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The Many Faces of Jazz Today: The Big Picture

Victor L. Schermer By

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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."

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

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