The death knell has often been sounded for jazz and many would argue that the last revolution in jazz took place as the '60s handed the baton to the '70s, with the electronic-influenced jazz typified by trumpeter Miles Davis
' ground breaking albums In a Silent Way
(Columbia, 1969) and Bitches Brew
(Columbia, 1970). Many believe that jazz has stagnated, or simply lost its way since then. On the other hand, there are those who believe that this
era is the most exciting in jazz's 100-year history.
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.Chapter Index Miles Davis: Jazz is DeadUK VibesOld Heroes, New HeroesAnything GoesGetting Messy Asia: The New Frontier TouringA Sign of the TimesTechnologyTaking the Rough with the Smooth 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.
Not everyone was so in love with the music Miles Davis was making in the '80s, after returning from his five-year, self-imposed exile. Whilst Miles didn't care what anybody thought about his music he was plenty opinionated himself, saying that year in an interview with Nick Kent in Face magazine: "The past is dead. Jazz
is dead. Finito! It's over and there ain't no point aping the shit." What did Davis mean, jazz is dead? Hang on a minute; I've just arrived at the party!
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. UK Vibes
Jazz in my native Northern Ireland in the 1980s was restricted to Sunday afternoon trad-jazz in hotels and clubs frequented by the elderly. Nobody wanted to come and play in Belfast. And little wonder; the Irish Republican Army, in its war for independence from Britain, had declared visiting bands to be legitimate targets, and consequently most stayed away. The closest thing to jazz I saw was a concert by Sting
in 1986, when his band included saxophonist Branford Marsalis
, drummer Omar Hakim
, keyboardist Kenny Kirkland
and bassist Darryl Jones
. It was good, but it wasn't enough.
In 1987 I moved from Northern Ireland to London, where I spent the next four years. I soon learned that there were exciting new things happening on the UK jazz scene. There was the irreverent, iconoclastic big band Loose Tubes
, which included multi-instrumentalist Django Bates
, saxophonists Iain Ballamy
, Julian Arguelles
and Mark Lockheart
and guitarist John Parricelli
an exciting new generation of British jazz musicians who played in their own language, without aping the American tradition.
There was Earthworks, drummer Bill Bruford
s' highly original band that fused electro and acoustic percussion, and which would forge a very distinctive path for the next twenty years, introducing talent such as Loose Tubes' Ballamy and Bates to a world-wide audience, and later saxophonist Tim Garland
and pianist Gwilym Simcock
And of course, there was Courtney Pine. Shortly after that concert in Nice, in the car park with Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Biréli Lagrène, Pine released his debut recording, Journey to the Urge Within
(Verve, 1986), which reached 39 in the British pop charts, selling over 250,000 copies, an unprecedented commercial success for a British jazz album.
Around that time Pine was also a member of the all-black, hugely energetic British jazz group the Jazz Warriors
. This band launched the careers of black musicians such as saxophonists Steve Williamson
, double bassist Gary Crosby
, pianist Julian Joseph
, trombonist Dennis Rollins
and drummer Mark Mondesir
These three bands, more than any others, illustrated that British jazz could be brilliant and original without having an American accent. The UK jazz scene today is probably one of the most vibrant and original anywhere in the world, and the emergence of confident individual and collective voices in these last three decades has been very exciting to watch.
Meanwhile in America, at roughly the same time, the M-Base collective of saxophonists Steve Coleman
and Greg Osby
, pianist Geri Allen
, singer Cassandra Wilson
and trumpeter Graham Haynes
were also defying Miles Davis' mid-'80s pessimism regarding jazz, with their refreshing ideas on creative expression. Coleman, more than most of the M-Base musicians, has pursued a fiercely independent path, producing some of the most strikingly original music of the last 25 years.
M-Base, Loose Tubes, Earthworks and the Jazz Warriors were four highly distinct creative ensembles/collectives and proof that that jazz's history has never been strictly linear. Movements overlap, new developments have many well-springs, inspiration comes from myriad sources and the knock-on effects are impossible to calculate. Movements
of jazz may have died or become antiquated, but there has always been renewal, and there are always individuals, many of them, who carry the music to new and exciting places.