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E. Taylor Atkins: Let's Call This... Our Jazz?

Ian Patterson By

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AAJ: You make the point in "Blue Nippon" that in Japan in the late twentieth century you could find fans of every genre of jazz imaginable. I think we can also see this in other countries such as the UK, Australia, even America, yet this phenomena is rarely mentioned in traditional jazz histories; is part of the difficulty in discussing jazz that there is no single jazz culture, but rather there are myriad forms of jazz co-existing at the same time?

ETA: I do think that makes it more difficult but not unpleasantly so [laughs]. I think it's wonderful that the old music survives and people continue to play it or try to do something different with it. I don't think there's any harm in that. Perhaps the majority of jazz fans tend to prefer one aspect of the music to another and that does make it difficult to define. In the end that's one of the reasons I come down on the side of thinking maybe we should be focusing our energies on other issues or talking about other things other than whether something qualifies as jazz or not.

AAJ: In your book Blue Nippon referring to the artistic community in Japan post-WWII under the occupation, which includes jazz, you write, and I quote: "its aesthetic was referential; its art was quite deliberately derivative and its customs contrived; its faith in its own creative powers was too often obscured by its infatuation with American examples." It struck me on reading this description how it mirrors not uncommon criticisms of jazz as played around the world by non-Americans, and yet how it could just as easily refer to the most conservative elements of jazz in America today; do you see it that way?

ETA: Yeah, and I think I actually make the point in the postlude of the book that it's very strange you want to criticize Japanese for imitating when the Marsalis moment was guilty of the same sin, if you will. Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch were a sort of Godsend for academic jazz studies because they gave us this great sort of cartoonish straw man that we could bounce our ideas off. They were such polarizing figures who took in some ways ridiculous stands that it became like shooting fish in a barrel.

It's not as big a deal anymore for a lot of reasons, one of them being because Marsalis is such an establishment figure now, which is not a bad thing because if I was going to name some people who I wanted to be in charge of a great cultural institution, then why not him? He seems like a decent person and I agree with his belief in artistic integrity, I just don't draw the lines in the same place he does.

One of the reasons it's not as big a deal anymore is not because he doesn't have any influence—I mean he's not a rebel anymore, he's part of the establishment, he sets the standard—but it's that a lot of people have just gotten over that whole business about keeping the tradition alive and they've gone on about their business making music however they want with less hand wringing about it.

AAJ: In Jazz Planet, Christopher G. Bakriges argues that the rejection of the so-called New Thing, or free-jazz in America was fundamental in nurturing the European equivalent; to what extent do you agree or disagree with his view?

ETA: I'm not sure I would say it's because of rejection but I do think that there was definitely a sense that among European musicians—and I don't want to get into any stereotyping here—they had to do something different and what they were going to do wasn't necessarily going to be based on African-American aesthetics or blues. Part of it would be drawing on the compositional heritage from European art music and another was abandoning any kind of composing whatsoever and go completely free.

It's a fair question whether that is jazz or not but I don't really care if it's jazz or not, it's whether it's good or bad and in improvised music that's going to vary from performance to performance. A great improviser might give a really good performance one day and a really bad performance the next day. It's the nature of the beast.

I'm aware that that free improvisation aesthetic has come to be the signature element of European jazz but I think when we look at it that way it homogenizes what is really a very much more diverse scene than that. The struggle that a lot of people have is whether to try to put that into the jazz tradition and incorporate it into the narrative. That's an academic issue which may be productive but it's not going to yield the kind of certainty that we would like. We're just going to have to be comfortable with the ambiguity [laughs], at some point.

AAJ: The whole history of jazz is full of paradox, irony and ambiguity; it goes with the territory, doesn't it?

ETA: It does, absolutely.



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