Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Jazz Death?

Jazz is dead. Isn't it? In the immortal words of Lester Bowie, that depends on who you ask. From one point of view, jazz is a cultural artifact, a museum piece originating from a particular time, and whatever is going on now is recycled and derivative. No longer culturally relevant. (I'm reminded of the guy outside the bank in Falling Down: "NOT ECONOMICALLY VIABLE.")

There's slightly more subtle viewpoints than the above. For example, the "neo-mainstream" "movement" has temporarily lobotomized jazz by trying to make it hold still. Or post-modern cut and paste, collage styles have temporarily "ironified" jazz into a series of witty cliches, pastiches and homages. Or "jazz" itself died in 1959, (or 1940 or 1945, etc.) really, and ever since then god only knows what we've had. Or "contemporary jazz" musicians are too much a product of the schools and have lost any vital connection to the streets, replaced by hip hop etc.

My outrage at the misrepresentation of "free jazz" (a form which is actually fairly expensive) repeated by the guardians of culture has stirred all of these opinions (and more) up from the murky bottoms of Lake Revision.

Sometimes, when I hear so-called "contemporary jazz," I wish it (and when I'm feeling melodramatic, I) were dead. Is there any music worse than bad jazz? To my ears, the slicked out, blanched, over-produced music that passes for "jazz" in most record catalogues these days is among the worst music ever made in human history. The recent wave of "jazz chanteuses," for example, wouldn't know what to do with a great song if it popped right out of their decolletage. An acquaintance of mine recently uttered this sentence: "I'm going to Borders to buy the new Norah Jones...go home, build a fire, listen to some jazz." One of my colleagues at KSFR did a "best of 2006" "jazz" show last month and selected Bob Brookmeyer's Spirit Music CD as the "best of the best." When I started my show immediately after, a caller rang the studio to say "what the hell was that? That's quaalude jazz!"

Here's a possibly even more subtle look at jazz death: it's part and parcel of genre death in general. When I taught secondary school students, they had an unbelievably detailed and often arcane universe of hair-splitting genres. "Iron and Wine isn't Emo! It's shoegazer!" "Dude, are you nuts? Iron and Wine is anti-folk!" Etc. In this digitally-abetted explosion of genres, many of which are contained esoterically within other genres (think Chinese doll), what meaning do the big genres (jazz, classical, rock, pop) have anymore? Jazz already had an unwieldy number of subgenres as long ago as 1970. On freejazz.org, a raging debate sometimes erupts on the relative merits of "free jazz" versus "free improv." These heated arguments are highly entertaining, and a definite sign of the proliferation of hair-splitting categories about which NO ONE CARES except a small group of rabid aficionadoes. (Not that I'm not one of those rabid sorts, as I think the discussion of "free jazz" versus "free improv" is interesting....)

In a relatively conservative cultural climate such as Santa Fe, where there are several high-brow presenting organizations constantly programming the same old Western composed orchestral, vocal and chamber music (we used to be able to say "classical" and be done with it), no one blinks an eye at absolute and completely unswerving predictability. Mozart's 250th birthday went on endlessly, forever, eternally here in this largely blue-hair, rich, ossified arts market. In this context it is a RISKY VENTURE to book Wynton Marsalis. This is jazz death, more surely than any other reality.

13 comments:

the improvising guitarist said...

Frank Zappa: “Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.”

the improvising guitarist said...

Anthony Braxton: “‘Jazz’ is the name of the political system that controls and dictates African-American information dynamics.”

TheHotelSterno said...

Let's try this again: Given the state of affairs with mainstream jazz, if jazz is dead, we can only hope for some seriously out zombies to crawl forth & take back the landscape, horns blaring some of that Ayler "weird march music for weird marches" so we can sit back & listen to a vital, plastic music capable of true transformation. If that's the case, long live these undead masters. I'll be wearing my zombie pants & sippin' at bells.

Dan said...

Hi Peter. I have a related post up on my blog right now - I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this particular angle of jazz resuscitation.

peter breslin said...

thanks to all for comments. I've got an upcoming post about the zip zoom bam way that jazz sailed right by for a long time, from roughly 1950-present...perhaps nothing can be done now about this simple fact, but new discoveries from the jazz catalogue over many decades are still informing my ears and my actual practice of making music. For example, the 5 LP Mosaic Complete Blue Note Herbie Nichols, which took up the better part of a day last week, could easily take up the better part of an entire phase of study and inspiration and influence, compositionally (especially harmonically, although Nichols' melodic lines...wow.) The narrow minded guardians of culture and "official story" tellers forget that human beings dig stuff up and get it, sometimes years after the fact.

the improvising guitarist said...

Peter, hope you didn’t mind the two quotes, and I hope I didn’t come across as the clown at the funeral…. Anyway, I’m formulating a more measured reply, but it’ll probably end up as a full blog post.

S, tig

peter breslin said...

S- I love both quotes! we ought to put together a quote bank on jazz death...

PB

Good Times said...

"Iron and Wine isn't Emo! It's shoegazer!" "Dude, are you nuts? Iron and Wine is anti-folk!"

well, it is an important distinction...

Mozart's 250th birthday went on endlessly, forever, eternally

and it's still going on!

Is jazz dead or is the 'gestalt' that gave birth to Jazz dead?

Up up and away!

peter breslin said...

hey GT thanks for stopping by. I'm told by a youngster who puts up with my geriatric foolishness that there's no way anyone with two neurons to rub together would even jokingly call Iron and Wine either Emo or shoegazer. So yeah, it is an important distinction.

The Gestalt that gave rise to jazz is definitely dead. Or past. Over and gone. So if jazz is still alive what's giving birth to it? If you chop up a prickly pear cactus and scatter it over a lot of ground eventually you'll have a new plant for just about every piece you scattered.

by the way, is there a genre called "anti-jazz"? I'd be tempted to put the "neo-conservative" approach in that genre....

thehotelsterno said...

Anti-jazz has been applied to folks like the Lounge Lizards, the Human Arts Ensemble, even Blood Ulmer,etc. So too the sobriquets Punk Jazz & No Wave.

Massimo Magee said...

ah, Mozart's birthday, always difficult....tempered by the fact that it is also my birthday for me I suppose....

Dan said...

I found another relevant jazz is dead quote:

"I don't know where jazz is going. Maybe it's going to hell. You can't make anything go anywhere. It just happens." - Thelonious Monk

Chris Rich said...

Aaah, at least Santa Fe doesn't have Berklee, a huge intrusive pseudo jazz factory squatting in its midst and some times blue hairs can be charmed by Joseph Jarman as I well know as long as you don't make em worry.

There is great potential in the same kids who split hairs over shoe gaze vs emo as I have also noticed and a tried and true presentation trick is to persuade one of the kid bands with an audience to share a stage with free jazz people.

They are innocent of the toxic disputes crafted by the music biz and are crafty about recognizing the honesty of a good Charles Gayle tune.