The death knell has often been sounded for jazz and many would argue that the last revolution in jazz took place as the '60s handed the baton to the '70s, with the electronic-influenced jazz typified by trumpeter Miles Davis
' ground breaking albums In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) and Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970). Many believe that jazz has stagnated, or simply lost its way since then. On the other hand, there are those who believe that this era is the most exciting in jazz's 100-year history.
If jazz did die somewhere along the way, then it sure as hell seems to have been reborn and recast itself today. Jazz is living another revolution, a quiet but powerful revolution that is shaking up the music and its perception, its production, its marketing and its fan base as never before. However, this story, my story, begins 27 years ago in France.
. Walking around the grounds of the festival, my friend said, "Hey, look over there. Isn't that Ginger Baker?" We hurried over and I asked him to autograph my poster. He was absolutely pissed out of his mind and could barely stand upright. He graciously scribbled his autograph and we wished him a good gig, due to begin in about fifteen minutes.
Seated stage-front, the concert failed to start at its appointed time, and after a lengthy wait the Emcee apologized for the delay, citing "technical problems"which my friend and I took to mean that they couldn't find Ginger Baker, or Baker couldn't find the stageboth likely scenarios.
Eventually Baker turned up and the quartet played a fantastic jazz-rock set, touched of course, by the blues. It just so happened that former Cream guitarist Eric Clapton
was playing down the coast at Juan Les Pins two nights later, and after the concert I asked Bruce if there was any chance of a Cream Reunion."Eric hasn't invited us," he said. That particular reunion would have to wait another 20 years.
There was a ton of great music on show, but the real revelation for me was seeing headliner on one of the nights, Miles Davis. There was a huge, standing-room only crowd and an atmosphere more like that of a rock concert. There was a mystique about Davis, head bowed, slowly prowling the stage and seemingly indifferent to the audience. His stage presence was unlike any other performer I had ever seen before, or since. The music blew me away. In Davis' music I heard the links between jazz, pop, rock and the blues. I understood that everything was possible at once. There were no limits.
Not everyone was so in love with the music Miles Davis was making in the '80s, after returning from his five-year, self-imposed exile. Whilst Miles didn't care what anybody thought about his music he was plenty opinionated himself, saying that year in an interview with Nick Kent in Face magazine: "The past is dead. Jazz is dead. Finito! It's over and there ain't no point aping the shit." What did Davis mean, jazz is dead? Hang on a minute; I've just arrived at the party!
Compared to decades past, jazz seemed to have ground to something of a creative standstill in the '80s. Collective innovative movements in jazz seemed to have ended with jazz-fusion and the avant-garde experimenters of the '70s. Each decade of the 20th century had witnessed significant evolution in jazz. This evolution accelerated as jazz moved from swing to bebop, and schools such as cool, jazz-classical, hard-bop, electric jazz, jazz-rock, jazz-fusion and the massively popular smooth jazz of saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr.
led a neo-conservative revival, and Marsalis, for the most part, has stuck to his guns ever since. Perhaps it was this perceived creative stasis that prompted Davis' comment on the poor health of jazz. Maybe the trumpeter's death knell prompted Marsalis to mock certain established jazz artists for, as he put it, "wearing dresses and trying to act like rock stars," though this was possibly a back-handed swipe at Davis who, at a concert in 1984, told the young Marsalis rather bluntly to get off his stage, after Marsalis had wandered on in the hope of jamming.
However, there's nothing new under the sun, and even Miles in his most spangled outfit could never outshine pianist/bandleader Sun Ra
Miles continued to do his own thing right up to his death in 1991, and in his own way so has Marsalis. Both Marsalis and Davis will have inspired many newcomers to jazz to check out its illustrious past. I saw the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra perform in 1999 at the Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival, in the Basque region of Spain in a tribute to Duke Ellington
. The morning concert was a concert for children and the concert in the evening for adults. To see the joy of uninhibited dancing children and the vocally moved adultsboth inspired by Ellington's music in the centenary of his birthwas fantastic, and underlined the ongoing significance of jazz's weighty legacy.
