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Book Review

Is Jazz Dead? Or Is It Just Pining for the Fjords?


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Is Jazz DeadIs Jazz Dead? (Or Has It Moved to a New Address?)

Stuart Nicholson

288 pages, softcover

ISBN: 978-0415975834



Stuart Nicholson's Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has It Moved To A New Address?) came out in 2005 and has proved a remarkably successful book for both author and his publisher. European publications like Norway's Jazznytt, Italy's Jazzit, Germany's Der Spiegel and London-based broadsheets The Independent and Observer all queued up to pour accolades upon it. Australian papers and magazines also seem to have been full of praise for Nicholson and his arguments. Even in America, given that the relative conservatism of its jazz scene is Nicholson's target, a number of writers and magazines, including Francis Davis, Ted Gioia and Jazz Times all seem to have been favorably impressed.

Clearly, the presence amongst Nicholson's admirers of critics like Gioia, Davis and The Independent on Sunday's Phil Johnson must give pause for thought. The Jazznytt review was particularly eulogistic, with its reviewer commenting on Nicholson's "solid knowledge and deep understanding" of the jazz tradition in the different countries he surveys, and on the clarity of his explanation of the concept of globalization, which underpins the book. Given that both his The Imperfect Art (Oxford University Press, 1994) and The History of Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1997) focus almost entirely on American jazz, the target of much of Nicholson's ire, Gioia is perhaps a more surprising convert. Yet he describes Nicholson as "may be the most perceptive critic writing about jazz today," and suggests that "he is charting an inspiring roadmap for its future."

Is Jazz Dead? has enhanced Nicholson's reputation as both an academic and as a social critic writing on jazz. He certainly writes well, covers a great deal of territory in his book and many of the issues he raises are ones that are important to jazz, whether in the land of its birth, in Europe or elsewhere in the music's now global home. Even those who suggest that much that Nicholson had to say was not new must acknowledge that he was the first to publish these arguments in book form. There are, nevertheless, issues of scholarship with Nicholson's book, as well questions regarding its usefulness as social critique. In particular, and contrary to the Jazznytt review and Ted Gioia's remarks quoted above, Nicholson's understanding and analysis of the phenomena that lie at the heart of his book need to reexamined.

Chapter Index

A Question of Quality

Three main issues arise from a detailed reading of Is Jazz Dead?. Firstly, there are those that concern basic, academic convention. Secondly, there are those that involve the historical account given within the book of those particular aspects of jazz history upon which Nicholson bases his argument. Thirdly, there are matters relating to the theoretical underpinnings of his arguments. The first of these can be dealt with quickly.

While Is Jazz Dead? does offer a detailed bibliography, few, if any, quotations are properly cited in the book and a similar issue applies with references to those authorities, on whom Nicholson calls to support his thesis. In some cases, with newspaper articles for example, by consulting the bibliography, the reader can guess where a quote might be found. In other cases, this is not possible and interviews and articles are referred to without reference. There are, in fact, 16 such examples in the first chapter alone.

Such matters are not mere conventions but involve what might be termed "quality control." By "citing it right," the author allows their work to be checked and their use of material to be examined to establish whether they have quoted accurately and in context, or whether they have taken the speaker's words out of their intended context of meaning. Even where it is possible to identify a source, no page numbers are given in Is Jazz Dead?, and this becomes more important where the author is citing authorities. As one case in point, Nicholson quotes anthropologist Robert McFarlane in support of the argument that complex societies have an almost in-built tendency to conservatism in social, political and cultural life (Nicholson p.21). The book in question has 324 pages. It should not be that hard for a reader to check a citation. Other examples include references to Sardinian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (times two), F.R. Leavis, Darwin, the 15th century Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez, Alan Lomax and his father and to the Council of Trent. These are not mere comments in passing. Indeed, the reference to Darwin is telling because a "faux-evolutionist" or even "social-Darwinist" interpretation of the development of language, one of Nicholson's explanatory concepts, seems to lie at the heart of the analysis offered by Is Jazz Dead?.

