America's Been Tough On Jazz

Eric Pettine By

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In America, he's his own man—he's got to be—no corporation seeks him out or needs him. Her attitude and attire doesn't always "cut it" with the latest vogue. He doesn't really have a particular deadline or agenda to meet. She's "got her ax down" and she's ready to carve out her own market share. He's got to lay it down and play it down with nary a flaw to be detected by friend or foe. She has no company vacation or sick time accrued for all her endless hours of practice and past performances. Any "down time" is usually spent in preparation for that next great gig in the sky. Right now they may not be as "happenin'" as the new rage rappers, but these jazz cats will always be just as hip. Maybe the problem is that jazz music, by and large, is just too hip for America or maybe America's never been hip enough to "get it."

The "language" of jazz especially became more difficult for most people to follow or comprehend after the "Classic/Traditional" Jazz Era (1920s-1940s). From the mid-1950s throughout the 1960s, jazz music experienced greater freedom in its written and improvisational forms. To their credit, many jazz musicians of this era were composing and performing music that was more personal and spiritual with less concern for economic success—basically jazz for jazz' sake. However, in his quest for greater musical expression and exploration by extending the complexity of the "language" (complex/"altered" chords and voicings, greater usage of modal scales and melodies, and perilous adventures into atonality) of jazz music at this point in time, the jazz musician may have made the jazz "language" more difficult to communicate.

Although the average jazz listener doesn't have to theoretically comprehend harmonic extensions/complex chordal voicings or modal melodies to enjoy jazz music, he/she usually unconsciously, savors those sounds that are so prevalent throughout the "language" of jazz. The jazz "language/sound" even found it's way into the best of mainstream contemporary music (Beatles (with a little help from their friend George Martin), Beach Boys [Brian Wilson], Burt Bacharach, Steely Dan, et al) last century. However, with today's modern "pop" music being so "dumbed-down" and so devoid of those jazzy chords/voicings and modalities—in any/most current popular music genres—society's collective musical "ears" have either forgotten or never experienced the "jazz sound." Record and radio companies who focused/focus on "formula as finance" should perhaps bear the greatest amount of guilt for this.

The American Jazz Critic.

To an already suffering jazz world, the American jazz critic has and perhaps more than ever (given the multitude of media resources available to him/her) can malign and sideline the aspiring jazz artist.

NEA (National Education Association) jazz award recipient and saxophone great Jimmy Heath reflects, "In the (19)50s, everybody went to go hear everybody all the time. Now audiences may not come out if if the people read that the author doesn't like the music." Often times jazz (as well as in other areas of music) critics either can't state or avoid specifically stating what it is musically that offends them. More than a few jazz reviews have been literary lessons in superciliousness. In Walter Kolosky's article at All About Jazz, "The New Obligation Of The Jazz Critic," he feels that "Jazz critics are supposed to like Jazz. Yet some of the most pseudo-intellectual and vitriolic music reviews in print are turned in by jazz writers." Perhaps more than a few jazz critics should take the view that if they can't find or say anything good about a particular jazz performer, they should consider writing about some other jazz musician of interest to them. However, an exception can/should be made for one who is critically acclaimed and who has already proven his/her capabilities. If the established artist's work plunges into a pool of pablum he/she should rightly be panned.

America's Racial Overtones Affected Jazz.

Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley asserts that "Jazz would simply not exist without black Americans and the circumstances in which they live. Those circumstances were shaped by slavery, segregation and discrimination, the defining experiences of black America." Over forty years ago Ornette Coleman observed, "White people tend to see me as a Negro first, then as a human being. That creates a barrier." Not so arguably the best of jazz music has been created by black Americans. A vast majority of white America has never been, and to this day, is not fully supportive of this music. However, jazz musicians themselves, have done much to make strong interracial connections. Ben Ratliff, one of ten authors from the book entitled The Future Of Jazz, muses in his essay entitled "Black and White and Turning Gray" that "there is no popular music so well miscegenated as jazz." Possibly one potent reason for jazz' perennial lack of prevalent acceptance in America is rooted in the fact that it has been predominately music by and about an oppressed people largely ostracized for many years by mainstream society.

America's "Idol" Business.

