What Is Jazz Now?
Back in February, All About Jazz Managing Editor John Kelman asked me to develop a column based on points I made in the comment section of the article BAM or JAZZ: Why It Matters. I still feel the same way, but trumpeter Nicholas Payton's statement that jazz died in 1959 made me think, and I've been thinking about it for seven months. Why 1959? I was 15 years old and going to Birdland on a regular basis. I saw everyone that was anyone play there and in other clubs, except for Charlie Parker, who had died in 1955.
In the late fifties, with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, pianist Cecil Taylor and others came free jazz. John Coltrane began playing out and using sound effects coming directly from his saxophone and, by the mid-sixties, Coltrane had become the forerunner in avant-garde jazz. Many of the club owners and critics hated the direction that Coltrane took, but he was the only artist in the history of jazz to make avant-garde popular for a short time. In the early sixties, spearheaded by saxophonist Stan Getz came the Bossa Nova, a fusion of jazz and Brazilian samba music.
With trumpeter Miles Davis' In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) the beginning of jazz-rock, aka electric rock or fusion, began; then in 1970, with Bitches Brew (Columbia), came an onslaught of jazz artists following in Davis' footsteps. The usage of electronicssuch as distortion, wah-wah pedals and synthesizerswere key elements in the forming of the newer groups. Then there was guitarist John McLaughlin's fusing of Indian music with modes and odd time signatures... and before all that there was pianist Dave Brubeck, playing jazz in odd time signatures.
So, again, I ask: Why 1959?
In the seventies, jazz lost most of its popularity and took a nose dive. Smooth jazz came along and it looked like jazz was destined to be a memory. Many jazz artists moved to Europe or scrounged around the USA trying to survive by playing anything from rock, weddings, blues and salsa gigs, and all of them did not pay very well and some players just gave up and got day gigs. Then in the eighties came trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and jazz popularity began to rise again. Skip to 2012 and we find that jazz of every genre is played everywhere around the world, but it hasn't gained the popularity or respect it had in the earlier years, at least in the USA. One reason why Payton pushed to rename his music BAM (Black American Music) was his desire to bring black audiences back to an art form their ancestors helped create. But it's not happening. There are many reasons for this besides the lack of music education in the public schools. Another reason may be because the younger black audiences were raised on soul, funk, rap and hip-hop, they have no idea what jazz is, and I blame that on their parents or even their grandparents, for letting go of a tradition they were raised on.
It is not the case in Spanish families. Go into any Spanish home and you will hear Salsa coming from the radio. Ask any teenager who Tito Puente was and they know.
Free jazz, now known as improvised music, has incorporated a slew of electronics in its presentation and you can hear distortion pedals used by some players in their straight-ahead playing too. Many new compositions are based solely on electronic sound effects. The only difference between these pieces and classical new music would be the rhythm section. Jazz still uses the basic drum set. I personally love jazz that comes from a historical point of view, whether it's bebop, modern or free jazz. When I say historical, I mean you can hear the music is coming from a harmonic sense with phrasing and rhythmic content, and a touch of blues and a sense of purpose (it tells a story) in the soloing. Haphazard playing, to me, is not music and whatever is being played, whether it's tonal or atonal, has to be honest and musical. I personally love the natural sounds of the instruments. Adding electrical sound effects and noise doesn't add to the music unless it is used in a purposeful way and still sometimes it doesn't make it. I know diehard jazz fans believe that "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." which is true if you are playing traditional jazz, but free or avant-garde jazz has its own kind of swing, and when you listen or are around it for awhile you can understand what that means.