Is Jazz Dead? Or Is It Just Pining for the Fjords?
Turning to Nicholson's use of history, two problematic areas within Is Jazz Dead? need to be discussed. First of all, there is Nicholson's account of the rise of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, his influence and the conservatism of American jazz. Secondly, his discussion of the use of electronics in jazz needs to be considered.
It is unclear how far Nicholson views Wynton Marsalis and the triumvirate he has formed with writers Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray as the main architects of the conservatism that he sees as having infected American jazz. He is most certainly concerned by the role played by Marsalis and others at Lincoln Center in skewing perceptions of what jazz is and is not. He is, however, more ambivalent when it comes to considering Marsalis' achievements in asserting "the equal status of African American people in the broader community." This he argues has had 'the highly laudable socio-cultural result of forcing the white American mainstream to confront and acknowledge black cultural achievement and excellence." (p.67)
While Nicholson does attempt to link what he sees as the cultural conservatism of Marsalis et al with the political conservatism of Reagan and Bush, he fails to analyze the processes involved or their political implications and consequences. On the one hand, he appears to suggest that the repositioning of jazz within American culture is a radically inspired move, setting this against an America where the right was in the ascendancy. On the other, he sees the way in which this has been achieved as having consequences for the music, which have stifled innovation and restricted opportunity for many US musicians. Yet, Marsalis-Murray-Crouch achieved their goal of moving jazz to the centre of American mainstream culture not merely by linking it with the high culture of classical music and dance. They did so by turning it into a commodity, both in its traditional economic and Marxian senses.
The link between Marsalis/Lincoln Center and Reagan's trickledown economics is actually gifted to Nicholson by one of his correspondents, Marty Khan (p.72-4), but he fails to make adequate use of it. The relationships between Marsalis et al, the jazz tradition and American jazz conservatism, programming at the Lincoln Center and corporate America seem remarkably clear. The Lincoln Center project is predicated on making jazz a safe and consumable commodity for corporate America, as CEOs and Not-for-Profits get to tick their essential-these-days diversity boxes. More than that, ideologically speaking, the imposition of a conveniently deceased jazz history, whose present is just a series of replays of that history, serves to remove any challenge that jazz might represent as a music of struggle, based upon a different set of cultural values from the bourgeois culture which has marginalized it. A case, perhaps, to quote George Orwell's Animal Farm, of "four legs good, two better!" The Marsalis project is not merely culturally conservative but is also politically conservative. It opens the door perhaps to middle-class African-Americans but excludes the rest. For all its radical clothing, it is really nothing more than a poor kind of apologetics but then as George Orwell noted in that same work, "all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others."
Nor is Nicholson's historical account of the rise of Marsalis' "Young Lions"-led conservative jazz culture in the USA and in New York, in particular, consistent or coherent. As the author himself points out, attempts to portray the trumpeter as the savior of "true" jazz from the false prophets of fusion and avant-gardism are undermined by the fact that, Before-Marsalis, the New York scene was, in practice, dominated by a straight-ahead, bebop-derived jazz. As well as calling into dispute Marsalis' claim to having restored the tradition, this would indicate that the trumpeter and his acolytes are not the cause of the alleged conservatism of American musicians, fans, record companies and promoters.
There may also be serious reservations whether or not American jazz was (or is) really that conservative, even if we accept that the mainstream New York jazz scene was dominated by bebop-style music and players. A variety of American artists can be identified whose work continually challenged mainstream expectations of fans, critics and promoters. These would include those such as George Russell, Ornette Coleman, Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor and Charlie Haden, who began their careers in the 1950s and '60s, as well as those like Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Julius Hemphill and Henry Threadgill, who came up in the '70s. Others emerged post-Anno-Marsalis, including Geri Allen, David Murray, Butch Morris, David S. Ware, William Parker, Don Byron, Tim Berne, Matthew Shipp, Dave Douglas, Bobby Previte, Myra Melford and Marilyn Crispell. And we have barely scratched the surface.
American jazz contains, and has contained, both conservative elements and those concerned to innovate both Before-Marsalis and post-Anno-Marsalis. On that basis, the problem must lie elsewhere. Nicholson might with good cause argue that it is the conservative cultural establishment of record companies, clubs, promoters, funding bodies and music media that are the issue. That is fine, but the author offers no clear idea why this situation arose in the first place.