The Resistible Rise of Wynton Marsalis

Turning to Nicholson's use of history, two problematic areas within Is Jazz Dead? need to be discussed. First of all, there is Nicholson's account of the rise of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, his influence and the conservatism of American jazz. Secondly, his discussion of the use of electronics in jazz needs to be considered.

It is unclear how far Nicholson views Wynton Marsalis and the triumvirate he has formed with writers Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray as the main architects of the conservatism that he sees as having infected American jazz. He is most certainly concerned by the role played by Marsalis and others at Lincoln Center in skewing perceptions of what jazz is and is not. He is, however, more ambivalent when it comes to considering Marsalis' achievements in asserting "the equal status of African American people in the broader community." This he argues has had 'the highly laudable socio-cultural result of forcing the white American mainstream to confront and acknowledge black cultural achievement and excellence." (p.67)

While Nicholson does attempt to link what he sees as the cultural conservatism of Marsalis et al with the political conservatism of Reagan and Bush, he fails to analyze the processes involved or their political implications and consequences. On the one hand, he appears to suggest that the repositioning of jazz within American culture is a radically inspired move, setting this against an America where the right was in the ascendancy. On the other, he sees the way in which this has been achieved as having consequences for the music, which have stifled innovation and restricted opportunity for many US musicians. Yet, Marsalis-Murray-Crouch achieved their goal of moving jazz to the centre of American mainstream culture not merely by linking it with the high culture of classical music and dance. They did so by turning it into a commodity, both in its traditional economic and Marxian senses.

The link between Marsalis/Lincoln Center and Reagan's trickledown economics is actually gifted to Nicholson by one of his correspondents, Marty Khan (p.72-4), but he fails to make adequate use of it. The relationships between Marsalis et al, the jazz tradition and American jazz conservatism, programming at the Lincoln Center and corporate America seem remarkably clear. The Lincoln Center project is predicated on making jazz a safe and consumable commodity for corporate America, as CEOs and Not-for-Profits get to tick their essential-these-days diversity boxes. More than that, ideologically speaking, the imposition of a conveniently deceased jazz history, whose present is just a series of replays of that history, serves to remove any challenge that jazz might represent as a music of struggle, based upon a different set of cultural values from the bourgeois culture which has marginalized it. A case, perhaps, to quote George Orwell's Animal Farm, of "four legs good, two better!" The Marsalis project is not merely culturally conservative but is also politically conservative. It opens the door perhaps to middle-class African-Americans but excludes the rest. For all its radical clothing, it is really nothing more than a poor kind of apologetics but then as George Orwell noted in that same work, "all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others."

Nor is Nicholson's historical account of the rise of Marsalis' "Young Lions"-led conservative jazz culture in the USA and in New York, in particular, consistent or coherent. As the author himself points out, attempts to portray the trumpeter as the savior of "true" jazz from the false prophets of fusion and avant-gardism are undermined by the fact that, Before-Marsalis, the New York scene was, in practice, dominated by a straight-ahead, bebop-derived jazz. As well as calling into dispute Marsalis' claim to having restored the tradition, this would indicate that the trumpeter and his acolytes are not the cause of the alleged conservatism of American musicians, fans, record companies and promoters.

There may also be serious reservations whether or not American jazz was (or is) really that conservative, even if we accept that the mainstream New York jazz scene was dominated by bebop-style music and players. A variety of American artists can be identified whose work continually challenged mainstream expectations of fans, critics and promoters. These would include those such as George Russell, Ornette Coleman, Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor and Charlie Haden, who began their careers in the 1950s and '60s, as well as those like Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Julius Hemphill and Henry Threadgill, who came up in the '70s. Others emerged post-Anno-Marsalis, including Geri Allen, David Murray, Butch Morris, David S. Ware, William Parker, Don Byron, Tim Berne, Matthew Shipp, Dave Douglas, Bobby Previte, Myra Melford and Marilyn Crispell. And we have barely scratched the surface.

