A Great Conversation on the “Is Jazz Dead?” Theme

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If you’ve been going through the jazz blogosphere recently you’ve likely to have come across another iteration on the “Is Jazz Dead?” debate.  In this case it has stemmed from reactions to Ted Gioia’s new book, The Jazz Standards.  A professor of mine, William Harris, posted a link on facebook to Benjamin Schwarz’ response to Gioia’s book from The Atlantic website.  From there a lengthy discussion ensued on his facebook wall, during which he wondered if there was a more permanent way to document the conversation.  I volunteered to post all comments on my blog in hopes that it would not only better document the conversation, but that it can be made more available to those who aren’t friends with the participants.  What follows is the discussion with  (as of December 5, 2012) that ensued, and will hopefully continue on.  Some of my favorite people, thinkers and writers are involved, and I’m happy to be able to share it with you.

But, before you start, make sure to check out Schwarz’ article.  Click here.

William J Harris: Well, what do you think? I know the jazz I listen to isn’t contemporary but I always thought that was my problem. In fact, I have moved back from free jazz to bebop. Those guys just seem so great. But a friend of mine once said old guys got old ears. @Chris Robinson, help.

James Smethurst: I don’t know, Billy Joe. Without being Pollyannaish, it seems to me that a lot of good new music is being made, drawing on repertoires more recent than the “Great American Songbook”–William Parker’s THE INSIDE SONGS OF CURTIS MAYFIELD with Amiri Baraka, Hamid Drake, and other really good players being a case in point.

WJH: Well, Jim, Even tho I am listening to a lot of Mingus, Rollins and Gillespie and feeling that I have never really heard their genius before I am sure there that is a lot of great music I’m just not hearing. Young friends, like Chris Robinson, who writes for “DownBeat,” are excited about people I have never heard of.  In short, even tho I am listening to bebop I don’t want to think of contemporary jazz as a “relic.” I want to hear people prove the critic wrong. Thank you for your words, Jim.

Tony Bolden: I actually think that Schwarz is right & wrong simultaneously. It’s obviously not the force it once was. But there are young artists like Esperanza Spalding and Robert Glasper who are taking the music in what I think are fresh, new directions. And there are lots of younger musicians who aren’t being recorded, but are playing some real hot music right now. The problem is that the record companies and radio stations haven’t caught up to what’s going on in these little pockets of American culture. I saw a saxophonist stop his whole band a year or so ago–just so he could dedicate a song to his wife, which he played solo right in front of her. She sat in a chair all alone on the stage (well, technically, it’s probably not a stage).

Howard Rambsy: I probably don’t help counter the “relic” charge much. Aside from my forays into the music of Vijay Iyer, I’ve been primarily *stuck* into the era of music (1959 – 1970ish) that you introduced me to back in grad school. In a way, you served as an ambassador/advocate for that music, and those musicians on the local level for me. I suppose folks like Baraka served as the advocate on the national level.

I read about the end of jazz, hip hop (as it was), black politics, and poetry often. Those pieces are necessary. I’m also thinking, though, we need to check for some works about those ambassadors and advocates. Their absence and presence tells us much about whether a field can get new audiences.

WJH: Yes, Howard, I am for new audiences. In poetry young people keep giving me new names, such as CA Conrad who I very much enjoyed when he came to KU recently. I am getting fewer names of jazz players which might support Schwarz’s argument. It seems that part of our job is to find new folks in the arts. But what is interesting me now is my new love for the bebop folks–it is a much more heart felt and amazed response than the one I had when I was younger. I have a question: If we are going to have serious conversations on fb, how are we going to archive them? It is important to have a record of our thoughts. Tony, thank you for your thoughtful comments on the contemporary music scene.

JS: Of course, my comments shouldn’t be taken to mean that I don’t think there are various sorts of cultural crises relating to jazz and other sorts of black music. On a very basic level, I don’t think that we have sufficiently thought about the widespread collapse of public music education in the schools and other publicly supported community institutions serving working class African Americans.

HR: Man Smethurst: The local cats connected to East St. Louis could write books on what you said about the “collapse of public music education” and what that means for Af-Am communities here. The old-timers can tell you about all Miles Davis’s classmates and the subsequent generations of excellent musicians who played in East St. They speak of the band director who taught band by day and played the clubs by night; they talk about how the band culture linked them to just about every thing else in the city. But now…well, they struggle.

East Side’s band has been making some strides recently (the talented band director now is Eugene Redmond’s nephew and also a product of some of those old-school Miles-descended dudes in the region). Whew…just thinking on it now, I realize that it’s really something to start thinking through what those collapses have meant.

JS: I think you would find the same problems practically everywhere, Howard.

WJH: Yes, it is great that you guys, Profs Rambsy and Smethurst, go back to one of the roots of the problem being education. It is important to state that jazz just didn’t “jes’ grew” like Topsy but often has been nurtured in the high schools. Ellison has some beautiful essays about educating players in the Oklahoma City schools. By the way, Ralph Ellison is one of our great jazz writers. When I have time I will go back to another great jazz writer, Amiri Baraka, and his recent jazz book, DIGGING and see how contemporary he gets. In the 60s he was on top of everything. But I want to end with I am devoting a lot of time listening to late 50s jazz because it is a transcendent moment of the form, not because it is of the 50s.

