Jazz may be as dead as Latin for some people, but to others, it’s still live and kicking.
I recently read an article arguing that “jazz can no longer be a living, breathing art form”. The writer, Benjamin Schwartz in his Atlantic article “The End of Jazz: How America’s most vibrant music became a relic”, came to this conclusion after looking at the photographic works of jazz musician and scholar Ted Gioia.
But despite Gioia’s ardency, there is no reason to believe that jazz can be a living, evolving art form decades after its major source—and the source that linked it to the main currents of popular culture and sentiment—has dried up. Jazz, like the Songbook, is a relic—and as such, in 2012 it cannot have, as Gioia wishes for it, an “expansive and adaptive repertoire.”
From this quote alone, I am shocked. How can a genre that has provided so much for so many people in different ways just die in 2012? Have we not got the modern technology and means to keep it going? Now, it’s easier than ever to listen to an old jazz record through means of conversion, streaming services and the like and this could be enough to inspire a musician to compose something new within the same realm. Looking to the past for inspiration is one of the most important ways of creating something new, especially within the creative sector. When jazz was fused with elements of pop, rock, soul, funk (sometimes into the controversial annals of smooth jazz), the elitists were calling the end for their “pure art form”. It had lost it soul (ironically), some said. But it had merely moved with the times, and for the most part, it had succeeded. The best adapters survived the transition while the real jazz relics were left behind. That is, until the the late 80s into the 90s with the evolution of hip hop into what some called “jazz rap” with use of jazz samples and breaks. Artists like Ron Carter were even asked onto tracks.
I can’t remember when my love affair with jazz music really started. Being a later bloomer on the music scene, from both a listening and producing standpoint, the first genres I had grown accustomed to were reggae, soul and pop. For me, jazz was always an “old people’s genre”, the kind of thing you’d find playing in old bars filled with old(er) people. It had a sophisticated air to it and the only jazz musician I knew was Louis Armstrong. I started my music technology course in September 2010 and one of the units were studied involved music listening for different stylistic techniques. This meant sitting for lengthy periods of time listening to jazz music. We went through a wide range but one particular piece that stuck in my mind was Bitches Brew by Miles Davis. The wildness of it all, so compelling and like no jazz I had been made aware of before. It certainly opened my eyes/ears to what jazz could be (to someone who wasn’t aware of its history). I decided to investigate more during my spare time and I soon discovered a song I had loved for so long was a jazz piece from someone I already liked: Madlib’s alter-ego Yesterdays New Quintet and Sunrays. My inquisition took me to more mellow plateaus; Charles Mingus, Jackie McLean, Horace Silver, MJQ, Art Blakey – the old legends. As my repertoire grew, I returned to Bitches Brew territory and eventually discovered Sun Ra and that’s when my love for outlandish jazz really took off. In an era of controversial musicians, Sun Ra would have been called a “charlatan, pretender, wannabe” when in fact, he wasn’t being controversial for the sake of it. People just weren’t on his wavelength (or planet, it seemed). For me, he’s one of the best and most innovative and one of my favourite jazz musicians of all time, alongside Alice Coltrane.
In June, I spent a week in Chicago. It was my first ever holiday without my parents and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, not least because of the cultural experience. I managed to forge as much of it as I could through the vinyl expeditions I went on, some with friends, others on my own. The first one I went on took me to a place selling mostly electronic music. Not much jazz in there but some good finds nonetheless, including Madlib Medicine Show #13. The second and third trips proved to be my favourites. With a couple of Twitter friends in tow, I was taken to the Jazz Mart. For me, this was like a Graceland of jazz (until I went on my third trip). Rows and rows of jazz LPs, CDs and cassettes and all cheaply priced. Don’t be fooled though; they weren’t cheap quality. I must have spent about 2 or so hours in there and would have been in there longer if I had more money but I settled for a bill of around $40, which included a Sun Ra t-shirt and some plastic covers. I was asked if I knew certain “newer” jazz musicians. I felt terrible saying no to most of them and realised that while my knowledge of the oldies was growing, I had a long way to go past the great eras. My third and final journey took me to Dusty Groove. I had to take two trains (via a long and confused trip to find a friend I eventually missed) but upon entry, it was worth the ride over. It wasn’t as expansive as the Jazz Mart in size but for the quality, old and new, this was more than a Graceland – it was a holy pilgrimage. I can’t attest to being a holy man but I would have knelt down and kissed the vinyl if I had no fear of looking like a weirdo. I could have easily spent the whole day in there and even my life savings (if I had any). I had to put records back from fear of my luggage being overweight. In the end, I settled for about $50 worth of records. In the end, I spent about $150 on records and clothes – I’ve still not listened to them all, but the experience was second to none. The thrill of finding those jazz musicians in all their glory was all part of the mystique of crate digging. 95% of these records I couldn’t find in England and definitely not at the cheap prices I found them out there.
Having built up this infatuation, the notion of it being an old people’s genre was soon dismissed. Twitter soon put a stop to that when I found out other people of my age and only slightly older shared my love for the same artists. Hell, they grew up on it when the music was supposedly dead decades before. The two mediums – jazz and Twitter – became the catalyst for one of the best things to ever happen to me. A follower asked for jazz suggestions and I happily obliged with a lengthy list taken from my iPod. It was exciting to find someone who wanted to learn, like myself. A few weeks later, she became my girlfriend and I often saw that moment as the part that changed things. Now, I don’t want to turn this into a soppy love story but that love of jazz really helped things along. Who needs eHarmony when you have Sun Ra and social networking? But perhaps I’m giving too much weight to yesteryear. After all, Schwartz was discussing jazz as a modern genre. Artists like Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding, Gizmo, Austin Peralta, Ravi Coltrane and Flying Lotus (the latter’s cousin) – to name a few of my favourites – have given jazz that rebirth it has craved for so long. Glasper’s critically acclaimed Black Radio was a vibrant mix of jazz, soul and hip hop, while Spalding’s Best New Artist Grammy win was well deserved (and managed to rile up the B*eber fans in the process).
I suppose in response to the statement “jazz can no longer be a living, breathing art form”, jazz is how you perceive it to be in that respect. It’ll never have the same source that made it so great as times have changed and the struggles that fuelled jazz’s burning flame are much different and not as potent. As for “the source that linked it to the main currents of popular culture and sentiment” having dried up, this may be true but that may not be a good enough reason. If we look at fashion, its main source is the past otherwise, retro would never be “in”. Jazz has had shades of popular culture presence through artists such as Jamie Cullum and Lady Gaga’s performance at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in 2011. It could be bigger if it wanted to, but record execs have decided that it’s dead to them and therefore dead to the rest of us (not all of them of course). Jazz isn’t dead; it just wakes up when it’s needed and when it is needed, it lives on through its adaptive ability to fuse with other genres. Music is a river stream of different styles and sounds and while the pure water stream of old jazz may have dried up, large gushes continue to flow through other streams. There’s a reason for the term “third stream”, you know.