The Many Faces of Jazz Today: The Big Picture

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

I think this is a very open definition that reflects the time in which we live. It is receptive to all possibilities, but it allows us to raise eyebrows when the music does not contain the essence of jazz. Then we can say, "That's interesting, but it doesn't affect me in the way that great jazz does." It sets flexible but clear boundaries and objectives for the musician. It's a way of giving some coherence during a time of incredible openness and even chaos in music. The musician can step outside the boundary if he wants to, but has to acknowledge what he is doing. And critics must do the same. It's not confining the music in any way. It's simply a way of encouraging honesty. The best musicians know this is important. For example, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Vijay Iyer have focused on improvisations that are based in their musical heritage from India. But their immersion in the jazz idiom as defined above is always manifest. That is because both of them fully mastered the Afro-American jazz tradition before bringing in the Carnatic and other musical expressions of India.

On this basis, I think we can say that jazz is alive and well in its various traditional and innovative formats, i.e. that jazz is not, as some argue, dead, passé, or a museum piece. The Big Picture is truly a remarkable phenomenon, and it is exciting to look at the great expansion of ideas and countries that make jazz "what it is" today, and what dynamics foster or hinder its continued emphasis on originality, individuality, and the power to move and transform audiences. I will discuss three of these developments: the globalization and digitalization of jazz; the business aspect of producing the music; and jazz education. Then I will have a few brief suggestions about how we who love jazz can exercise a positive influence and take constructive action.

The Globalization and Digitalization of Jazz in the Postmodern Era

By the 1930s, jazz migrated geographically from New Orleans to the midwest and Chicago to coast-to-coast. Soon, it quickly caught on in Western Europe. After WWII, it became popular in the Caribbean, South and Central America, and Japan. Since the 1960s, it has expanded around the world. Today, jazz appeals to people on all continents, even in remote villages and outposts. An Eskimo or a Trobriand Islander might have some jazz records, and might even form a band. It's easy to assume that the music America exports will remain in its original form, like Wisconsin cheese or a Dell computer. But because it is improvised, jazz quickly morphs to reflect the culture of a particular region. By definition, you can't "copy" jazz. You're going to play it the way you experience it. And someone is going to come to your town, love what you play, and bring it back to Paris or Kalamazoo. Not too long ago, I heard the wonderful Danish singer Sinne Eeg at a club in Philadelphia. She had the American vocalist tradition in the bag, but it still felt like being at a club in Denmark, which has its own jazz legacy. Her American sidemen were picking up on her every nuance, and you can bet it had an influence on them. Jazz is an infectious art form. It has become a truly amazing tapestry of everything imaginable from everywhere. If we can believe Sun Ra, it even came from outer space! (LOL!) If Mars gets colonized, we will undoubtedly hear "red planet" jazz.

The point that needs to be made to the traditionalists is that the jazz legacy has changed forever to reflect this global influence. It has a new legacy embodying all the peoples of the world. That is why Steve Coleman received a McArthur grant to study the music of African countries. That is partly why Pat Martino plays with the concentration of a Japanese Zen master. That is why an Italian composer Bruno Martino could write the Brazilian jazz standard, "Estaté." International diversity has made jazz more beautiful and inspiring than it has ever been. The true home of jazz today is not New Orleans but Earth! When the dust settles on all this, jazz will sound very different than it does now. Yet, in my opinion, it will still possess the features of Afro-American jazz that I delineated above.

Globalization is changing the face of jazz every day, mostly in a good way. The one danger I sense is that some players superimpose their national idiom on jazz rather than forming a chemical bond. But such "colonization" is not so much a worry for me as what digitalization, the Internet, and postmodernism might do to the music. Here is why I am concerned.

What is developing in all endeavors, not just jazz, is a situation where anything and everything is available almost instantly, and all possibilities are valid. At the same time, the information and ideas become part of cyberspace and increasingly distant from our bodies, daily lives, and face to face encounters. (Just touch the person next to you on the shoulder, and you will see how different it is from a text message,) And we increasingly live in a virtual (non-real) robotic (automated) world created for us by computer geeks. Virtuality and robotization are wonderful for the new experiences and convenience they can provide, but they can also swallow up our humanity, functional capacities (including music), and sense of reality. (Cosmologist and ALS sufferer Stephen Hawkings depends for his existence on his computer, but he still warns us that Artificial Intelligence may prove to be a very destructive force.) While jazz was profoundly enabled by the technological advance of audio recording, its true wonder and inspiration has always come from live person-to-person embodied individual and collective experiences. Music is intimate, and the best jazz is the most intimate kind of music we have.

Where the digitalization/cybertech danger lies right now is in two areas. One is the homogenization and lack of high standards for the music. Musicians and fans line up for Facebook and YouTube posts, Spotify, self-produced CDs, ad infinitum, with no selection process. In the past, the musician had to have a good fan base and the approval of fellow musicians to gain recognition. Today, anyone can make their music widely available to the public. That creates a danger of what could be called "fake jazz," akin in some ways to "fake news," where notes are played by someone who plays "like" a jazz musician, but has not gone through the vetting process and the trials by fire that make for music that has depth and affects us at both intellectual and visceral levels. As a reviewer, I have too many records and downloads coming my way that "sound like" jazz but leave me feeling "totally cold." That puts me at risk for losing out on the one or two that are superb but easily overlooked in the crowd. Soon we will have jazz created by Artificial Intelligence machines, and who knows what that will lead to. (I'm sure that it's already possible to create a computer program that could generate improvised music! Brave new world!)

Along with digitalization, postmodernism and the lack of definition in all the arts is contributing to the randomness in which identifying genuine artistic expression becomes like finding a needle in a haystack. A work of art (especially music) is now considered an event rather than a process resulting from hard work with a coherent focus and design. (Marcel Duchamp thought that putting a toilet in a museum made it a work of art!) If the event is titillating to an audience or museum-goer, it is considered art. A couple of years ago, I attended a museum event in which musicians combined visual art, a spontaneous assortment of sounds on traditional instruments, a radio, and some kitchen appliances to create an hour-long "scene." It's hard to know when it's art and when it's a gimmick. Trombonist Steve Swell offers a way to decide which one it is via an apt comparison with other works of art that proved initially difficult to comprehend: "If you're an audience member who is confronted with this sort of playing, and say the music was entirely new to you, I'd suggest doing what I do when I'm exposed to a new kind of music. I close my eyes, and I just listen and let it take me from there. It's a bit like looking at a Jackson Pollack painting for the first time. He's dripped some paint in one part of the canvas, and then does something else in another place. It seems random, but then when you look at it for a while, it becomes meaningful and alive for you, as it has for so many art lovers."


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