sounds harsh too, but what jazz since the 1970s has lasted even a few years as a durable influence on later jazz musicians? Today’s musicians have studied a few musicians who were active between 1957 and 1965 and, basically, one another. The music that was fashionable in the critic-endorsed mainstream in 1985 or 1995 or 2005 is not fashionable now, so there is no reason to expect today’s critic-endorsed mainstream to have any impact on music a dozen years hence. The paradox of jazz used to be that a music designed to be disposable, built on improvisations that vanish as they’re played, could wind up sounding across the ages. Now it’s just disposable.
It would be fair to ask whom I blame and what I think should be done. But I don’t blame anyone and I’m pretty sure nothing can be done. For 80 years jazz was more or less everywhere, an ornament to the broader culture, a wry comment on it. Now it’s an exchange of in-group codes, a secret handshake. It gives its practitioners great joy, as Esperanto and planking do. It will keep doing so indefinitely. Every year a few critics will gather to note that it isn’t dead. Look! A new tradition.