Jazz in my native Northern Ireland in the 1980s was restricted to Sunday afternoon trad-jazz in hotels and clubs frequented by the elderly. Nobody wanted to come and play in Belfast. And little wonder; the Irish Republican Army, in its war for independence from Britain, had declared visiting bands to be legitimate targets, and consequently most stayed away. The closest thing to jazz I saw was a concert by Sting
In 1987 I moved from Northern Ireland to London, where I spent the next four years. I soon learned that there were exciting new things happening on the UK jazz scene. There was the irreverent, iconoclastic big band Loose Tubes
s' highly original band that fused electro and acoustic percussion, and which would forge a very distinctive path for the next twenty years, introducing talent such as Loose Tubes' Ballamy and Bates to a world-wide audience, and later saxophonist Tim Garland
And of course, there was Courtney Pine. Shortly after that concert in Nice, in the car park with Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Biréli Lagrène, Pine released his debut recording, Journey to the Urge Within (Verve, 1986), which reached 39 in the British pop charts, selling over 250,000 copies, an unprecedented commercial success for a British jazz album.
Around that time Pine was also a member of the all-black, hugely energetic British jazz group the Jazz Warriors
These three bands, more than any others, illustrated that British jazz could be brilliant and original without having an American accent. The UK jazz scene today is probably one of the most vibrant and original anywhere in the world, and the emergence of confident individual and collective voices in these last three decades has been very exciting to watch.
Meanwhile in America, at roughly the same time, the M-Base collective of saxophonists Steve Coleman
were also defying Miles Davis' mid-'80s pessimism regarding jazz, with their refreshing ideas on creative expression. Coleman, more than most of the M-Base musicians, has pursued a fiercely independent path, producing some of the most strikingly original music of the last 25 years.
M-Base, Loose Tubes, Earthworks and the Jazz Warriors were four highly distinct creative ensembles/collectives and proof that that jazz's history has never been strictly linear. Movements overlap, new developments have many well-springs, inspiration comes from myriad sources and the knock-on effects are impossible to calculate. Movements of jazz may have died or become antiquated, but there has always been renewal, and there are always individuals, many of them, who carry the music to new and exciting places.
Old Heroes, New Heroes
But even the newest, most exciting modern music draws its inspiration to some degree from the past. Pianist Esbjorn Svensson
, who died in a scuba diving accident in 2008, remains one of the most influential jazz musicians of the last twenty years, inspiring countless piano trios to evolve a modern European approach to the formula. Svensson was influenced in turn by Jan Johansson
, the Swedish jazz pianist active in the 1950s and '60s, and told me in an interview shortly before he died: "Jan Johansson is a very, very big influence."
Inevitably, Johansson himself was initially influenced by American jazz musicians, but he moved beyond that, recording jazz workings of old Swedish folk songs in 1963 and 1964. In a tiny country like Sweden, population 9.4 million, his album Jazz Pa Svenska (Megafon, 1964) has sold 400,000 copies. Apart from Svensson, Johansson has been a major influence on pianists Tord Gustavsen
. Perhaps this passing of so many of jazz's iconic figures has, ironically, had a liberating effect on young jazz musicians around the world.
The jazz greats will always be lionized, but there's a new generation of jazz greats to look up to; all over the world musicians and fans are inspired by the likes of saxophonists Steve Coleman, Joshua Redman
. Talk of jazz's so-called Golden Age appears nostalgic. In terms of jazz's world-wide appeal, the sheer numbers of incredible musicians to be found everywhere, and increasingly fertile adventures in cross-pollination, this is a surely a great age of music in which we are now living.
There may not be a significant new movement going on but there's arguably greater diversity and greater individualism than ever beforejazz is living a very quiet form of revolution, where anything goes.
Even 20+ years ago, "anything goes" seemed to be the motto of the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, described by Jazz Times in 1990 as the best jazz festival in the world. I made it to the NSJF in 1989 and it was easy to see why so many people held it in such high regard; 16 stages with over 200 acts over a period of three days and over 100,000 people in attendance. The numbers were one thing, but the sheer quality and diversity of the music was another.
