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Music and the Creative Spirit

Ken Vandermark: The Passion and Ascension of a Brilliant Mind

By Published: April 28, 2009
In the twentieth century, jazz history was in this incredibly accelerated process of development but at the end of the '60s, something happened with that development. There was this very strong reaction against that development in the '80s and for the first time in jazz history, there was a really large-based neoconservative movement that was similar to the '50s, where there was a resurgence of interest in Dixieland music. With Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
b.1961
trumpet
and the crew surrounding him, there was a big neoconservative movement and that makes sense because there has to be a period of reassessment to make sense of these developments. The problem for me is that this neoconservative movement became so strict in its definitions of what was and what wasn't art.

It's like a box. If you look at a lot of the cultural institutions and the way that they are connected to politics, it would seem that there would be a real fight to convince the art status quo to be interested in challenging work. Whereas, the creativity that comes out right now is from a totally different place and actually has a lot more to say about being alive right now. There's going to be a fight in that status quo between the established artists and the way they believe things should be done. I think we are in a shift period where the stuff coming up now is going to be problematic for that status quo and that's connected to politics.

LP: Are jazz traditionalists having a difficult time accepting that a music form considered "American" now has more visible international and diverse aspects within it?

KV: You have a group of people that are connected to part of the past and that past is really important to them. They see influences coming in and altering their sense of tradition and that tradition gets lost and then it's gone. There's protectiveness to that, and just as the beboppers saw the influence of Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
and Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
, the pre-bebop players saw the influence of Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
and Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
. Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
is a perfect example of a guy that was completely cutting edge and then Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy
1928 - 1964
reeds
, and Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
came along and it's like, this is crap! Miles had broken through all these things just as they were breaking through them and at some point he began to recognize the correlation but not initially in the late '50s. It's protecting the work you've done because it has to remain valid. Is anybody going to care about the work that we did or is it just going to get thrown out with the next new thing that comes in? Lasting art is going to stand up to time. That doesn't change the fact there are musicians who understand and have devoted their entire life to working with certain methods. And as new methods come from outside the United States within jazz and start affecting the perception of what's important, innovative, and interesting—that's a threat to their livelihood.

There's defensiveness about outside influences and I think it makes a lot of sense. Art's going to do what it's going to do. If you look at the music historically, there have always been outside influences in jazz. Look at Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
's music. He was influenced in the '20s and '30s from people integrating into the United States in addition to the touring he did outside the United States. And Coltrane was influenced by music from the East. European composed music also had an impact on people who were dealing with composition. Charlie Parker was interested in Stravinsky and wanted to study with Varese. The music of Charlie Parker is 100 percent as valid as Varese but it indicates there is an interest in cross-pollination. It's always been part of improvised music coming out of the United States, and to say that now that's going to have to stop if the music is going to remain jazz, I don't see how that's going to happen.

It gets into this whole thing of defining what jazz is, which gets into some really complicated cultural issues that deal with race too. Because you cannot say that jazz in terms of its source, its innovations and influence, is separate from black American culture. It's completely developed and defined by that culture. If you look at jazz audiences today, they are not predominately black and that includes performing artists too. So if black Americans are not coming out to hear the music and especially if black American children are not coming out to hear the music, then it's not surprising they're not going to be interested in playing that music as an adult. So now what's going to happen to the music that we call jazz? That's a huge change and maybe it's a change for the worse, but you can't force through definition what jazz is.


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