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Transforming Jazz From Cultural Staple to Cultural Imperative

Transforming Jazz From Cultural Staple to Cultural Imperative
Peter Gordon By

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Futurecasting is a time honored sport, ranging from questionable store front fortune tellers to Pulitzer Prize winners, giving us both hope and despair and always trumped by 20/20 hindsight.

Jazz is a particularly difficult subject, given to voracious crosscurrents and turbulent discussions. Ask ten people, get eleven opinions. This year we have witnessed the heated questioning of whether the word jazz is even appropriate. Is jazz a force of nature or the result of nurture? Does jazz have an invisible footprint or is jazz stuck in the mud? Is jazz inclusive or is it exclusive, leaving it isolated and barricaded in its own walled garden?

But it is just this passion and compassion that gets our blood flowing, with these seemingly bipolar concepts that reaffirm jazz's importance in our lives, our communities and as a cultural anchor.

Let's take this up one notch from the tangled debate and look at jazz as a renewable resource, boundless in its imagination, endless in its permutations. Let's celebrate it as the national treasure as decreed by Congress. Let's see where we can agree to agree and use our collective strength to power our future.

So where do we begin? The ecosystem as a metaphor is popular way to contextualize how elements disparate or not can be ultimately connected to a larger universe. Jazz is no exception, and in fact is well-suited for this analytical perspective particularly if we look at this notion that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Yet the notion of jazz as its own ecosystem oversimplifies its institutional position and easily leads to isolationist tendencies. What does this mean?

Jazz simultaneously sits across three planes from which it derives its cultural standing:

1. Within the jazz community;
2. Within the music and performing arts industry at large;
3. Within the broader cultural community.

Back to the metaphor, jazz, as an ecosystem exists not only within itself but also within two other larger ecosystems #2 and #3. To derive our core sustainability, we need to effortlessly interact between these three planes to maximize all the resources available at every level. Does this mean that conversing only with community leads to inbred behavior? Does this mean the three concentric circles need crossbreeding to expand our reach? Does this threaten our purity? Are we being overprotective and/or are we being under-resourced?

Let's look at each self-sustaining community:

1. Within the Jazz Community

The creeping effect of paradigm blindness is a well-known organizational condition. Tom Silverman, a notable music insider and co-founder of the New Music Seminar, presented this idea that it is present within the music industry during the Jazz Connect's pecha kucha at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference (APAP) in New York City. All industries, all companies, all groups with common interests reach a point where growth decreases and stasis rears its head. Thinking goes from "out the box" to "in the box."

The irony, of course, is jazz was born as an "out of box" art form. It was the rejection of music norms which gave birth to our new language and form of expression. Given our long multi-generational history, the many defining moments create stake posts for creative and critical thinking. All good and all-important until we wage the culture wars on which periods are more important than others and which artists hold absolute definition of the art form. Within the jazz community itself, the most important paradigm of thinking is our shared love of the music, our national pride in its origin and its celebration as a major component in modern life. We are all part of the family of jazz, warts and all.

To unify, harness and thrive we need to create an inclusive group whose infrastructure is open to all and who has an advocacy voice that speaks for all generations. We need to support the present, honor the past and most importantly champion the future. Regeneration is fundamental to keeping jazz relevant for generations to come. To fight obsolescence our paradigm needs to be the paradigm of reinvention.

2. Within the Music Industry and the Performing Arts Industry At Large

These are two distinctive points of expansion. The first deals with the business of music and the second looks to neighboring art forms as an outreach to stretch our audience development. Jazz and money seem to have an uneasy relationship. Somehow the hard chase of money seems in bad taste and perhaps a compromise of one's integrity. Logic dictates that hard work should be rewarded. Simplicity, in these times, is a recipe for disaster.

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