The great thing about the festival was that it presented jazz in all its many forms, from traditional New Orleans to swing, bop, free-jazz, fusion, avant-garde and electronic jazz to blues, gospel, funk, soul, hip-hop, R&B, World Beat and Latin jazz. There was no discrimination; where else could you see Sun Ra and saxophonist Kenny G
Back then I was a poor student, and after buying tickets and making my way from London to Amsterdam and then The Hague I didn't have enough money for a hotel. So, I brought a sleeping bag and slept against a high fence giving onto a forest, and hidden by thick bushes and trees I camped down, just across the road from the festival site.
On the third morning of the festival I was awoken by saliva-drooling sniffer dogs, plain-clothes CIA agents in sunglasses, and Dutch Special Forces. They allowed me to dress and accompany them to their vehicles where they took a great interest in my passport with its issued-in-Belfast stamp. It turned out that my chosen spot to camp out was beside the fence of Dutch National Congress Building, where the then American President George Bush senior was visiting that same day.
Just five years after the IRA had attempted to assassinate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcherand given the fact that there have been 20 attempts to assassinate American Presidents over the yearsthe CIA weren't taking any chances with someone from Northern Ireland.
They asked me a string of questions, some more intelligent than others, but as a 22 year-old armed only with a second-hand copy of Miles Davis' A Tribute to Jack Johnson (Columbia, 1971), purchased at the festival, I thought I cut a poor figure of an assassin. I was asked to move on and choose my lodgings more carefully in future. I cannot be sure, but perhaps the perceived danger my presence posed for the President of the United States of America had something to do with the festival's subsequent relocation to Rotterdam.
I've kept a close eye each year on the NSJF's program ever since, and have seen there, the changes that are reflected widely in the programming of jazz festivals throughout the world. Though the North Sea Jazz Festival has always offered the most diverse program imaginable, in recent years the festival has opened its doors to more pop-flavored acts: Elvis Costello in '99, Gotan Project in '03, Jamiroquai in '06, Snoop Dogg in '07, Katie Melula in '10, Prince, Paul Simon
, Seal, Tom Jones in '11, and John Hiatt and Lenny Kravitz in '12.
This same trend can be seen in historic jazz festivals such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (where the jazz has almost been swamped by rock and pop acts), the Montreal Jazz Festival , and countless others to a greater or lesser degree. Why are more and more jazz festivals opting to include pop and rock acts? Goddamit!the purists sayhaven't they got their own festivals to go to?
The global economic recession, which really seems to be dragging on, has seen the arts in general take a big hit from government as well as private funding bodies. Many venues in Europe and America have closed and jazz festivals find themselves facing a reality which is sink or swim. By relaxing the programming and staging pop and rock acts, festivals bring in a larger, younger audience, and one that is going to be exposed to jazz music, possibly like myself at the Nice Jazz Festival in 1986, for the very first time. There are bound to be converts.
We shouldn't forget, however, that although we jazz fans tend to think that jazz is the center of the musical world, it's really niche music, and was only ever popular as dance music in a previous incarnation before World War Two. Most people have little or perhaps fleeting contact with jazz as background music in coffee shops, and many people raised on pop music have little patience to investigate it.
One man who went to some trouble to investigate the jazz credentials of European jazz festivals was Wynton Marsalis. Tony Whyton, manager of the Center for Jazz Studies UK, wrote in his eye-opening book, Jazz Icons: Heroes, Myths and the Jazz Tradition (Cambridge University press, 2010), how Marsalis discovered, on a fact-finding mission to European jazz festivals, that only two out of ten bands were actually jazz bands, with festival programmers declining to call their events "music festivals," according to Marsalis, while seeking the aesthetic elevation that jazz brings.
Marsalis' trip took place in the late 1980s, so what he would make of the Montreux Jazz Festival these days, with its 90% non-jazz bands is anybody's guess. How much dilution of jazz festivals is acceptable to jazz fans is the subject of increasing debate. At Live!Singapore, an arts industry conference in 2010 where I was a panelist discussing the future of jazz, fellow panelist, Singaporean pianist Jeremy Monteiro
a 35-year veteran of jazz festivals throughout the worldsaid: "I think a festival which has less actual jazz than other genres should call itself a music festival. There should be at least 60% jazz."