Only in America, it seems, would we have a hit TV show entitled "American Idol." Maybe it's asking too much for a series called American Talent which could showcase the vocally and instrumentally gifted performing original (jazz or other stylistic) compositions rather than feature a plethora of karaoke king and queen wannabes. In Jon Bonne's article from MSNBC.com entitled "The Downside of 'Idol,' he claims,"'Idol,' is desperate to maintain its stage smile and jazz hands. It vainly sticks its chin up and never let's us see it sweat. It is the culmination of decades of bland, cynical corporate entertainment." The show, for the most part, largely features music and artists that lack risk-taking, adventure or a difference—the essentials in making great jazz or any kind of music for that matter. If idol equals image and image equals icon (in the most pejorative sense of the word) as it does so prevalently throughout the US, the fate of the jazzman in this country is in serious trouble. We know that Miles made various funky fashion statements throughout his career, Dizzy had the coolest looking chops around, and Coltrane was Cosmic, but, in the end it was what came from their horns, heads and hearts that will be remembered miles beyond.

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It's been said that America's been great at inventing and reinventing itself and from a technological standpoint who can argue? We are the models of mass-materialism and the masters of massiveness. Jazz is an American invention that has stood the test of time and like other popular American inventions namely baseball, football and basketball, it should be held in high esteem and perpetually and popularly celebrated. Author Burton W. Peretti in his book entitled, Jazz In American Culture expresses concern about America's respect for jazz music as he states that "Jazz itself has been proclaimed as one of our "national treasures," but if one considers record sales and the amount of true prestige it secures in our nation's music departments, American's collective commitment to this proclaimed status remains suspect." Maybe not so ironically jazz is and has been lauded consistently in a very big way in Europe (especially in Italy, Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and France) where the people have always cultivated culture. Saxophonist Dave Liebman in his article entitled "Europe—Its Role In Jazz" says that George Wein (founder of the Newport and JVC Jazz Festivals) once told him: "If it weren't for Europe, there would be no jazz!" America's a tough crowd indeed.

Jazz Education In America.

Jazz education in America, however, has been growing consistently strong especially after World War II where many enlisted service musicians on the G.I. Bill could receive higher education. From the 1940s up to the present time, institutions such as the Berklee School of Music, University of Miami, and North Texas State, were and still are, perhaps the most prominent and dominant forces in providing a greater opportunity for the theoretical (compositional and arranging) and instrumental (improvisational and jazz big band/combo) study of jazz music. The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz's "Jazz Resource Library" section at their online website informs us that the NAJE's (National Association of Jazz Education) initial membership of less than 100 in 1968, has evolved to over 8,000 members in over 31 countries in its current status as the IAJE (International Association of Jazz Education). The website also proudly asserts that there are currently more than 120 bona fide jazz programs in American colleges and universities where students can major in jazz studies. Most middle and high schools throughout the country have established successful jazz ensemble programs.

The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz has piloted its "Jazz in America: The National Jazz Curriculum" which is an internet-based curriculum that is free of charge throughout America and is available to public school students from 5th through 11th grades. The curriculum also includes free lesson plans that can be integrated with any American History or social studies courses emphasizing its place in the great culture and democratic freedoms of this country. It is important to note here that these lesson plans can be easily implemented by the regular classroom Social Studies/American History teacher having a limited or no musical background. This has provided and hopefully will continue to provide a rich resource for both the general music and performance-based (instrumental and choral) music teachers by which they can introduce their students to and explore the monumental contributions of America's great jazz composers and performers.

Jazz' Performing/Educational Future In America.

Jazz is no longer solely America's music. Mike Zwerin, noted jazz critic and author states that, "the future of the music (jazz) is growing out more than up... it is getting everywhere. There appear to be no more Coltranes on the horizon... on the other hand you can now go to just about any city in the developed world and hear a world-class rhythm section." It is seemingly just as important for jazz music in order to keep evolving rather than devolving to continue experimenting and challenging the established forms—not be content to "snooze to 'smooth' (jazz)." Jazz guitar great, Jim Hall, optimistically notes about the future of jazz when asked by author Nat Hentoff, "How can it be (moribund)? The spirit of this music ain't going to die unless the world blows up." Howard Mandel, author of the book Future Jazz echoes Hall's sentiments in an interview from Jazz Weekly, "People want to devote themselves to it because they believe in the culture itself. They believe in its standards and they like the music. I don't see it going away."

While jazz education seems to be thriving and well established throughout America's public and private institutions, it too, like the art form itself—must be on the move—never allowing itself to become complacent. Charlie Beale, professor of Jazz Piano at the Royal College of Music and Lead Jazz Consultant for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in his article entitled "Jazz Education: Past and Future" for the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) concurs with the above statement, "learners of jazz need to study in an environment where the several musical languages are given their due, but equally where a future jazz can grow and flourish, whatever its direction." It will take, as it has since its inception, individuals, both in the performing and educational industries, who are willing to be bold, different and original. Duke Ellington said years ago that "everybody who's had anything to say in this (jazz) music—all the way back—has been an individualist." That statement is as valid and meaningful today as it ever was and always will be in the world of jazz.

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