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Ted Gioia: The History of Jazz

By Published: January 3, 2005
Thoughts on Jazz

Jazz is back!

"Or so they say," as Irving Berlin might have added.

A reporter phoned me recently to ask for my comments about the resurgence of jazz. Resurgence? Not in my neighborhood. Nor, I would guess, in your's either. Here in California, jazz clubs deserve to be added to the endangered species list. Visitors to San Francisco nightclubs have a better chance of seeing a spotted owl or a California bald eagle hiding in the rafters, than of finding a major jazz artist playing an extended gig.

Of course, the reporter who called me wasn't actually a jazz fan. Outsiders can be easily misled because, after all, the jazz establishment is growing. If one judges the health of jazz on the basis of official pronouncements, grants, academic positions and hand-wringing statements about our "national treasure" - then the patient is alive and well. But I judge on the basis of the music itself, and my diagnosis calls for continued round-the-clock care.

I occasionally search the internet for jazz articles. What have I found this year? Over half of the articles have been obituaries (Torme, Carter, Kirkland, etc.) or pieces on the Ellington centennial. Don't get me wrong: Duke's birthday is certainly cause for celebration. Pour the libations, and start up the band! Alas, the smell of embalming fluid permeates the air during many of these Ellington tributes — and the pungent odor spoils the fun of the party for me.

What would Ellington think of all this? I think I can guess. I recall with pleasure an anecdote about an Ellington birthday party which took place towards the end of his life. Friends had meticulously gathered together various scores and manuscripts and had them put together in a series of leather bound volumes. The Works of Duke, so to speak. Ellington graciously thanked them for the gift - he was always deft with a compliment. But his deeper feelings were revealed later that night. When Duke went home, he simply left the books behind. He had already forgotten about them. After all, Ellington always worried about the next piece, not the last one.

Writers on jazz and lovers of the music need to be like Duke. Let us cherish the past, but not at the expense of the present or future. We too should be thinking about the next composition, the new guy in the band, tonight's concert, tomorrow's rehearsal.

And, also like Ellington, we need to "love them madly." Our music was created with passion. This same passion and love for the music must always permeate our efforts. It may seem like this hardly needs to be said. Yet it does. On the one hand, the jazz world has become too prim, too deferential, too musty. On the other extreme, we have a contingent who embrace jazz as a hip attitude, a way of posturing. I say: let our love for the music be the core value we espouse. Sometimes it may be tough love, at other times it will even be blind love, but the amorous strain must never be lost.

In short, let a thousand flowers blossom. We need to set an example for the next hundred years. And if we are vigilant enough in doing this, then jazz will truly be back.

~ Ted Gioia

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