American jazz contains, and has contained, both conservative elements and those concerned to innovate both Before-Marsalis and post-Anno-Marsalis. On that basis, the problem must lie elsewhere. Nicholson might with good cause argue that it is the conservative cultural establishment of record companies, clubs, promoters, funding bodies and music media that are the issue. That is fine, but the author offers no clear idea why this situation arose in the first place.

Tune In, Turn On and Sell Out

Moreover, Nicholson's historical account of the use of electronics, sampling or DJs since the 1990s is partial at best. He does attempt to provide some historical and even theoretical background to such developments, referring to post-production work on Miles Davis' 1960s albums and early use of overdubbing in jazz, as well as the work of John Cage and Paul Schaeffer. He also notes the use of "found sounds" and musique concrete, giving Mike Westbrook's Marching Song (Deram, 1969) as an example. In fact, such approaches had been far more widespread than he appears to be aware. In contemporary classical music, Edgar Varèse, Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen (whom Nicholson does mention) were all experimenting with electronics in the early fifties. Jazz critic and composer Andre Hodeir was one of the first, in 1952, to utilize such an approach with his composition "Jazz et Jazz." Teddy Charles' recording of George Russell's "Lydian M-1" in 1956 is a further example, with John Benson Brooks' Avant Slant (Decca, 1968) sound collage another. Russell also experimented extensively with studio technology whilst living in Scandinavia in the mid- to late-'60s, the result of which can be heard in the "pan-stylistic" prerecorded tape used on Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature, on both its big band (Flying Dutchman , 1971) and sextet (Soul Note, 1968) versions. And Charlie Haden and Carla Bley, of course, interspersed found sounds and older recordings within the music of Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse!, 1970) as a whole to radical effect.

More importantly for the history of the use of electronics in jazz, such techniques began to feature in European free jazz and free improvisation from the mid-sixties onwards. AMM was one of the first groups to use a variety of such media in live and studio recordings, and proved an important influence on Pink Floyd. Drummer, Tony Oxley was another early experimenter and the Howard Riley Trio, of which Oxley was a part, used such sounds on Flight (Turtle, 1971) and Synopsis (Incus, 1974). Violinist Philipp Wachsmann was using electronics as early as 1969 and Paul Rutherford's Iskra 1903 also pursued similar experiments in sound. John Surman also made full use of the possibilities of studio technology on Westering Home (Island, 1972) and pioneered the use of synthesizers in jazz both in his own right and as part of saxophone trio S.O.S. Listen, as well, to Surman's work on Barre Phillips's Mountainscapes (ECM), a magnificent record that uses technology in highly creative ways made not in nineties but in 1976.

We need to ask the question why it has taken jazz musicians on a broader level so long to pick up on these ideas, in effect only beginning to do so some twenty or thirty years later? A creeping conservatism in jazz, and wider culture, might offer an explanation at one level of analysis but as a cultural phenomenon it still needs to be explained. That requires examination of both the nature of capitalism as it functions within this area of commerce and shifts within ideology. Here, Gramsci's notion of ideological hegemony as a shifting equilibrium dependant on the relative balance of class forces offers a theoretical framework within which to examine cultural shifts. Even then, we need to do more than simply call its name. We need to explore how historical information can be understood using that framework as a guide. From this viewpoint, the key question is then, how did the shift from the cultural and political radicalism of the mid- to late-sixties into a narrowing cultural and political range of ideas and activities occur? Specifically, there does seem to be an issue here around the relationship between the avant-garde and the mainstream and their increased separation since the sixties. These are all questions that Is Jazz Dead? fails to ask, partly because the history it creates of the rise of conservatism, as well as of later stylistic changes, in jazz is incomplete and partly because its theoretical perspective is weak.

