Steve Swell: Appreciating the Avant Garde Today

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: How can someone tell whether music that's very experimental or lacks conventional structure is likely to be meaningful and important as opposed to a gimmick cleverly designed to get attention?

SS: That's an interesting point. Great musicians can play junk, whether they play the same old familiar stuff to please their fan base and make some money or just play nonsense. I think the primary objective of jazz improvisation is to play something new that hasn't been built before sound-wise and spark something in people that they wouldn't get any place else. To inspire them, even heal them. I think it also has to do with a musician's personal makeup and depth as an individual. What it means to them to be doing this in the first place. It's a good thing for musicians to think about that. Why are you motivated to be working in this art form?

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!


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