Many would agree with Monteiro, but if the other 40% like Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen or Snoop Dogg manage to bring the fans into jazz festivals in healthy numbers, thereby ensuring the survival of the festival, then such dilution, or diversification, seems like a wise move. Some people will stumble across the music by happy accident, perhaps chancing upon pianist Ahmad Jamal
In any case, a festival should be much more than just the music. Author Tony Whytonalso a panelist at Live!Singaporehad this to say: "At their best, festivals can act as catalysts for change. They can transform everyday spaces into magical worlds or encourage people to see their environment in a new way. Festivals have the ability to galvanize communities and contribute to a sense of civic pride."
Whyton also spoke of a jazz festival or indeed any music festival's ability to offer audiences a view of diverse cultures in a positive light, something which cannot be underestimated in the global context in times of rising waves of nationalism across the world and outright xenophobia.
"Jazz and world music programs," Whyton declared, "often have the potential to go beyond performance and provide the audience with a new and inspiring cultural experience."
Whyton is representative of another of the more significant changes to take place in jazz in the last few decades, and that is the new wave of jazz scholarship that has grown since the 1990s. There's increasing debate among jazz scholars about the music (perhaps because there are increasing numbers of jazz scholars) but such debate is surely healthy. John Gennari, author of Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics (University of Chicago Press, 2006), wrote: "The questions and issues that have risen in jazz criticism over the last twenty yearson matters of race, culture, aesthetics, history and powerare knotty and difficult...jazz and its history are full of dislocations, heresy, iconoclasm, and stupendous feats of imagination. Jazz criticism should be no less gloriously messy."
It's certainly messy out there, and as the question "What Is Jazz?" sounds with ever-increasing frequency, like angry car horns in a traffic jam, prompting gnashing of teeth, academic studies and numerous panel discussions at jazz festivals around the world, it's worth remembering that, once again, there is nothing new under the sun; back in the 1940s, jazz critics argued violently over what jazz was as swing gave way to bebop. The difficulty in attempting to define jazz is that jazz means many things to many people.
, saxophonist and leader of Either/Orchestra, he said on the subject: "The conclusion that I've come to is that jazz is a method of playing music. In the end, it's not even a sound or a style or particular set of musical materials. The swing feel is definitely a product of jazz, although there's lots of pop music that swings; The Beatles
had swing songs, and the Beach Boys had a lot of swing. There's plenty of stuff that swings that isn't exactly jazz. Almost any particular musical element that you could name to define jazz can also be found outside of jazz. It's more an approach of what you can do with musical elements. There's the improvisational approach, of course, although there's improvisation in other music, too. Almost every music outside of European concert music has some degree of improvisation."
defined jazz in more poetic terms, in an interview I did with him in January 2012: "To me, jazz is the sound of this last century until now. It is the sound of the world. It is the score of Western history."
The score of Western history; it has a nice ring to it. Jazz however, knows no boundaries, and is slowly but surely spreading to the East, and Asia. Excluding Japan, which has enjoyed a long and vibrant association with and appreciation of jazz, the rest of Asia has, by comparison, merely flirted with jazz, both in terms of producing jazz musicians and bands and in terms of receiving touring jazz musicians from abroad.
Asia: The New Frontier
However, the last decade has seen a significant shift in this regard. Jazz festivals are popping up everywhere it seems; in the last decade five jazz festivals have sprung up in Thailand where before there were none. In Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, four jazz festivals have started up; in Indonesia, the number of jazz festivals has shot up from one (dating back almost 30 years) to an estimated forty in 2012, including Java Jazz, which draws crowds of over 100,000 Indonesians.
South Korea has the Jarasum International Jazz Festival, which in 2012 drew 200,000 people in two days. The Hong Kong International Jazz Festival keeps reinventing itself, and in mainland China there are jazz festivals in Beijing, Tianjing, Guangzhou, Changsha, Zhuhai and Shenzen. Jazz festivals have also sprung up in recent years in the Philippines, India, Nepal, Taipei, Mongolia, Azerbaijan and Russia.
