The Many Faces of Jazz Today: The Big Picture

Victor L. Schermer By

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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."

Now that I think of it, the bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius created events like this during Weather Report concerts. He moved around the stage and shifted his musical focus, disrupting the flow as a kind of personal statement. Some of pianist Uri Caine's startling unique performances have had the force of a disruptive event. Indeed, all the arts must allow for novelty and disturbance in order to flourish. Let's allow for these happenings. But somehow, we must find our way back to the center.

The Jazz Biz

Despite the egalitarianism of the musicians, jazz is a capitalist enterprise. Like any commodity, music must be bought and sold, packaged, marketed, and valued by consumers. That's the last thing I want to think about when I attend a performance, but it affects what I hear, and as an advocate for excellence, I need to be aware of the impact of business on the music. For example, in Philadelphia, where I reside, the number of jazz nightclubs has declined over time. That means I have fewer choices of what I can hear, and the musicians have fewer opportunities to play. It is a tight squeeze situation which limits the variety and scope of music available in a small, intimate setting which used to provide a space for a musician to get on the bandstand for creative woodshedding and stretching into new musical territory.

It is a testimony to its power and resilience that jazz remains vital and stimulating despite the decline in nightclubs, record labels, radio stations that feature jazz, and exposure to jazz in family settings like the home record player and radio. I think jazz thrives today because the musicians have begun to take matters into their own hands. They create their own record labels, and, with the help of business-wise fans, establish small clubs and in-home concert venues. They teach jazz in public schools, conservatories, and universities, stimulating interest in young people and mentoring aspiring players. With organizations such as Philadelphia's Jazz Bridge, they bring jazz to local neighborhoods. They find agents and public relations representatives who are dedicated to promoting them. A spirit of entrepreneurship has developed among jazz musicians and their fans that is compensating for the decline in opportunities that big businesses and large audiences provided in the past. Sonny Rollins' long-time public relations manager, Terri Hinte, sums up these developments as follows:

"Obviously the landscape is radically different today. Record distribution, retail, and radio are not the robust, competitive fields they used to be. Print media is much diminished. Labels themselves are fewer in number, leaving an opening for artists to function as their own labels, which can be a liberating opportunity but also a heavy, costly burden. Artists are now entrepreneurs, producing their own music, responsible for every aspect of package design, sales and promotion, distribution, and career as well as the music. Some artists welcome this challenge; some would probably be happier with an actual label performing these tasks—if only there were enough labels currently in operation to serve the music community."

These changes in the business aspect of jazz go back to the 1950s, when rock 'n roll and the so-called British Invasion (The Beatles, etc.) replaced swing bands and vocalists as the predominant form of popular music. Even top jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald had periods of trouble getting work. Work in Europe and royalties from record sales kept them off the bread lines. After that, the economics evened out until the New Millennium and digitalization set in.


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