The Language of Jazz

Nicholson uses a number of different explanatory tools in Is Jazz Dead?. He deals well enough with the notion of tradition and its relationship to both innovation and conservatism. For Nicholson, "innovation" is not just about gimmickry, arbitrary use of other musical styles or presentation. He rightly sees this as a matter of artistic integrity that can involve instrumentation, how instruments sound, how their sound is modified, how composition and improvisation relate to each other and how different technologies and media can be used within the music. Other explanatory tools are, however, used more problematically—the two main ones being the notion of music as language and globalization. Music—like other non-verbal or non-literary forms of communication including mime, fine art and painting in particular, dance, clothing and fashion, cybernetics and architecture—have much in common with the structure and practice of spoken language. None of these, however, including music, can be simply conflated with the power of speech to convey complex ideas, let alone the subtleties of nuance that human beings engage with in relationships. In this area, Nicholson draws on correspondence with the sociolinguist Elizabeth Peterson, but gives no other academic support for his arguments. It is unclear from the text whether he views "language" and music as merely analogous or whether he is equating them. If the former, it remains the case that analogy is not proof of an argument but rather a mechanism for its elaboration. With regard to the equation of music and spoken language two examples should suffice to dismiss the argument in that form.

Firstly, music can carry significant amounts of information beyond that manifest in its structure, its deployment of notes, scales, timbre and tone. By contrast, spoken or written language can order a meal in a restaurant but can also convey the most complex ideas from the hard or social sciences or from musical or literary theory. Music, after all, may illustrate musical theory, but spoken language is needed to explain it. Secondly, music can convey much through its tones. But if I get up in the morning, say "Good morning, darling" to my partner and she misinterprets my tone of voice or I get my tone wrong, then we may both be in for a very bad day, indeed!

In order to understand music as a language, we also need to understand its differences from spoken language, if only to appreciate what it can and cannot do. By contrast, one of Nicholson's responses to the other explanatory tool he uses extensively, namely globalization, relies on the concept of music as language. The word "glocalization," his would-be contribution to the English language, is predicated on this assumption. Specifically, he uses that word to describe the way that language changes and takes on new words and gives new meanings to old words. The analogy here is obviously to local or regional dialects of language.

I noted earlier that Nicholson's approach is based on a somewhat hazy notion of Darwinism. His use of a quotation from Robert MacFarlane (p.21) and reference to Darwin (p.71), where he compares jazz to language, provide evidence for this point. Again, the issue of analogy or equivalence is raised. It suffices here to note that the application of Darwinian ideas to the social and cultural realms is fraught with difficulty. Natural selection is based on an understanding of species evolution and diversity in biology. The capacity for language in human beings may well have been selected for genetically and surely advanced human development. Beyond that, however, we need other social-psychological, cultural and political theories to explore changes in language and their cultural and social implications.

If We All Glocalize Together....

But perhaps the weakest aspect of Is Jazz Dead?, contrary to the Jazznytt review, lies in Nicholson's use of the idea of globalization as an explanatory tool. At no point does he ask the fundamental question whether or not what is described as "globalization" actually represents any significant change or development in capitalism. The term began to come into use in the 1970s to describe what was considered by liberal and neo-liberal economies to be a fundamental change in the world economic system, one that effectively transformed the nature of the nation state. Put simply, the state within the "new" globalised world economy was seen as having changed from one where it might be characterized as a "national Keynesian/social democratic" entity to become one where free-market, neo-liberalism ruled. Clearly, this must involve a highly idealized interpretation of the post-1945 Western/Northern Hemisphere states and of the nature of pre-and post-World War II capitalism, an interpretation that is open to question.

Not only does Nicholson fail to ask such questions, he even uses the concept of "globalization" anachronistically, to explain the dissemination of jazz around the world in the period after 1918 and the dissemination of the English language still earlier than that. Ironically, he quotes Lewis Carroll from Alice Through The Looking Glass (1871) on page 19 of Is Jazz Dead?. Words mean what I choose them to mean, indeed. Yet, on another level, this serves to emphasize that the whole idea of "globalization" itself is ill-founded and ignores the history of Western imperialism from the 17th century onwards. As early as 1902, socialist economist J.A. Hobson was arguing that imperialism was both rooted in inequality at home and in the search of finance capital for markets and areas of investment on a global basis. The reduction of barriers to trade, to the movement of labor and capital, lie at the very heart of capitalism and have done since the Victorian era. Indeed, the European Free Trade Agreement, the European Economic Community (or now expanded European Union), the World Bank and International Monetary Fund offer further proof for this aspect of capitalism, all of which predate the point where globalization became a dominant theoretical explanation for late capitalism.