The growth in interest in jazz in Asia, perhaps merely reflects a broader shift in the international balance. In his book The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia's Quest for Wealth (HarperCollins, 2009), Michael Schuman writes, "In little more than a generation, Asia has emerged from centuries of stagnation to become the rising force of the global economya transformation so spectacular that some have called it a miracle."
Given the sheer number of people (over 4 billion), the booming economies and important social changes, it is not so farfetched when Agus Setiawan, of Wartajazz.com, declares; "The next big thing for jazz is Asia." Wartajazz is Indonesia's most important jazz advocacy organization and Setiawan knows better than most how the appetite for jazz is growing in Indonesia.
The story of WartaJazz.com is an inspiring one, for in it lies the truth that jazz is a living, evolving entity. Wartajazz.com began life as monthly printed jazz magazine started by two jazz fans in 1996. When Setiawan joined soon after, he suggested they take it to the next stage by publishing the magazine online, though this didn't happen until 2000. "For the first while, the site was only accessed by five people, which was obviously us three, and two other people," Setiawan told me in an interview in 2010. Ten years later the site receives 60,000 visits per month.
Since then, Wartajazz.com has staged jazz concerts, set up a jazz radio station, produced CDs of Indonesian jazz artists, made a documentary film, promoted tours of American jazz artists in Indonesia and vice versa, provided web design for other jazz festivals and produced an extensive range of high-quality merchandise. Wartajazz.com receives CDs from all over the world for review and has a library approaching 20,000 CDs, which Setiawan would like to share with the Indonesian public. Wartajazz.com is one of the great success stories of jazz in Asia and a model for others to follow.
In 2010 I attended Jazz Gunung a young festival which Wartajazz.com has helped develop and promoteon East Java. It was easily the most spectacular setting for any jazz festival I have ever attended, situated among the clouds in the midst of volcanic mountains. Jazz Gunung started as a small, one-day festival, but there were two bands that day that really caught my eye, fusing jazz and Indonesian gamelan, Batuan Ethnic Fusion and guitarist Balawan.
I experienced a sensation something akin to seeing Bill Bruford's Earthworks in London in the late '80s. This, I thought, is the way forward for jazz in Asiaan Asian sound, an Asian identity. What's the point in just copying American bebop, a movement, incidentally, that had already begun to go out of style in America before the end of the 1940s?
I have come across several other Asian bands that have made a large impression on me: Taiwan's Sizhukong
, an exciting band that fuses Chinese and western instruments to create a very vibrant, urban sound. All these bands (and there are surely more like them) are fine examples of the possibilities of jazz in Asiamindful of tradition, Asian tradition that is, yet utterly contemporary and forward-looking.
I've been lucky to have experienced a little of this growth of jazz in Asia, having covered jazz festivals and concerts in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Borneo, Korea, Indonesia, Hong Kong and now China. I feel, however, that I have only scratched the surface. I've surely only heard a fraction of the innovative bands that are currently making music. Nevertheless, the quality of the music that I have seenfrom Penang to Hanoi, from Borneo to Hong Kong, and from Bangkok to Seouland the enthusiasm of the audiences leaves me in no doubt that jazz has a bright future in Asia.
Significantly, American and European jazz musicians are very keen to tour Asia. It's a combination of two things; firstly, the poor economic environment that makes touring difficult in both America and Europe, and secondly, the hugely positive experience that Western jazz musicians have when they tour Asia. More and more Western jazz musicians are touring in China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea and Thailand, and I am frequently asked by musicians: "How can I get into Asia?' There's no doubt in my mind that there is the potential for a major tour trail to develop throughout Asia within the next decade.
For the time being at least, Asia is most likely to remain an importer rather than an exporter of jazz, though there is always hope, as Taiwanese band Sizhukong's tour of Canada in June 2012 demonstrates.
