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What Is Jazz Now?


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Back in February, All About Jazz Managing Editor John Kelman asked me to develop a column based on points I made in the comment section of the article BAM or JAZZ: Why It Matters. I still feel the same way, but trumpeter Nicholas Payton's statement that jazz died in 1959 made me think, and I've been thinking about it for seven months. Why 1959? I was 15 years old and going to Birdland on a regular basis. I saw everyone that was anyone play there and in other clubs, except for Charlie Parker, who had died in 1955.

In the late fifties, with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, pianist Cecil Taylor and others came free jazz. John Coltrane began playing out and using sound effects coming directly from his saxophone and, by the mid-sixties, Coltrane had become the forerunner in avant-garde jazz. Many of the club owners and critics hated the direction that Coltrane took, but he was the only artist in the history of jazz to make avant-garde popular for a short time. In the early sixties, spearheaded by saxophonist Stan Getz came the Bossa Nova, a fusion of jazz and Brazilian samba music.

With trumpeter Miles Davis' In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) the beginning of jazz-rock, aka electric rock or fusion, began; then in 1970, with Bitches Brew (Columbia), came an onslaught of jazz artists following in Davis' footsteps. The usage of electronics—such as distortion, wah-wah pedals and synthesizers—were key elements in the forming of the newer groups. Then there was guitarist John McLaughlin's fusing of Indian music with modes and odd time signatures... and before all that there was pianist Dave Brubeck, playing jazz in odd time signatures.

So, again, I ask: Why 1959?

In the seventies, jazz lost most of its popularity and took a nose dive. Smooth jazz came along and it looked like jazz was destined to be a memory. Many jazz artists moved to Europe or scrounged around the USA trying to survive by playing anything from rock, weddings, blues and salsa gigs, and all of them did not pay very well and some players just gave up and got day gigs. Then in the eighties came trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and jazz popularity began to rise again. Skip to 2012 and we find that jazz of every genre is played everywhere around the world, but it hasn't gained the popularity or respect it had in the earlier years, at least in the USA. One reason why Payton pushed to rename his music BAM (Black American Music) was his desire to bring black audiences back to an art form their ancestors helped create. But it's not happening. There are many reasons for this besides the lack of music education in the public schools. Another reason may be because the younger black audiences were raised on soul, funk, rap and hip-hop, they have no idea what jazz is, and I blame that on their parents or even their grandparents, for letting go of a tradition they were raised on.

It is not the case in Spanish families. Go into any Spanish home and you will hear Salsa coming from the radio. Ask any teenager who Tito Puente was and they know.

Free jazz, now known as improvised music, has incorporated a slew of electronics in its presentation and you can hear distortion pedals used by some players in their straight-ahead playing too. Many new compositions are based solely on electronic sound effects. The only difference between these pieces and classical new music would be the rhythm section. Jazz still uses the basic drum set. I personally love jazz that comes from a historical point of view, whether it's bebop, modern or free jazz. When I say historical, I mean you can hear the music is coming from a harmonic sense with phrasing and rhythmic content, and a touch of blues and a sense of purpose (it tells a story) in the soloing. Haphazard playing, to me, is not music and whatever is being played, whether it's tonal or atonal, has to be honest and musical. I personally love the natural sounds of the instruments. Adding electrical sound effects and noise doesn't add to the music unless it is used in a purposeful way and still sometimes it doesn't make it. I know diehard jazz fans believe that "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." which is true if you are playing traditional jazz, but free or avant-garde jazz has its own kind of swing, and when you listen or are around it for awhile you can understand what that means.

I am guilty of using sound effects, but I create the effects directly from the guitar without the use of effects pedals and I am very discreet in using them. Each instrument has its own set of natural sound effects and when used with integrity it can make the music interesting and spiritual at the same time. I personally believe in notes. I want to hear music that creates soundscapes with every note and not pedaled sound effects. I believe the effects are great for rock and other types of music, and movie scores, but not jazz.

When John Corigliano wrote the brilliant score to Ken Russell's movie 1980 Altered States, he created new musical notation that in turn created natural sound effects from each instrument in the orchestra. When you listen to this amazing score it sounds electronic but it is not.