The theory behind globalization is, arguably, little more than an ideological gloss to cover and depoliticize neo-liberal economic policies and their effects. In other words, we have no alternative but to make ourselves ripe for exploitation. So all-pervading has this notion become that even critical thinkers such as Will Hutton and Anthony Giddens seem to have been seduced by it and propose at best adaptation and the amelioration of its impact.

In fairness to Nicholson, he does acknowledge that what he calls "globalization"—and I would call capitalism—"operates at many levels," noting its impact on "politics, war, migration, crime, terrorism, the environment, at a cultural level, and in all forms of media." (p.164) Yet, these are all swiftly left behind as he concentrates solely on the dangers presented by globalization in terms of a sweeping cultural homogenization based on American culture. He even quotes now-disgraced British politician Tessa Jowell twice on this matter. One is left with the impression that, not only is Nicholson's explanation of globalization inadequate, but that he trivializes it and its effects. More significant examples of its deleterious effects might include the subsistence wages and atrocious working conditions of Chinese labor manufacturing iPod for Apple, the destruction of the rain forests, the 2008 financial crash, global warming and, since the mid-seventies, the growing gap between rich and poor.

To function adequately as a tool for explanation in Is Jazz Dead?, "globalization" needs to be examined fully as a conceptual device before being put into service. Questions need to be asked about what it is, whether it in fact represents any fundamental change in capitalism or whether the processes, and their cultural implications, which we are observing are actually more readily explained in terms of other explanatory models and systems. We know that minority cultural activities like jazz experience serious difficulties within a capitalist market place. However, the notion of globalization is both too vague and too blunt an instrument to assist us in understanding why this is so.

An alternative, and more useful, explanation of the processes Nicholson describes must focus on the nature of crisis in capitalism. For example, such crises often arise in situations where the market becomes flooded with capital resulting in a devaluation of investments, such as stocks and shares. Surpluses of devalued capital and labor exist side by side, but it proves impossible to bring these together in ways that bring an end to the crisis. The system becomes caught in a spiral of declining demand. There are a number of ways out of this spiral, all of which can have very negative consequences for many in society including those involved in cultural production. One is to cut to the bone all forms of public expenditure and reduce workers' rights. This can have, and indeed often has, the effect of causing demand to decline still further leading to further recession. A second involves moving capital or labor to a different territory, where costs of production are lower and demand for products potentially higher. A third relies on the creation of new markets, perhaps in internal or external non-capitalist markets. A fourth is the Keynesian approach which involves the reflation of the economy by government investment. All this should sound remarkably familiar to readers. We might add, that excluding more recent events post-2008, the previous occasion where a crisis of over-accumulation occurred in the Western hemisphere was around 1983, which is almost precisely where in time jazz-bible scholars might locate Anno-Marsalis.

It is always problematic to try and relate cultural developments to changes in the economic sphere. However, record companies were happy to capitalize on the political ferment of the late sixties and early seventies by signing even the more radical political rock and jazz musicians who questioned the very right of these companies to exist. The ideological, political and cultural retrenchment that began in the middle and late seventies, in fact, occurred alongside a remarkably important economic event, which is not referenced in Is Jazz Dead?, namely the abandonment, around 1973, of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement. Bretton Woods aimed to avoid the recurrent crises that had so decimated capitalist societies in the twenties and thirties and which had contributed to the rise of fascism and the Second World War by tying the two spheres of capital—finance and manufacturing—together. One of the main mechanisms for this was the linking of currencies to the gold standard. The abandonment of Bretton Woods freed up finance capital, led to greater and greater market deregulation and to a modern capitalism where investment focuses on the quick or very quick return regardless of longer-term considerations. Money goes wherever the fast buck can be found be that in the USA or China or South America, in new technology, in manufacturing consumer durables, food production and, for our purposes, in the arts and entertainment industries.