TouringA Sign of the Times
The challenges are greater still for Asian artists attempting to crack Europe or America in light of a growing trend among promoters to rebook artists as long as they have new projects to offer. Perhaps this is just a sign of the times, where attention spans are so short that the BBC offers a one-minute summary of the world news, where Twitter has replaced serious communication and where innovation in technology advances with dizzying speed.
In 2012, I interviewed French clarinetist Louis Sclavis
and he had this to say: "One thing which has changed a lot is the situation of musicians today, and this has a big consequence on the music. Fifteen, twenty years ago, when you had a project, you could play forty concerts throughout Europe with your band. You could play your music often. You could really play it and develop it. It was possible to go really deep into your music. Today, you have ten or twenty concerts maximum, sometimes fewer. So you cannot think about the music in the same way, and this has changed music a lot. You cannot develop your project as you could twenty years ago.
"My first group played together for twelve or thirteen years," said Sclavis, "these days, after three or four years it's over, and you are obliged to change because the promoters always ask you to bring something new every timenew musicians and new projects. I think it's more difficult for musicians these days to develop their own way."
, one of the most innovative musicians/composers today, agrees: "There are many festivals that only want to have a premiere of something. But the funny thing is that these people are always talking about bands and whenever the name Weather Report
comes up they all get glassy eyed. There were lineup changes but that was a band. I feel that nowadays, with the concept of having to come up with new stuff all the time, a band doesn't really have the chance to develop its personal sound anymore because you have to be a new project every time."
TechnologyTaking the Rough with the Smooth
Yet in spite of these challenges there must surely be reason for optimism, for the times that we live in offer opportunities to musicians as never before. At the Live! Singapore conference in 2010, Zarin Mehta, President and Executive Director of the New York Philharmonic spoke of "the most extraordinary means of propagating our art," and All About Jazz and its sister site, Jazz Near Youpotentially the greatest jazz listings site ever createdare examples of what Mehta was referring to. In the globally changing market, social networking and web-generated business are undoubtedly the greatest forces of the future and the way forward for many musicians to find a way into previously distant or inaccessible markets.
Since the 1980s we have also witnessed a revolution in the way jazz is recorded and marketed. The music has gone from being captured in the studio to being manufactured in the studio. These days almost anyone can produce a CD, and a dozen musicians can record their individual parts in a dozen different locations around the world and together produce a group performance.
However, technology has always been a double-edged sword. In the same interview with guitarist Alex Machacek he observed: "Sometimes I think music kind of loses its value because you can steal it and it's easy to steal. Everything that can be digitalized is basically up on the internet in no time. Sometimes I have email exchanges or blog exchanges where people confront me with the thought that music is free. Well, if it's free then I don't know how to make a living.
"There's an entire generation growing up really thinking that everything is for free," Machacek continued, "I would like to put the thought in people's heads that hey, it's not for free. The next argument is 'I'm just downloading it to see if I like it,' but how many people who already have the music on their iPod will really go and buy it? This is the reason that I have to work super low-budget so there's a chance that I can recoup; I'm not even talking about profit, I'm talking about covering my losses. I always say, 'well, if you're so into sharing why don't you share your girlfriend with me?' Or, 'I'm in town, let me use your car,' or whatever. But people say 'Oh, it's just music.'"
One of the great ironies of easy self-production and distribution is that whilst almost anybody can now produce a CD, and the number of independently produced CDs has soared in the last decade; the jazz industry cannot support and accommodate most of them. There are too many to listen to, too many to review, and not enough venues for musicians to play. And if that sounds defeatist, then I would like to share with you once again the words of Zarin Mehta, President and Executive Director of the New York Philharmonic, who struck a resonating chord with the audience at the Live! Singapore conference in 2010 when he said: "Great music will always find a foothold."
If the past century is anything to go by, then the jazz considered radical, avant-garde or controversial today will be mainstream practice 25 years from now. New technologies will further revolutionize music making, for good no doubt as well as for bad. And who knows? Perhaps Korean boy-bands will be playing at the North Sea Jazz Festival. What's sure is that people everywherefrom New York to Beijing, and from Paris to Bergenwill still be arguing over the health of jazz and from where the next revolution is coming.