For the last six months, besides going to performances and scouring YouTube, I have developed a distinct point of view about jazz then and now. I wanted to see if others agreed with me or am I being too narrow-minded for this day and age. I sent out four questions to some important players. I was surprised that many did not answer, or even respond to say "I don't have time" or "I'm not interested." By not responding, I felt it was a sign of disrespect. The same musicians who are big proponents of jazz popularity, when given a chance to say and express what they mean and feel in the biggest jazz website with hundreds of thousands of followers, doesn't make sense to me. So many times you hear from musicians who send out proposals or email an agent and they never get a response. It is understood that these people are busy and sometimes overwhelmed but it takes less than thirty seconds to write "not interested." There is a rudeness that has perpetuated throughout this art form and the many businesses connected to it.

I would say that guitarists use more electronics than other instrumentalists. But I did send four questions to some very important non-guitarists, too.

I contacted pianist Hal Galper, who responded immediately, for which I am very grateful. Hal is one of the greats, and if you are not familiar with him, there are many of his videos up on YouTube. What he had to say, I felt, was very important:

Dom Minasi: The illusive "they" are always talking about moving the music forward. Do you think by adding electronics such as wah-wahs, loops, distortion etc., it is helping do that?

Hal Galper: On this question I have a particular bias, but no, I don't think electronics "move the music ahead." There is a big difference between style and innovation. Electronics fall in to the former category. Miles said, and I paraphrase, "there hasn't been any innovation in jazz since Coltrane, just the development of style." Electronics, world music and all the fashionable hybrids fall into the style category as well.

My bias is that there still is room for innovation in the rhythm of the music. In the last 50 years harmony, melody and form have grown increasing sophisticated but the rhythm has not. I believe a change in the format of background/foreground can offer more creative possibilities, as well as rubato playing, in other words playing on structures in time with the quarter-note flow still informing the music, allowing greater rhythmic variety. But, then again, that is my own personal bias as that's the way my trio plays. Is it innovation or just a stylistic change? To that question I offer this story: Stan Getz was sitting in front of Jim & Andy's bar, the jazz musicians' New York City hang for decades. Stan was crying the blues to Miles that he needed to come up with a different sound. Miles said, "All you need to do is change your background and play the same shit over it." That's when Getz came up with the Bossa Nova style. This begs the question: was Miles' electric bands a change in style or an innovation? According to the man himself, it would have to fall into the style category because all he did was change his background.

DM: Is there a place for electronics in jazz?

HG: Questions one and two are almost the same. To answer this question you'd need to define what jazz is. Good luck with that. That's a minefield that anyone with any sense would avoid and I ain't going there. Jazz is a music that is open to all influences electronic or whatever, the jazz part being in the ear of the beholder.

DM: Some musicians are using odd time signatures ( 7/8, 11/8/ 13/8); is that really what jazz is suppose to be?

HG: My students at both Purchase Conservatory and The New School are showing a marked fascination with odd time signatures, as they should. But there has been little innovation in odd times signatures, played as such, since Don Ellis' experiments in odd time signatures. Like Ellis, these students think that playing in odd time signatures is the be all and end all of it. However, both Dizzy Gillespie and Lennie Tristano stressed the point that one should be able to play odd time signatures within 4/4! A recent Ari Hoenig DVD, Intro To Polyrhythms (Mel Bay, 2009) clearly demonstrates how this is possible.

DM: Just because it's improvisation, is it jazz?

HG: This is one of my faves. Improvisation does not define jazz. Improvisation is a built-in component of the human physiology. It is a problem solving technique that everyone uses on a daily basis. I mean, how many problems have you solved by merely applying duct tape to it? That we use improvisation in jazz doesn't define the music as jazz.

I found Hal's answers right to the point and If I were asked the same questions my answers would have been basically the same especially numbers one and three.

Trombonist Steve Swell is a monster player who has made his rep playing free jazz and improvised music, and is an outspoken musician who has a totally different take on this.

DM: The illusive "they" are always talking about moving the music forward. Do you think by adding electronics such as wah-wahs, loops, distortion etc. is helping do that?

Steve Swell: To be honest, the questions posed here, to this musician at least, are irrelevant and have been for quite some time. It seems, with the proliferation of jazz magazines/blogs, educators with little real experience playing the music and whatever else may soon be out there, the "illusive they" have little to do with the music let alone "moving it forward." Rather, it seems that there is a lot of interest in just talking about music, writing about music, being "experts" on the music (and musicians), yet little understanding about this music or we musicians who make it, whatever the genre of jazz or improvisational approach discussed.

