Death, Rebirth & New Revolution
If jazz did die somewhere along the way, then it sure as hell seems to have been reborn and recast itself today. Jazz is living another revolution, a quiet but powerful revolution that is shaking up the music and its perception, its production, its marketing and its fan base as never before. However, this story, my story, begins 27 years ago in France.
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Miles Davis: Jazz is Dead
The Nice Jazz Festival of 1986 was my first real taste of jazz, though in truth I was drawn by guitarist/singer John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Mayall played in the old Roman amphitheater, still standing after 2000 years. Mayall is, coincidentally, still standing too, and at 78 is still touring and recording today.
Another major attraction for me of the 1986 Nice Jazz Festival was a four-piece band featuring bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker of Cream fame, playing in a car park with the then almost unknown British saxophonist Courtney Pine, and 19-year old French guitarist Bireli Lagrene, who had already toured with the great bassist Jaco Pastorius. Walking around the grounds of the festival, my friend said, "Hey, look over there. Isn't that Ginger Baker?" We hurried over and I asked him to autograph my poster. He was absolutely pissed out of his mind and could barely stand upright. He graciously scribbled his autograph and we wished him a good gig, due to begin in about fifteen minutes.
Seated stage-front, the concert failed to start at its appointed time, and after a lengthy wait the Emcee apologized for the delay, citing "technical problems"which my friend and I took to mean that they couldn't find Ginger Baker, or Baker couldn't find the stageboth likely scenarios.
Eventually Baker turned up and the quartet played a fantastic jazz-rock set, touched of course, by the blues. It just so happened that former Cream guitarist Eric Clapton was playing down the coast at Juan Les Pins two nights later, and after the concert I asked Bruce if there was any chance of a Cream Reunion."Eric hasn't invited us," he said. That particular reunion would have to wait another 20 years.
There was a ton of great music on show, but the real revelation for me was seeing headliner on one of the nights, Miles Davis. There was a huge, standing-room only crowd and an atmosphere more like that of a rock concert. There was a mystique about Davis, head bowed, slowly prowling the stage and seemingly indifferent to the audience. His stage presence was unlike any other performer I had ever seen before, or since. The music blew me away. In Davis' music I heard the links between jazz, pop, rock and the blues. I understood that everything was possible at once. There were no limits.
Compared to decades past, jazz seemed to have ground to something of a creative standstill in the '80s. Collective innovative movements in jazz seemed to have ended with jazz-fusion and the avant-garde experimenters of the '70s. Each decade of the 20th century had witnessed significant evolution in jazz. This evolution accelerated as jazz moved from swing to bebop, and schools such as cool, jazz-classical, hard-bop, electric jazz, jazz-rock, jazz-fusion and the massively popular smooth jazz of saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. and guitarist George Benson all heralded important new directions. By comparison then, the '80s seemed to be somewhat static. Where was the new school? The new movement?
The answer for some was to look to the past for inspiration. In the early-to-mid-'80s, the so-called Young Lions, fronted by the high-profile trumpeter Wynton Marsalis led a neo-conservative revival, and Marsalis, for the most part, has stuck to his guns ever since. Perhaps it was this perceived creative stasis that prompted Davis' comment on the poor health of jazz. Maybe the trumpeter's death knell prompted Marsalis to mock certain established jazz artists for, as he put it, "wearing dresses and trying to act like rock stars," though this was possibly a back-handed swipe at Davis who, at a concert in 1984, told the young Marsalis rather bluntly to get off his stage, after Marsalis had wandered on in the hope of jamming.
However, there's nothing new under the sun, and even Miles in his most spangled outfit could never outshine pianist/bandleader Sun Ra, who had been dressing up like that for decades.
Miles continued to do his own thing right up to his death in 1991, and in his own way so has Marsalis. Both Marsalis and Davis will have inspired many newcomers to jazz to check out its illustrious past. I saw the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra perform in 1999 at the Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival, in the Basque region of Spain in a tribute to Duke Ellington. The morning concert was a concert for children and the concert in the evening for adults. To see the joy of uninhibited dancing children and the vocally moved adultsboth inspired by Ellington's music in the centenary of his birthwas fantastic, and underlined the ongoing significance of jazz's weighty legacy.