What Is Jazz Now?

Dom Minasi By

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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?
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