It has become a side show and in some instances, cottage industries have sprung up where the "illusive they" make more of a living off of the music than the musicians themselves. So I guess right off I take issue with the "illusive they" ("allusive" I believe is the correct word but "illusive" makes it sound as onerous as it is) because the people doing the "illusive they-ing" and not the playing or composing don't really know much about it. There are many intelligent, sensitive writers and educators out there and I count a number of them as real friends. But the damage and promotional biases of some "illusives" I've witnessed over the years is frankly not very pretty.

DM: Is there a place for electronics in jazz?

SS: The question of electronics is an old one and being rehashed here for a new generation that may not know of its already lengthy history. First, wah-wah pedals are the direct result of plunger mutes. Miles Davis' use of electronics alone should have put this question to rest by now. There are many musicians who have been using electronics and computers in jazz, new music and other approaches to improvisation for quite some time. I don't believe electronics move the music forward necessarily but they do add soundscapes that weren't there before. There are many examples of "jazz musicians" who started in jazz and later incorporated electronics or computers into their work. And these musicians have fostered relationships with improvisers or composers who did not have their start in jazz, but together have found common ground in the making of interesting music by including electronics or computers. So I'm not sure if it's a question of "having a place in jazz" as is it okay for jazz musicians to be involved with this technology, and that question has been answered by the musicians. I'm not interested in using electronics personally but I'm not against playing with musicians who do if it's the right fit. I've performed with Elliot Sharp, Rob Mazurek and Susan Alcorn, to name a few, and find lots of interesting areas in which to add my sounds. No one can predict what "moves the music forward." It just happens.

DM: Some musicians are using odd time signatures ( 7/8, 11/8/ 13/8); is that really what jazz is suppose to be?

SS: Two names: Dave Brubeck and Don Ellis. There's lots of talk today about "what jazz is supposed to be." There are "illusives" who believe jazz is supposed to be one thing only because they want to control it; financially, culturally. That is not what jazz ever was. If jazz is supposed to be only one thing, then it probably was only supposed to be what the music of Louis Armstrong was and stopped there. Jazz is extremely flexible. It has changed many times over the years and now we are in an era with no real style to be named. I strongly believe that we've moved beyond what used to be defined as eras into an era of highly individualized jazz. Certain sectors of our community wish for jazz to be only one thing. They've set up their museums for what jazz is supposed to be and it's important to have that, but there are recordings of the originals. As to time signatures, what many people don't know is not only was there a Don Ellis and a Paul Desmond but, in free jazz, there was Bill Dixon's jazz Composer's Guild. Those musicians met weekly and discussed eliminating time signatures and bar lines. That was in 1964!

DM: Just because it's improvisation, is it jazz?

SS: To me, "jazz" is a world music that is flexible and always growing. Improvising has been around a lot longer than jazz itself. It was jazz though that brought improvisation back into western culture. Musicians now are exploring all that is available to them as improvisers. Traditional jazz (swing, bebop) being one aspect. And because improvisation is an important part of jazz, people who improvise with no jazz background or approach get lumped together with those that started in jazz and branched out and incorporated other techniques. There is even a case to be made of new generations coming up simultaneously learning traditional jazz improvising and other kinds of improvising. It is just where we are with the information that is available. The main criterion for me in all this is depth of feeling: Soul. Depth of curiosity, making the music interesting. Today we have the choice to stay in strict accordance with one definition of it or whether you want to use all of music's rich languages to create your own identity which is what jazz or a life spent in any music should be about. Then, there are the fans that listen to our music to be surprised by it and have it take them wherever their hearts and minds let them. Fans, and musicians will move the music forward, or backwards or skywards or around the corner or wherever it wants to go, never worrying about what to call it.

Very strong statements from Steve.

Here's another point of view from guitarist extraordinaire, Joe Giglio, who has worked in duo settings with every guitar great on the planet.

DM: The illusive "they" are always talking about moving the music forward. Do you think by adding electronics such as wah-wahs, loops, computers, distortion, etc. is helping do that?

