Jazz is dead, Jazz is dead –you’ve no doubt heard some Jazz cat wail, sounding him or herself like a tired saxophone bleating out one last broken note for the night.
At first I think I agree with these cats: After all I’ve been repeating the same lament ever since I first sat down for harmony tutorials with Bill Dixon twenty years ago.
But now that I think about it, I realize I have to ask myself: Just what sort of Jazz is it that I expect should hold more appeal for the masses? After all, that which is Jazz contains by its very definition not only popular entries from the Great American Songbook but the seemingly Schoenberg inspired tone and rhythm agnostic interpretations of Free Jazz.
Between the two extremes of Melody and Soundscape lay a great variety of creators and interpreters. To name a few (in no particular order): Scott Joplin, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt, Tito Puentes, Joao Gilberto, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Art Tatum, Thelonius Monk, Frank Sinatra, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Steve Coleman, Art Blakey, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Wynton Marsalis – each and all quite unlike the other.
When I re-read the liner notes of my own Jazz collection I‘m almost inclined to think bassist Ron Carter is the common denominator that holds the whole Jazz genre together. A living Rosetta Stone of Jazz history –or half of it, anyway.
But isn’t it ironic that a medium that demands its practitioners constantly think out the box is constantly under threat by its own fans arguing what can or can’t wear the Authentic Jazz label?
Granted, some styles have fallen out of popular favor, but others appear more vibrant than ever. Take for instance cabaret, which today has an international audience and graces the world’s grandest symphony stages. As of this writing, Ann Hampton Callaway is booked two years in advance. Is she on Top 40 Radio? No, but Top 40 is –by definition– vacuous bubblegum: Chew on it for a little while, enjoy it, and then spit it out. Hey, some Jazz cats don't even consider cabaret a Jazz idiom. No surprise then that some cabaret artists consider all the other stuff noise.
Maybe the idea that Jazz is dead has a more than a bit to do with the idea that the very concept is in a constant state of metamorphosis, or that such a disparate group of people claim ownership to the world. But lamenting Jazz’s absence on Top 40 is like asking why Jazz can’t be as brilliantly disposable as its pop brethren. And lamenting it's absence from our culture is just wrong. It's everywhere, but whether or not any given person recognizes all it's manifestations as true, as pure, as the real thing, well, that's another story.
I consider myself fortunate to have been asked to produce any number of recordings for national TV and Radio commercials in the Jazz genre. I like to say: Stick three Jazz musicians in a room, stand back and watch the roof blow off. Even if the end result in my case is only thirty seconds created to enhance film footage of a sports car, that’s still proof positive that even Madison Avenue thinks the genre holds enough general appeal as to influence the purchasing power of a significant portion of consumers. Or more to the point: Jazz has a lot of appeal. And Jazz sells, even if it can't sell itself.
For most of my career, I produced music for the advertising business, but for the last two years I’ve worked on the marketing side of the music business. Based on my own experience, I can testify that while Jazz may not be the pop music of our times, it is undeniably alive and living large at more Jazz festivals around the world than any genre deserves. Maybe Jazz doesn't play in stadiums because Jazz fans prefer not to muddle a great musical experience with the poor acoustics of sports venues.
Not to mention that Jazz musicians regularly play stages to appreciative audiences –not just in bars and clubs– but also in symphony halls, theaters, and even on dedicated Jazz Cruises, of all places. There is no place ships sail that Jazz can’t be heard, even if only because it turns out, the cruise has likely booked a band. Oh, that’s easy for a cynic to disparage of course, until you realize the sheer world-class quality of musicians who are actually getting these jobs.
Get paid to play piano while sailing the Caribbean? My friend, that’s not a bad gig.
Nevertheless, many Jazz musicians old enough to recall what the sixties sounded like will tell you that Jazz stopped evolving then, but I disagree. Listen to a sampling of what Americans call ‘World Music’ and you’ll realize that Jazz harmony has taken up with nearly every indigenous music from around the world. Jazz isn’t stuck in time: Like any living creature, Jazz has mated, and I have to believe that the new millennium promises interesting progeny from the union.
Furthermore, while some argue the dismal state of music’s place in American schools, America’s colleges and conservatories are giving the young musicians who do make it to their ivory towers an education in Jazz. Notable Jazz musicians, like Robin Eubanks, who teach as well as record and perform will tell you that their classes are filled with enough amazing Jazz heads to keep every American household swinging for another generation.
Jazz is has also wound its way back into popular culture via Hip Hop. More players are experimenting with loops, beats, digital music production and audio technology. What was called Acid Jazz in the nineties has acquired a significant audience under the genre label 'Chill'. Chill doesn’t require a charismatic band leader to work a show, just a DJ to work a solo over a loop. In today’s iPod culture, that may be just fine, –and just enough to provide a decent living to those who make Jazz their livelihood.
So, is Jazz dead? Now that I think about it, I’m inclined to think that Jazz isn’t dead at all, but just the opposite: Jazz is alive and it is everywhere.