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The Many Faces of Jazz Today: The Big Picture

Victor L. Schermer By

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The historical period went from the birth of jazz around 1900 all the way up to the late 1970s. According to Turkenbug, citing James Lincoln Collier, the author of The Making of Jazz (Dell, 1979), "there were several distinct periods of jazz that developed in layers ... During that time, there were specific styles that changed every few years. I would call them New Orleans Style, Swing, Bebop, Hard Bop, Cool Jazz, Free Jazz, and Rock Jazz. Each one made the previous one seem 'old school,' although they all continued to have an influence." Today, most jazz fans can easily identify these iconic styles and often have a preference for a couple of them. Before the advent of "free" or avant-garde jazz, the "vocabulary" (melodies, harmonies, rhythms, lyrics) were familiar to listeners, overlapped, and, over time, and increased in complexity. During the swing era, jazz became the popular music of America, and with bebop it developed into an art form. During this extensive historical period, jazz defined itself and evolved a limited number of genres. The musicians were in charge of their playing, and the audiences knew what they wanted. The business interests such as record companies and road managers put the two together, guided by the interests of the musicians and fans.

In the 1970's "something happened." The jazz of the historical period became, as Turkenburg says, institutionalized, that is, it was packaged for use. Schools of jazz came into existence to formally train musicians in everything from technique to composing. The recorded legacy became readily available in re-issues on LPs and then CDs. The young musicians borrowed from all the styles and used them in various ways for their own purposes. (Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and Freddie Hubbard, for example, plunged into new territory, but nearly always within the standard trajectories.) Even the avant-garde developed its own traditions and sub-genres. The musicians chose their own "menus" from the rich variety of approaches available to them, and put together "meals" that appealed to them.

During the institutional period, the business interests such as record companies, nightclub owners, and festival producers largely determined who was hired and what they played. (I remember revered trombonist J.J. Johnson becoming infuriated when a record producer decided which songs were going to be on an album after he had carefully arranged the recording himself. The business people became bosses rather than servants.) In other words, during the institutional period, jazz became an organized industry and a profession with definable goals, structures, educational settings, and concepts. As pianist Dave Burrell pointed out, you were either "inside" or "outside" the mainstream, and the mainstream was basically the music of the historical period: old wine in new bottles.

Today, while much of the historical legacy remains active, we are in the midst of a new phase which could be dated roughly to the start of the New Millenium. Turkenburg calls it the digital period because it is so dependent on cybertechnology. It is the result of the information explosion and globalization brought about by the Internet. And it is the reflection of the postmodern trend in Western philosophy, literature, and the arts in which all traditions and sacred truths are challenged, and art and music are free to construct themselves and expand in many new directions. The latter is both an asset and a liability. The artist has greater freedom and creative possibilities, but lacks criteria and boundaries that provide a standard of comparison and a secure structure. Today, you can go to a jazz concert, and you might spend half the show just trying to get used to the music. You have little or nothing to compare it with. On the other hand, it could turn out to be an awe-inspiring and transformative experience.


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