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Opinion/Editorial

Death, Rebirth & New Revolution

By Published: February 20, 2013
Getting Messy

Whyton is representative of another of the more significant changes to take place in jazz in the last few decades, and that is the new wave of jazz scholarship that has grown since the 1990s. There's increasing debate among jazz scholars about the music (perhaps because there are increasing numbers of jazz scholars) but such debate is surely healthy. John Gennari, author of Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics (University of Chicago Press, 2006), wrote: "The questions and issues that have risen in jazz criticism over the last twenty years—on matters of race, culture, aesthetics, history and power—are knotty and difficult...jazz and its history are full of dislocations, heresy, iconoclasm, and stupendous feats of imagination. Jazz criticism should be no less gloriously messy."

It's certainly messy out there, and as the question "What Is Jazz?" sounds with ever-increasing frequency, like angry car horns in a traffic jam, prompting gnashing of teeth, academic studies and numerous panel discussions at jazz festivals around the world, it's worth remembering that, once again, there is nothing new under the sun; back in the 1940s, jazz critics argued violently over what jazz was as swing gave way to bebop. The difficulty in attempting to define jazz is that jazz means many things to many people.

In a 2010 interview I conducted with Russ Gershon
Russ Gershon
Russ Gershon
b.1959
sax, tenor
, saxophonist and leader of Either/Orchestra, he said on the subject: "The conclusion that I've come to is that jazz is a method of playing music. In the end, it's not even a sound or a style or particular set of musical materials. The swing feel is definitely a product of jazz, although there's lots of pop music that swings; The Beatles
The Beatles
The Beatles

band/orchestra
had swing songs, and the Beach Boys had a lot of swing. There's plenty of stuff that swings that isn't exactly jazz. Almost any particular musical element that you could name to define jazz can also be found outside of jazz. It's more an approach of what you can do with musical elements. There's the improvisational approach, of course, although there's improvisation in other music, too. Almost every music outside of European concert music has some degree of improvisation."

Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava
Enrico Rava
Enrico Rava
b.1943
trumpet
defined jazz in more poetic terms, in an interview I did with him in January 2012: "To me, jazz is the sound of this last century until now. It is the sound of the world. It is the score of Western history."

The score of Western history; it has a nice ring to it. Jazz however, knows no boundaries, and is slowly but surely spreading to the East, and Asia. Excluding Japan, which has enjoyed a long and vibrant association with and appreciation of jazz, the rest of Asia has, by comparison, merely flirted with jazz, both in terms of producing jazz musicians and bands and in terms of receiving touring jazz musicians from abroad.

Asia: The New Frontier

However, the last decade has seen a significant shift in this regard. Jazz festivals are popping up everywhere it seems; in the last decade five jazz festivals have sprung up in Thailand where before there were none. In Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, four jazz festivals have started up; in Indonesia, the number of jazz festivals has shot up from one (dating back almost 30 years) to an estimated forty in 2012, including Java Jazz, which draws crowds of over 100,000 Indonesians.

South Korea has the Jarasum International Jazz Festival, which in 2012 drew 200,000 people in two days. The Hong Kong International Jazz Festival keeps reinventing itself, and in mainland China there are jazz festivals in Beijing, Tianjing, Guangzhou, Changsha, Zhuhai and Shenzen. Jazz festivals have also sprung up in recent years in the Philippines, India, Nepal, Taipei, Mongolia, Azerbaijan and Russia.

The growth in interest in jazz in Asia, perhaps merely reflects a broader shift in the international balance. In his book The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia's Quest for Wealth (HarperCollins, 2009), Michael Schuman writes, "In little more than a generation, Asia has emerged from centuries of stagnation to become the rising force of the global economy—a transformation so spectacular that some have called it a miracle."

Given the sheer number of people (over 4 billion), the booming economies and important social changes, it is not so farfetched when Agus Setiawan, of Wartajazz.com, declares; "The next big thing for jazz is Asia." Wartajazz is Indonesia's most important jazz advocacy organization and Setiawan knows better than most how the appetite for jazz is growing in Indonesia.

The story of WartaJazz.com is an inspiring one, for in it lies the truth that jazz is a living, evolving entity. Wartajazz.com began life as monthly printed jazz magazine started by two jazz fans in 1996. When Setiawan joined soon after, he suggested they take it to the next stage by publishing the magazine online, though this didn't happen until 2000. "For the first while, the site was only accessed by five people, which was obviously us three, and two other people," Setiawan told me in an interview in 2010. Ten years later the site receives 60,000 visits per month.

Since then, Wartajazz.com has staged jazz concerts, set up a jazz radio station, produced CDs of Indonesian jazz artists, made a documentary film, promoted tours of American jazz artists in Indonesia and vice versa, provided web design for other jazz festivals and produced an extensive range of high-quality merchandise. Wartajazz.com receives CDs from all over the world for review and has a library approaching 20,000 CDs, which Setiawan would like to share with the Indonesian public. Wartajazz.com is one of the great success stories of jazz in Asia and a model for others to follow.

In 2010 I attended Jazz Gunung —a young festival which Wartajazz.com has helped develop and promote—on East Java. It was easily the most spectacular setting for any jazz festival I have ever attended, situated among the clouds in the midst of volcanic mountains. Jazz Gunung started as a small, one-day festival, but there were two bands that day that really caught my eye, fusing jazz and Indonesian gamelan, Batuan Ethnic Fusion and guitarist Balawan.


I experienced a sensation something akin to seeing Bill Bruford's Earthworks in London in the late '80s. This, I thought, is the way forward for jazz in Asia—an Asian sound, an Asian identity. What's the point in just copying American bebop, a movement, incidentally, that had already begun to go out of style in America before the end of the 1940s?

I have come across several other Asian bands that have made a large impression on me: Taiwan's Sizhukong
Sizhukong
Sizhukong

band/orchestra
, which fuses Chinese traditional music and instrumentation with a jazz/world aesthetic; Indonesia's simakDialog, which fuses gamelan with Miles Davis-influenced electro-jazz; and Hong Kong's Siu2
Siu2
Siu2

band/orchestra
, an exciting band that fuses Chinese and western instruments to create a very vibrant, urban sound. All these bands (and there are surely more like them) are fine examples of the possibilities of jazz in Asia—mindful of tradition, Asian tradition that is, yet utterly contemporary and forward-looking.

I've been lucky to have experienced a little of this growth of jazz in Asia, having covered jazz festivals and concerts in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Borneo, Korea, Indonesia, Hong Kong and now China. I feel, however, that I have only scratched the surface. I've surely only heard a fraction of the innovative bands that are currently making music. Nevertheless, the quality of the music that I have seen—from Penang to Hanoi, from Borneo to Hong Kong, and from Bangkok to Seoul—and the enthusiasm of the audiences leaves me in no doubt that jazz has a bright future in Asia.

Significantly, American and European jazz musicians are very keen to tour Asia. It's a combination of two things; firstly, the poor economic environment that makes touring difficult in both America and Europe, and secondly, the hugely positive experience that Western jazz musicians have when they tour Asia. More and more Western jazz musicians are touring in China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea and Thailand, and I am frequently asked by musicians: "How can I get into Asia?' There's no doubt in my mind that there is the potential for a major tour trail to develop throughout Asia within the next decade.

For the time being at least, Asia is most likely to remain an importer rather than an exporter of jazz, though there is always hope, as Taiwanese band Sizhukong's tour of Canada in June 2012 demonstrates.


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