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Book Reviews

Is Jazz Dead? Or Is It Just Pining for the Fjords?

By Published: October 5, 2012
Tune In, Turn On and Sell Out

Moreover, Nicholson's historical account of the use of electronics, sampling or DJs since the 1990s is partial at best. He does attempt to provide some historical and even theoretical background to such developments, referring to post-production work on Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
' 1960s albums and early use of overdubbing in jazz, as well as the work of John Cage
John Cage
John Cage
1912 - 1992
composer/conductor
and Paul Schaeffer. He also notes the use of "found sounds" and musique concrete, giving Mike Westbrook
Mike Westbrook
Mike Westbrook
b.1936
composer/conductor
's Marching Song (Deram, 1969) as an example. In fact, such approaches had been far more widespread than he appears to be aware. In contemporary classical music, Edgar Varèse, Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen (whom Nicholson does mention) were all experimenting with electronics in the early fifties. Jazz critic and composer Andre Hodeir
Andre Hodeir
b.1921
was one of the first, in 1952, to utilize such an approach with his composition "Jazz et Jazz." Teddy Charles
Teddy Charles
Teddy Charles
1928 - 2012
vibraphone
' recording of George Russell's "Lydian M-1" in 1956 is a further example, with John Benson Brooks' Avant Slant (Decca, 1968) sound collage another. Russell also experimented extensively with studio technology whilst living in Scandinavia in the mid- to late-'60s, the result of which can be heard in the "pan-stylistic" prerecorded tape used on Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature, on both its big band (Flying Dutchman , 1971) and sextet (Soul Note, 1968) versions. And Charlie Haden and Carla Bley, of course, interspersed found sounds and older recordings within the music of Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse!, 1970) as a whole to radical effect.

More importantly for the history of the use of electronics in jazz, such techniques began to feature in European free jazz and free improvisation from the mid-sixties onwards. AMM was one of the first groups to use a variety of such media in live and studio recordings, and proved an important influence on Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd
b.1964
band/orchestra
. Drummer, Tony Oxley
Tony Oxley
b.1938
drums
was another early experimenter and the Howard Riley
Howard Riley
Howard Riley
b.1943
piano
Trio, of which Oxley was a part, used such sounds on Flight (Turtle, 1971) and Synopsis (Incus, 1974). Violinist Philipp Wachsmann was using electronics as early as 1969 and Paul Rutherford
Paul Rutherford
Paul Rutherford
b.1940
trombone
's Iskra 1903 also pursued similar experiments in sound. John Surman
John Surman
John Surman
b.1944
saxophone
also made full use of the possibilities of studio technology on Westering Home (Island, 1972) and pioneered the use of synthesizers in jazz both in his own right and as part of saxophone trio S.O.S. Listen, as well, to Surman's work on Barre Phillips
Barre Phillips
Barre Phillips
b.1934
bass
's Mountainscapes (ECM), a magnificent record that uses technology in highly creative ways made not in nineties but in 1976.

We need to ask the question why it has taken jazz musicians on a broader level so long to pick up on these ideas, in effect only beginning to do so some twenty or thirty years later? A creeping conservatism in jazz, and wider culture, might offer an explanation at one level of analysis but as a cultural phenomenon it still needs to be explained. That requires examination of both the nature of capitalism as it functions within this area of commerce and shifts within ideology. Here, Gramsci's notion of ideological hegemony as a shifting equilibrium dependant on the relative balance of class forces offers a theoretical framework within which to examine cultural shifts. Even then, we need to do more than simply call its name. We need to explore how historical information can be understood using that framework as a guide. From this viewpoint, the key question is then, how did the shift from the cultural and political radicalism of the mid- to late-sixties into a narrowing cultural and political range of ideas and activities occur? Specifically, there does seem to be an issue here around the relationship between the avant-garde and the mainstream and their increased separation since the sixties. These are all questions that Is Jazz Dead? fails to ask, partly because the history it creates of the rise of conservatism, as well as of later stylistic changes, in jazz is incomplete and partly because its theoretical perspective is weak.

The Language of Jazz

Nicholson uses a number of different explanatory tools in Is Jazz Dead?. He deals well enough with the notion of tradition and its relationship to both innovation and conservatism. For Nicholson, "innovation" is not just about gimmickry, arbitrary use of other musical styles or presentation. He rightly sees this as a matter of artistic integrity that can involve instrumentation, how instruments sound, how their sound is modified, how composition and improvisation relate to each other and how different technologies and media can be used within the music. Other explanatory tools are, however, used more problematically—the two main ones being the notion of music as language and globalization. Music—like other non-verbal or non-literary forms of communication including mime, fine art and painting in particular, dance, clothing and fashion, cybernetics and architecture—have much in common with the structure and practice of spoken language. None of these, however, including music, can be simply conflated with the power of speech to convey complex ideas, let alone the subtleties of nuance that human beings engage with in relationships. In this area, Nicholson draws on correspondence with the sociolinguist Elizabeth Peterson, but gives no other academic support for his arguments. It is unclear from the text whether he views "language" and music as merely analogous or whether he is equating them. If the former, it remains the case that analogy is not proof of an argument but rather a mechanism for its elaboration. With regard to the equation of music and spoken language two examples should suffice to dismiss the argument in that form.

Firstly, music can carry significant amounts of information beyond that manifest in its structure, its deployment of notes, scales, timbre and tone. By contrast, spoken or written language can order a meal in a restaurant but can also convey the most complex ideas from the hard or social sciences or from musical or literary theory. Music, after all, may illustrate musical theory, but spoken language is needed to explain it. Secondly, music can convey much through its tones. But if I get up in the morning, say "Good morning, darling" to my partner and she misinterprets my tone of voice or I get my tone wrong, then we may both be in for a very bad day, indeed!

In order to understand music as a language, we also need to understand its differences from spoken language, if only to appreciate what it can and cannot do. By contrast, one of Nicholson's responses to the other explanatory tool he uses extensively, namely globalization, relies on the concept of music as language. The word "glocalization," his would-be contribution to the English language, is predicated on this assumption. Specifically, he uses that word to describe the way that language changes and takes on new words and gives new meanings to old words. The analogy here is obviously to local or regional dialects of language.

I noted earlier that Nicholson's approach is based on a somewhat hazy notion of Darwinism. His use of a quotation from Robert MacFarlane (p.21) and reference to Darwin (p.71), where he compares jazz to language, provide evidence for this point. Again, the issue of analogy or equivalence is raised. It suffices here to note that the application of Darwinian ideas to the social and cultural realms is fraught with difficulty. Natural selection is based on an understanding of species evolution and diversity in biology. The capacity for language in human beings may well have been selected for genetically and surely advanced human development. Beyond that, however, we need other social-psychological, cultural and political theories to explore changes in language and their cultural and social implications.


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