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Uncertainty Principles

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I keep finding more people unreasonably eager to circumvent the word 'jazz', its associations and the entire history that it represents.
By Vijay Iyer

For me, this month brings an unusual confluence of several disparate projects and encounters. On March 6th, I celebrate the release of a new album, Still Life with Commentator, created in collaboration with poet/hiphop artist Mike Ladd and a stellar electroacoustic ensemble, which we will bring to UCLA on the 9th. Immediately afterward, I'm going to Germany and Austria for a week to take part in some rare performances of Roscoe Mitchell's nine-piece group, The Note Factory. The day after I return, I play piano in a night of duets at Merkin Hall with my longtime collaborator, saxophonist-composer Rudresh Mahanthappa, tabla player-producer Suphala and AACM pianist-composer Amina Claudine Myers. Following this, I join the American Composers Orchestra for several days for the premiere performances of my first orchestra piece, Interventions. I end the month by jumping into rehearsals with theater director Rachel Dickstein's company Ripe Time for a new work, Betrothed, which I am scoring.

I lay all this out neither to boast nor to advertise, but to demonstrate a simple truth: most of us on the jazz 'scene' actually inhabit multiple scenes, with varying relationships to what is called jazz. Yes, this particular month turns out to be abnormally intense for me in its variety of activities, but I don't think that its scope makes me a particularly unusual member of New York's musical landscape. Increasingly, I find that players who are nominally associated with jazz usually have aesthetics and affiliations that pull them into other areas of music and even other disciplines of the arts. This reality leads me to ask what "jazz still is, since musicians associated with jazz are responsible for endless creative manifestations that defy categorization.

Not long ago, I went through a phase when I was ready to jettison the term entirely. I'd heard none other than Abbey Lincoln remark, "A lot of musicians on the scene now think they're playing jazz. But there's no such thing, really. (cf. Fred Moten, In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003, Univ. of Minnesota Press), p. 22-23) I found myself entertaining that very possibility and said so in public. But after receiving some sharp feedback from certain individuals whom I hold in high regard, I began to realize what the stakes were and was led to rethink my rejection of the word.

Eventually I understood Ms. Lincoln's statement not as a dismissal, but as a strategic oppositional stance. Needless to say, there is a vast legacy of knowledge associated with jazz, which we in this community understand and cherish more than anyone else; and meanwhile, jazz history is entwined with American race politics, a fact that gets whitewashed in the music textbooks (as if there were "no such thing ), but is vividly conveyed through oral histories (see, eg, Art Taylor's Notes and Tones (1982/1993), Da Capo Press). Ms. Lincoln's utterance captures the tension at the heart of jazz' legacy.

I keep finding more people unreasonably eager to circumvent the word "jazz , its associations and the entire history that it represents. Young musicians with jazz-school pedigrees proudly label their work as punk, emo, soul, classical, experimental, electronica, funk, hiphop, shoegaze, screamo—anything but jazz. Established venues, labels and publications grow resistant to the genre and refuse to touch it. Suddenly jazz starts to feel like a bad word. When and how did this music become something to get beyond, around or away from?

You could see it as a backlash against the decades-long pull of neotraditionalism and you wouldn't be half wrong. But you might also notice a fresh tinge of desperation in the sound of everyone running away and you'd still be right. To quote Bill Clinton's 1992 catch phrase: "It's the economy, stupid.

With the annual explosion of young, highly trained jazz graduates onto the streets of New York, the economic pressure continues to mount. It's hard to blame young musicians for distancing themselves from jazz—it's a career move. In recent years, the most promising artists had little to aspire to besides peer validation. Meanwhile, mainstream jazz labels made safe, unchallenging choices for years and the music, its popularity, its relevance and ultimately its economics all suffered.

At the moment, this landscape is in a hopeful flux. The high-pressure, high-density situation is fomenting pockets of innovation, which are evident in today's renaissance of activity. I see new collaborations straddling disparate musical communities; surprising levels of virtuosity in technique, form, method and sound; self-sufficient creative musicians with their own successful record labels and their own followings; musicians forming collaborative ventures to cross-promote their work; and a greater number of active, productive musicians than anyone can remember ever existing.

But I also hear something missing.

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