Me: Hi everybody, I hope you don’t mind me jumping into the conversation. As somebody who studies jazz, writes about it for popular audiences and as a performer I have a lot of thoughts, some of which are mixed or contradictory, on the jazz is dead theme. There’s been a couple other articles recently that deal with the same issue as Schwartz is talking about – both stemming from a new CD by Bill Frisell, Lee Konitz, Joey Baron and Gary Peacock that’s all standards. I think they provide other important views on the same topic. http://runningthevoodoodown.blogspot.ca/2012/08/write-song.html and then a response: http://blogs.ottawacitizen.com/2012/09/27/beyond-the-song-cd-reviews/ I really enjoy the CD by Frisell et al, even though I am very wary of people who just play standards. The group deconstructs the old warhorse tunes and find new nuggets to explore and play with. I’m overwhelmed with review copies of CDs every month, and one of things that irks me are generic versions of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” or some other standard from Gioia’s book. Sometimes the artist will do something very creative that I really enjoy, but often the performance doesn’t offer much new that makes it stand out from the great originals. When given the choice between listening to Horace Silver’s original “Sister Sadie” or a new version – which may be well done – I’m often going to go to the original because to my ears it’s better. Every summer I teach jazz history to high school kids at the KU jazz camp, and the music that gets the best response is not Charlie Parker, or Louis Armstrong, or Trane or whoever – it’s the contemporary stuff that’s not standards. Things like Vijay Iyer (kids really like his cover of an MIA song), Esperanza Spalding, Cuong Vu, and even really avant garde things like Mostly Other People Do the Killing that blend a lot of genres. The reason why I think this is, is because it’s music that is of their time that speaks to them, that draws from things they already listen to. If we are to define jazz as the group of tunes in Gioia’s book, then for these young students, jazz is dead. When you see them play “All the things You Are” in a combo or big band setting it doesn’t even look like they are having fun. But you put them in a situation where they play over a groove from a Radiohead song, then they light up and have fun. As a performer who is linked in with the very vibrant scene in Kansas City, I can’t stand the notion that jazz is dead, because it’s far from it. The people in KC are doing really great things – both more traditional and experimental – and I’m happy to be a part of it. The few times I’ve seen great musicians playing a set of standards at the Blue Room the place was pretty empty, even though the performances were good and the crowd liked it. When I go see music that is new the rooms are often sold out. I might be a little cynical, but for the most part I don’t think anyone except for the most hardcore listener wants to go see some group play standards. I for the most part don’t. I’m always reminded of the first track off the Roots album Things Fall Apart where someone says something to the effect that “if you played music that people will like, people will come.” That I think sums up the ever smaller audience for jazz. Less and less people want to hear the music that Gioia writes about. In that sense, jazz may be dead. But I get a lot of “jazz” CDs every month that don’t have standards that I think are really outstanding, so in that sense jazz is alive and flourishing from a creative standpoint, even if there is little or no audience for this music.

JS: If anyone has particular insight into this phenomenon, and if Brötzmann is right, it would be great if she or he would chime in. In part, it might due to the general decline in collectivities and communal social institutions that sociologists have noted in almost every aspect of U.S. life outside of the virtual world–a trend that predated the rise of the internet. But I’m sure there are other factors, too.

Patricia Spears Jones: I will not join in all this other than to say this sounds like every few years “death of painting” or “death of poetry” or “death of theater” articles I’ve read over the past 40 years. Oh the desire for the Imperative; for the final end of it all. jazz ain’t dead-anyone who has heard Robert Glaspiel or The World Saxophone Quartet or Cassandra Wilson on a good night knows that. And one book does not an Encyclopedia makes.

HR: The point you said was raised about the decline of the jam session reminded me about an article I read in the Times some months ago about shifts in apprenticeships in jazz. The article mentions how jazz schools have had to work to recreate some aspects of that informal jazz education because those original channels have been in decline.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/22/arts/music/jazz-and-its-changing-apprenticeship-systems.html?pagewanted=all

JS: The question is, then, who has access to these schools? Whose families have the sort of bureaucratic skills to negotiate the system? Who goes to primary schools, middle schools, and high schools that still have broad, systematic musical instruction or comes from families who can afford private instruction so that he or she has the skills to get admitted to a music school? I suspect that the answers to these questions have a very dramatic class and racial aspect to them. I do know that the students in the UMass jazz program are virtually all white (as are the teachers–a dramatic shift from a few decades ago). I don’t think that is entirely to do with the decline of jazz listening among young black people; most young white people don’t listen to jazz either.

WJH: I think Patricia Spears Jones is right but the article-review has inspired a lot of good conversation and given me a few new folks to listen to.  Just read Jim’s comments about class and ed. People have made really probing comments. Great conversation. If anybody new enters the conversation at this point it means you have automatically given Chris the right to post your comments on his blog as part of this conversation.

HR: Thanks for those observations, Smethurst.  I’ll add one more to that. Two years ago, I attended the national high school jazz competition in NYC sponsored by Wynton Marsalis and the jazz at Lincoln Center folks. I was there to show support for the East St. Louis high school band.

While at the event, some of the organizers made me aware that it’s rare and becoming rarer to see black high school bands represented at the event. Perhaps to develop a really good, competitive, and well-connected jazz program these days requires certain resources that are more and more beyond the reach of black high schools, and really, many high schools in general.

There’s interesting talk about the “death” of things. I suppose that we might also point out that the “birth” of certain interests and training is happening less as well.

One thought on “A Great Conversation on the “Is Jazz Dead?” Theme

  1. how about some objective data – record sales? number of jazz clubs in large urban centers?down beat magazine stories (most seem to be about the dead or nearly dead) I loved jazz and am sad that it has not evolved or that it is so esoteric and discordant it is difficult to listens to

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