Ted Gioia's Roadmap, or Just Hit The Road, Jack

It is clear that there are problems facing North American jazz and, indeed, jazz elsewhere in the world. If anything, the situation has worsened in certain key respects since Is Jazz Dead? was published. The decline in the sales of CDs has affected jazz extremely badly. The general decline in public enthusiasm for recorded music, or at least in a willingness to pay for it, has seen major labels cutting back on recording new jazz artists on the simple grounds that they cannot make a profit.

The big four—Sony, Warner, Universal Music Group and EMI—are shortly to become the big three, should UMG absorb EMI's music division. These are vast media conglomerates, not far removed from joint stock holding companies, with interests in all areas of entertainment, as well as in telecommunications, finance, electronics and computer technology. EMI is, for example, currently owned by Citigroup, a major force in the financial services industry, which at point of writing is seeking to sell EMI off to UMG. Warner Music is owned by Access Industries, a company with interests in chemicals and petroleum, as well as in media. Universal Music Group is owned by French company Vivendi, which is itself linked through two French TV channels to NBC, in which General Electric own 49% of the shares. In fairness to Nicholson, a number of changes of ownership of these companies have taken place since Is Jazz Dead? was published. However, this pattern of sell-offs, acquisitions and mergers is nothing new within the industry and to expect capitalist companies to continue to fund a marginal music like jazz, in so volatile a market, seems increasingly naive.

Nicholson offers two answers to this problem, public funding and a greater responsivity on the part of jazz musicians and those involved in its business to the wishes and desires of the consumer. We will come to the latter point later, but note in passing that Nicholson seems to be advocating a kind of niche capitalist solution based perhaps on the model of successful German labels such as ECM and ACT.

With regard to the question of public funding, even in those countries that have previously been willing to support minority arts, this is coming under increasing pressure, whether due to ideological considerations as in the UK or economic considerations arising from public debt, such as in Italy. In the context of the USA, the suggestion that public funds might be allocated to jazz appears utopian for several reasons. Firstly, both innovative and mainstream American jazz is already publicly funded—by German, Italian, British, Scandinavian, Australian and Irish taxpayers amongst others—just not by its own government. Why should the American taxpayer pay for something that the rest of us already are subsidizing? Secondly, American jazz has developed very nicely and, as we have seen, has continued to prove innovative post-1970. How would one, therefore, justify to America's political and economic elite and their opinion formers a need for such funding based on arguments themselves based on notions of importance of innovation and cultural diversity? Finally, Nicholson's proposal is utopian because it has no real basis in a political and economic analysis of American society. His position is essentially idealistic, in that it is ultimately based on a kind of act of faith that with the right (or rather left) people in positions of power and influence and the right (or, rather, left) kinds of argument these problems can be remedied. At no point does he ask whether power and its basis in economics might actually be the problem.

Nicholson's second solution is for jazz to embrace musical developments from popular music and other forms that are fashionable. Specifically he refers here to the emergence of vocal jazz, though here he seems very ambivalent about some of the artists he notes. Again, the conservatism of Nicholson's position is clear. His solution is for jazz to take on innovations from pop music to make it more relevant to music fans, young and not so young. However he presents it, relevance for Nicholson is about relevance to the consumer choices of the wider audience. That has nothing to do with anti-globalization but rather its opposite. The decline in the audience for jazz began some time ago. Previously it might have expected to attract those fans of pop and rock, who as they aged might once have "put away childish things." Instead, those fans cling Peter Pan-like to their youth. Others who might have come to jazz out of what we might call ideological-cultural reasons or curiosity have gravitated to other forms such as roots and world music.

Perhaps, then, one of the things that might be seen to have precipitated this situation is a crisis of relevance in the music. This does not lie in a gulf between jazz and popular forms and its solution will not be found in jazz musicians taking on aspects of popular culture. Rather, it will involve the jazz musicians, writers and fans reconsidering their positions on both those issues that Nicholson raises and those he ducks. His answer, sadly, amounts to little more than—"If we all 'glocalize' together globalization won't be so bad." That is not good enough. In its place, we need to communicate to its potential audience a vision of jazz as a socially relevant and radical music—a difficult and challenging music for difficult and challenging times.

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