“ I keep finding more people unreasonably eager to circumvent the word 'jazz', its associations and the entire history that it represents. ”
By Vijay Iyer
For me, this month brings an unusual confluence of several disparate projects and encounters. On March 6th, I celebrate the release of a new album, Still Life with Commentator, created in collaboration with poet/hiphop artist Mike Ladd and a stellar electroacoustic ensemble, which we will bring to UCLA on the 9th. Immediately afterward, I'm going to Germany and Austria for a week to take part in some rare performances of Roscoe Mitchell's nine-piece group, The Note Factory. The day after I return, I play piano in a night of duets at Merkin Hall with my longtime collaborator, saxophonist-composer Rudresh Mahanthappa, tabla player-producer Suphala and AACM pianist-composer Amina Claudine Myers. Following this, I join the American Composers Orchestra for several days for the premiere performances of my first orchestra piece, Interventions. I end the month by jumping into rehearsals with theater director Rachel Dickstein's company Ripe Time for a new work, Betrothed, which I am scoring.
I lay all this out neither to boast nor to advertise, but to demonstrate a simple truth: most of us on the jazz 'scene' actually inhabit multiple scenes, with varying relationships to what is called jazz. Yes, this particular month turns out to be abnormally intense for me in its variety of activities, but I don't think that its scope makes me a particularly unusual member of New York's musical landscape. Increasingly, I find that players who are nominally associated with jazz usually have aesthetics and affiliations that pull them into other areas of music and even other disciplines of the arts. This reality leads me to ask what "jazz still is, since musicians associated with jazz are responsible for endless creative manifestations that defy categorization.
Not long ago, I went through a phase when I was ready to jettison the term entirely. I'd heard none other than Abbey Lincoln remark, "A lot of musicians on the scene now think they're playing jazz. But there's no such thing, really. (cf. Fred Moten, In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003, Univ. of Minnesota Press), p. 22-23) I found myself entertaining that very possibility and said so in public. But after receiving some sharp feedback from certain individuals whom I hold in high regard, I began to realize what the stakes were and was led to rethink my rejection of the word.
Eventually I understood Ms. Lincoln's statement not as a dismissal, but as a strategic oppositional stance. Needless to say, there is a vast legacy of knowledge associated with jazz, which we in this community understand and cherish more than anyone else; and meanwhile, jazz history is entwined with American race politics, a fact that gets whitewashed in the music textbooks (as if there were "no such thing ), but is vividly conveyed through oral histories (see, eg, Art Taylor's Notes and Tones (1982/1993), Da Capo Press). Ms. Lincoln's utterance captures the tension at the heart of jazz' legacy.
I keep finding more people unreasonably eager to circumvent the word "jazz , its associations and the entire history that it represents. Young musicians with jazz-school pedigrees proudly label their work as punk, emo, soul, classical, experimental, electronica, funk, hiphop, shoegaze, screamoanything but jazz. Established venues, labels and publications grow resistant to the genre and refuse to touch it. Suddenly jazz starts to feel like a bad word. When and how did this music become something to get beyond, around or away from?
You could see it as a backlash against the decades-long pull of neotraditionalism and you wouldn't be half wrong. But you might also notice a fresh tinge of desperation in the sound of everyone running away and you'd still be right. To quote Bill Clinton's 1992 catch phrase: "It's the economy, stupid.
With the annual explosion of young, highly trained jazz graduates onto the streets of New York, the economic pressure continues to mount. It's hard to blame young musicians for distancing themselves from jazzit's a career move. In recent years, the most promising artists had little to aspire to besides peer validation. Meanwhile, mainstream jazz labels made safe, unchallenging choices for years and the music, its popularity, its relevance and ultimately its economics all suffered.
At the moment, this landscape is in a hopeful flux. The high-pressure, high-density situation is fomenting pockets of innovation, which are evident in today's renaissance of activity. I see new collaborations straddling disparate musical communities; surprising levels of virtuosity in technique, form, method and sound; self-sufficient creative musicians with their own successful record labels and their own followings; musicians forming collaborative ventures to cross-promote their work; and a greater number of active, productive musicians than anyone can remember ever existing.
But I also hear something missing.
I am generally unable to listen to music as "pure sound (I don't actually believe that this is possible). I listen instead for a certain narrativity in the music, a sense that it came to us from somewhere, along some interesting and perhaps arduous path - audible traces of an authentic life on earth.
Once, the split tone at the crest of Coltrane's solo on "Transition seemed to tell such a story; today that same technique is neatly tucked into every saxophonist's arsenal, signifying nothing in particular. Once, young musicians developed through apprenticeships, on-the-job training and an inner drive for originality, excellence and uniqueness at whatever cost. Today, virtuosity appears in abundance, but with little vestige of the life-or-death stakes that once animated this music.
I'm not very old, and I don't mean to fetishize true hardship, but I do remember when the scene felt different. Now that the scene is defined by music-school graduates, I feel nostalgic for the days when musical expertise was a hard-won trait. When I hear mastery without risk, I feel ripped off.
This is why, in my own work, I constantly seek out situations that take me outside of what I know as a musician. Whether it's an elaborate compositional technique or a specific collaborative situation, I'm interested in finding something not just different, but shocking. In my collaborations with Mr. Ladd or with Mr. Mitchell, I have been shaken to find that many of my musical values were simply irrelevant to the situation; I have been forced repeatedly to rethink my sense of what music is and what it is for.
And that's closest to what jazz is for me: an expressive and critical take on reality, at once tough and fragile, culturally and historically grounded yet perilously unstable, miraculously existing in the most unlikely circumstance and simply devastating in its effect on one's worldview. The kind of musical experience I crave is the kind that makes me wonder if I even know what music is.
So, while I still have the megaphone, I'd like to put the call out to my fellow musicians: let us all vow to put ourselves at maximum creative risk whenever possible. In this climate, what do we really have to lose? If the experience enables us to say something authentic or to be more fully present in the world, then it will have been worth itfor ourselves and for others who are listening.