Joe Giglio: Not really, Dom. I believe that people are what truly move the music forward. Any stimulus, be it sunshine, electronic effects, one's musical collaborators, the way an instrument feels on a particular day, etc, can have an effect on how/what one plays. My belief, by which I musically live, is that if one is in the moment, then so is the music—moment after moment, after moment...

DM: Is there a place for electronics in jazz?

JG: Yes. Some of the most beautiful and soulful music I have ever heard is Stevie Wonder's recording, "Super Woman." He uses analog synths and traditional rhythm section instruments together, in the most musical and expressive manner. While it was not jazz, it's relevance to your question is thus: If one plays with feeling, that feeling will come through the music regardless of genre played, or instrument used.

DM: Some musicians are using odd time signatures ( 7/8, 11/8/ 13/8); is that really what jazz is suppose to be?

JG: If they are feeling those fractions, great—If they are using them because that is the prevailing trend, not so much.

DM: Just because it's improvisation, is it jazz?

JG: No. One might ask, if "Just because it is improvisation, is it flamenco, blues, Bach in his day, Indian classical music, etc?" jazz does stand out in our musical culture because improvisation is a key component. Though one might also ask, "If it is jazz, is it improvised?" Sadly, the answer can often be no.

Short and right to the point the way I like it.

Guitar great Ed Cherry, who earned his bones working with Dizzy Gillespie, has something to say, too.

DM: The illusive "they" are always talking about moving the music forward. Do you think by adding electronics such as wah-wahs, loops, distortion etc. is helping do that?

Ed Cherry: If it's done with taste, restraint and good sound, then I'm all for it.

DM: Is there a place for electronics in jazz?

EC: You mean like, when Charlie Christian showed up with an amp and electric guitar to the gig? Or when Miles put Keith Jarrett in front of a Fender Rhodes, or when Eddie Harris plugged his tenor sax into a Varitone? Um, yes, I, I think there's a place in jazz for electronics (to me this is similar to your first question)...

DM: Some musicians are using odd time signatures (7/8, 11/8/ 13/8); is that really what jazz is suppose to be?

EC: Well, I guess it's cool. I mean I really liked what Steve Coleman was doing with odd time back in the '80s, but for me, I can't listen to that all night, I want to tap my foot and dance if I want to. I think Milt Jackson said something like "it don't mean a thing...if you can't tap your foot to it." It's got to be swingin' at some point during the night. My dad told me back his day, that he and my mom would dance to "Just Friends," by Charlie Parker or "This Is Always," by Earl Coleman. This is music for the people, let's dance!

DM: Just because it's improvisation, is it jazz?

DM: Dizzy called it "our music." If we are playing "our music," there's got to be swing, it's got to be soulful, the feeling of the blues and the African American church has to be up in there somewhere, or else to me, it isn't jazz (America's classical music—another name Dizzy used in describing "our music"). Charlie Parker had all those ingredients in his playing whenever you heard him (and if you are a young non-African American student of this music, you have to understand and appreciate the full spectrum of Black Music in this country and be fully aware of the socio-political aspects that went into its formation). There are influences from other countries in the music all over the place now, and that's great, but if the soloist is playing stiff and sounding like a classical musician playing what he thinks "our music" is supposed to sound and feel like, well, I shut down immediately on that. No matter how far out John Coltrane got, you always heard that "moan" or "shiver" in his solos. That's the blues, that's the church you are hearing (I think I heard Wynton say that somewhere).

These are some very strong statements from four great musicians from different backgrounds. Almost all agree in some way or another. I personally believe that there is nothing really new in jazz except the approach to the music as an individual player. And what I mean by that is, each instrumentalist, in order to move forward, has to move forward on his instrument. His/her approach to the way the instrument is played and what that approach can bring to the music in an innovative way and usually that is by phrasing, harmony, rhythm and technique. Some players have so many pedals that it is no longer about the music, it's about the effectss and learning to use those effects is like learning a new instrument. I personally don't have the inclination or the patience to do that. I find there are always new techniques to discover in the use on my instrument without dabbling into effects. Playing with musicians such as Tomas Ulrich, Jason Kao Hwang and Ken Filiano, who are masters of improvisation and instrumental acoustic sound effects without the electronics, is good enough for me. But that's me, and you the public may have a totally different take on it.

Did jazz die in 1959? I don't think so. It was on pause for a few years.

What is jazz now? It's whatever we want it to be and that can be a personal issue for each and every one of us.



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