The Many Faces of Jazz Today: The Big Picture

Victor L. Schermer By

Sign in to view read count
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.

Turkenburg depicts the digital revolution as "a big tsunami," a massive wave of information and energy that is causing changes we can't begin to fathom. Young musicians have huge resources and possibilities immediately available to them on their hand-held devices and computers, but they lack navigation tools to orient themselves and give them a direction. They may learn one style or approach and then find that, a couple of years later, it has become outdated, just like software becomes outdated. They acquire great skills and knowledge, but they don't know what to do with it. They also find that their royalties for recordings and compositions, which used to support the musicians through difficult times, are diminished by being posted on the web for free or low-cost download and streaming. All told, the predictable if sometimes difficult pathways to a successful career are no longer sufficient and need to be supplemented or replaced by Facebook posts, on line donations, self-produced recordings, and other digitalized formats for promoting ones wares. A musician today needs to be digitally savvy and business-oriented, which allows for more opportunities but distracts from the focus on the music itself.

The upshot is that we are in a stage of massive change in the development of jazz, and we don't know what will emerge from it. There have been similar periods before in the history of music. As Turkenburg points out, Bach did not know he was in the baroque era. His form of music was given a definition a hundred years later! Schoenberg's and others' serial composition challenged centuries of music based on traditional harmonies. Bebop players like Charlie Parker had many musicians standing on their heads trying to learn his licks. Change and uncertainty has always been a part of music. But today's jazz truly exemplifies the words of Heraclitus: "There is nothing permanent except change."

The Roles of Tradition and Innovation/Experimentation

Experiencing and making music in the New Millennium compels us to take a look at the significance of "the tradition" versus the innovation and experimentation necessary to keep the music vital and creative. In the past, innovation took place within the tradition, not apart from it. Parker and Dizzy Gillespie always maintained that their music was an extension of swing, not a rebellion against it. Even Ornette Coleman held that free jazz (what he called "harmolodics," an open style of improvising harmony and melody more spontaneously with fewer fixed rules), was rooted in the blues, bebop, and all the playing that came before him.

Today, however, there seem to be no boundaries in jazz. Classical string quartets now play "jazz" without any prior experience. The result: it often doesn't swing. An Eastern European folk melody (think of George Mraz' albums of Moravian folk songs) or the use of an African wood flute (by Dave Liebman) can inspire whole albums and performances. (Such borrowing from other cultures and musical traditions happened in the past. Jazz has always incorporated many musical forms and cultures, but today they constantly and sometimes capriciously intermingle.) Sometimes, a group of jazz musicians may come on stage without any notion of what they are going to play. They want everything to emerge from their spontaneous interaction. Literally anything can come out of their horns. Some have re-defined jazz as improvised music, period. That does not define jazz at all, since any form of music can be written down or improvised.

Just as each of us must tell it like it is and be truthful who we really are, jazz needs to do the same. In this, I concur with musicians like Eric Ineke who are deeply rooted in the tradition. But my definition is more all-encompassing and resilient than the traditionalists like Ineke and Wynton Marsalis. I would say that to call it jazz, it doesn't have to follow a prescribed course. It simply must display in one way or other its roots in the African-American music on which jazz is based. It must incorporate several features of such music. The first is jazz syncopation: it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. The second is the "X-factor" of the blues, not so much the standard blues progression, but the bending of the notes and sonorities with vocal flexibility to convey emotions. The third is that it must convey a spiritual message or, as scholar and historian Ingrid Monson phrases it, it should "say something" meaningful and true about our lives. The fourth is that it must be an expression in the moment of the individual who is singing or playing. If it doesn't have these four features, it might be great music, but it's not great jazz.


Shop for Music

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