Steve Swell: Appreciating the Avant Garde Today

Victor L. Schermer By

Sign in to view read count
AAJ: But sometimes it takes a lot of time before history decides whether the music is significant or not. Time will tell what the music means for the total context.

SS: That's true, in terms of the big picture. But most musicians aren't thinking that way. They really think about what they are doing when the concert starts musically or maybe their next gig or recording and what they're contributing to it. Thinking about the big picture prevents you from just being yourself. But your point about history is correct. You never know what might later turn out to be of great importance. And, on a more personal level, you never know when your music is going to have a positive effect on some listener who is depressed or lost a partner, or is going through some other personal problem, and your music lifts them up just a little bit, maybe years later, by way of recordings, and maybe that's the real value or purpose of why you played it! You can touch someone you don't know when you least expect it.

From Modernism to Post-Modernism in Jazz

AAJ: Returning to our original topic of the scope of jazz today, I for one am old fashioned-and I think there are many from my generation who are like me. I came of age in the 1950s-60s. The prevailing philosophies were existentialism and modernism, which allowed that there were truth and beauty amid the turmoil and absurdity of life. Then, everything about truth and beauty seemed to fall apart. The true and the beautiful were, as Derrida said, "deconstructed." So we went into the era of "post-modernism,' in which truth and beauty can be whatever we want it to be. "It is what it is." An architect can make a very modern building and put a Roman column or a couple of medieval gargoyles at the entrance. Anything goes. Can we say that a lot of the new music is "post-modern?"

SS: Maybe, maybe not. I think your problem may be that you're living in the time you're in, and you're trying to define it at the same time. It's very hard to do that. And you're talking about relativism versus universal truth. In terms of music history, the baroque era of J.S. Bach wasn't really defined as "baroque" until the 1950s, when musicologists gave it that name. Bach didn't know he was composing baroque music! We don't really know what the music of today is all about either.

With jazz, we have historical periods that we retrospectively call Dixieland, swing, bebop, but we don't know what we're in today. All we can say is that musicians are drawing on the whole tradition of jazz and other music from around the world. It's all wide open for everyone to use. But we don't yet know how it all comes together or how history will view it.

Ethnic and Geographical Diversity

AAJ: If we could view jazz today from a wide perspective, from a space satellite, so to speak, we would see that it has disseminated around the world -no longer just America and Europe -it's finding a significant place in Asia, Africa, South America, Australia, you name it. We would also see that we have many different forms and influences from everywhere and of all kinds. In one respect, that's very enriching and stimulating and creative, but if I were a musician today, I would feel perplexed. I wouldn't know what to hold onto.

SS: That's a very good point. There's so much out there now, and it's all available at your fingertips on the web, and so many diverse influences. It's very hard to know where the center is, what's the foundation. For musicians coming up today, that could pose quite a dilemma. That could have a numbing effect as I mentioned earlier, not knowing what direction to go in. And to deal with it, too many of them latch on to the "jazz canon" that they learn in school, and they stick with it because it's a safe area, but that could stifle their creativity and finding their own voice. It's a real problem.

For Young Musicians Seeking Their Own Way

AAJ: So what guidance could you offer those young musicians?

SS: I'd say keep your ears open to whatever comes your way. But also get together with the musicians who live and work in your neck of the woods. There, you can create your own vocabulary and your own music. Don't sit at the computer or stereo. Get out and play with the musicians you know!

AAJ: And that way, you'll be developing your own vocabulary.

SS: Absolutely! That's the primary directive of what an artist should do.

AAJ: Bobby Zankel made a similar point. Rather than try to fit in with the whole jazz scene today, he's focusing on his own bands and working on his own path and vocabulary.

SS: Yes, it's so important to find your own path and stay with it.

AAJ: Bobby also said that when he started out, he tried to play as much as possible in bands with more experienced musicians so he could learn from them.

SS: Yes, and even now I try to get with the guys who influenced me and see what else I can learn from them.

AAJ: So maybe what we're saying is that mentorship is essential.

SS: It doesn't necessarily have to be a formal mentor relationship. Just hanging out and exposing yourself to someone you admire and appreciate, talking to them, you're going to absorb a lot just being around them.

AAJ: To wrap up our conversation, what's the message you'd like readers to take with them?

SS: I would say, whether you're a fan or a musician, go to hear live music more. Check out venues and musicians who are new to you. Expose yourself to new music. Go with an open mind and listen to what the music is all about. Think of it as listening to a painting. It's a great way to get away from your daily preoccupations and just let the music overtake you. You may discover a solution to a particular problem in your personal life or work life while listening to live music. It's important for all of us, musicians or not, to stay open to new experiences. That's what makes life worthwhile and fulfilling.

Photo Credit: Ziga Koritnik
About Steve Swell
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...


Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.