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Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense
Episode One: The Quiet Revolution
The Documentary Channel
April 20, 2009, 09:00-10:00PM
Many still look back at Ken Burns' Jazz (2001) as the documentary that could have beenor, even more importantly, the documentary that should have been. Its view of jazz as a static musical genre with clear and unmovable boundaries, despite being expertly made, almost entirely ignored the music as it evolved post-1960s. While featuring plenty of terrific footage, it was essentially antithetical to the spirit of the music.
The good news is that directors Michael Rivoira, Lars Larson and Peter J. Vogt, in conjunction with producers John W. Comerford, Theo Ianuly and B Dahlia have created a four-part television series, airing on The Documentary Channel starting weekly on April 20, 2009, that more closely articulates what the spirit of jazz truly is. Icons Among Us explores the many myths and misconceptions of a music that may be a marginalized genre based on CD sales, but is a life's work for a disproportionate number of artists, and draws surprisingly large crowds to what seems like an infinite number of festivals going on around the world, especially during the spring and summer seasons.
Episode One: The Quiet Revolution dispels the belief, held by some, that the lack of massively visible contemporary icons is somehow a reflection on the music and those who make it. The reality is that jazz in the 21st century has never been more alive, more vibrant. That few artists are achieving the legendary status of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker has nothing to do with being any less innovative; it has more to do with a number of other factors. More music is being released than ever before to compete for the attention of music fans. Released on a seemingly infinite number of independent labels with small budgets, rather than by large labels with the money to promote the music the way it deserves to be, it's not that albums as innovative as Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) aren't being released; it's just that there's so much music out there without extensive publicity that it's almost impossible for any album to rise to the top of the heap and stand out.
Equally, in many cases the music may not be moving forward in great leaps; instead, a multiplicity of artists are pushing the music forward, inch by inch, but the cumulative effect of what these musicians are doing ultimately becomes massive. Few albums or artists today have the ability to influence the music on a grand scale the way Davis, John Coltrane, Monk or Parker did, but together they create new paradigms that are just as significant.
The Quiet Revolution explores, through live footage and interviews from artists ranging from Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard to The Bad Plus, Bugge Wesseltoft and Bill Frisell. What comes through in this densely packed but clearly articulated and narratively focused 50-minute program is that jazz has never been a style with defined boundaries; instead, Dave Douglas, who has always been one to avoid categorization, says "I'm very careful not to use the term jazz too loosely, because then you open up the can of worms that is the argument of what jazz is and all of that, and I think that's a great argument to have. But in terms of the global vision of what music is and what's happening in the scene, it ultimately slows down the looking at all the different kinds of music that are proliferating."
Various artists try to tackle the fact that jazz has never had a strict definition, despite all attempts to do just that. Frisell says, "I just don't like it when the name of something has the effect of excluding something. If you say it's one thing then it can't be something else and that doesn't work for me. The words are always smaller than what it is you're trying to describe. And for me jazz is infinite. It's always been about some kind of mystery, part of the nature is that it changes." Avishai Cohen says, "So if it's jazz and it means that this artist and that one is connected to it then I'm honored to be a part of it. But if you wanna call it Johnny I don't mind, too; it doesn't matter, because...the feeling of the music, the magic, exists in a place that's before jazz or the blues, with all respect to the terms."
But in terms of articulating the idea that jazz is inclusive rather than exclusive, and is a living, breathing thing, it's Herbie Hancock who says it most succinctly: "The term jazz, in a sense perhaps, is its own worst enemy, but if we redefine what jazz is in a responsible and powerful way, then it won't be its own worst enemy, because how people will perceive it will change."