Perfect Sound Forever

If Jazz is Dead...

Can We Search the Pockets and Take the Money?
by Fabio Rojas
(April 2009)

[ED NOTE: This is the introductory snippet of an unpublished book about jazz and its evolution.
It's half rant, half social critique, half music commentary.]

They've been saying jazz is dead for a long time, a real long time. Don't make my word for it. Ask around. Composer Edward Bland said it in 1959. Ask author Stuart Nicholson (Is Jazz Dead?), he's certain that Wynton killed it. Yes, that's right. Stu says that Wynton showed up one day with his Star Trek styled Monette horn and blew the music down Jericho style. Who knew that impeccable classical tone was a tool for swingocide?

But folks also love telling you how jazz comes back from the dead. Bebop was supposed to kill it. And the New Thing, and electric instruments, and fusion, and top 40 radio. Even Sun Ra, purveyor of light, was supposed to bring darkness to our musical souls. Wynton got the last laugh on this one. After he killed jazz, he had the decency to revive it in all its majesty. Killing your parents and claiming the orphan's pity is the essence of chutzpah.

It appears that jazz is all about getting back into the ring, cut-men and Crouch-men egging us on for another round. Consider Brother Lester. Jazz' greatest cut-man and heavy metal spice boy. Back in '69, some punk reporter had the gall to ask the Trumpet Ensemble of Chicago if jazz is dead. This guy reinvented jazz in a Hyde Park church basement, just ‘cuz he felt like it. "Is jazz dead?" I would have scrubbed his mouth with valve oil and a brush. Pushed all his valves down. But Brother Lester had the decency to answer this reporter at length, making it absolutely clear that jazz was not dead. Not at all. Allow me to quote to you what exactly occurred. This reporter asked: "Is jazz, as we know it, dead?"

Du-dweee!! Growlll!!! Dweeeeeeet!!!

"Well, depends on what you know."

Case settled. Jazz was not dead.

And so it went for quite a while. The Chicago Boys showed jazz wasn't dead. Anthony brought us the first ever solo saxophone album, Muhal brought us more light. Then the Europeans did some new stuff, Brotz showed me how to die without dignity. God bless Don Cherry, flying round the world dropping a little bit of jazz everywhere he went. BROWN RICE! BROWN RICE! Ornette reinvented himself by fusing to himself. The Loft thing happened, a little Arthur Doyle, and then Zorn. Murray brought us flowers for Albert. Woody's Rosewood. There were others, many others. Jazz was going, going new places. You knew jazz wasn't dead because every couple of years someone would do something that made you really scratch your head. Maybe you liked it. Maybe you hated it. But you just had to pay attention. The craft, the imagination, the verve just couldn't be ignored. When someone said this was new music, they weren't kidding. It was new. But it's been a long time since we had that feeling, a little too long.

I realized this at the archives at the University of Illinois in Chicago. My blinding light? An advertisement from a crumbling decades old student newspaper, found while working on another project. The advertisement said, "New Directions in Music ­ Miles Davis, In a Silent Way." Sweet Jesus, In a Silent Way was a new direction in music. Almost forty years later, it still is a new direction in music. Can any other album capture that slow, moody brew? Has music begun to understand the implications of Miles-channeling-Stockhausen? Have we truly assimilated the structure sprung on us by Zawinaul and Miles? How many of us even try to do what was done on that session? Still new. Still relevant. Still unexplored.

I put that crumbly newspaper down and had a second realization. "New Directions in Music" wouldn't apply to much found in the pages of Downbeat, Jazziz or even my beloved Cadence. There's a lot of great music, much that I cherish and much that I consider a treasure. Today's music is exciting and enriching, but can that music do what "Iron Man" did to Joyce Mordecai in 1964? Commenting on the title of Eric Dolphy's classic track, Mordecai, his fiancee, explained the title as it was rendered in her mind. The musicians were iron men, climbing a mountain, reaching new heights. They were courageous and showed us new ways of seeing things.

Not today. Today's music is more chemistry, less prophecy. It's about purification, combination, or dissection. Musical ingredients are sanitized, pasteurized, and metastasized. We know jazz so damn well. Even the SAT has a section on tritone substitutions.

But this isn't a dissing of jazz. I love the jazz that we have today. We have fantastic musicians and it's easy to find compelling music. Anybody would be impressed with today's leading jazz musicians. Still, it's very hard to find music that so pushed things that the musicians themselves wondered what was going on because it was too new, too vas, too much, too fast. Is there a recording in this new century where people left the session befuddled and amazed by what was going on, as happened during the first electric Miles sessions in 1967? Or the Five Spot during Ornette's famous run?

That brings me to my main point. Jazz is dead, thank God. Don't misinterpret me. I don't mean "no one plays good jazz anymore the way I liked when Louis Armstrong played for grandpa in 1927 on a riverboat." I don't mean "you can't find someone who knows how to swing on Cherokee." I do mean "yeah, we've got great guys but the map's been drawn." I do mean "no one knocks me to the floor like Albert Ayler did the first time I heard him, though he'd been dead for a few decades." I do mean "we're probably at the end of major jazz evolution." This is it. No more exits on the parkway.

But here's the funny thing. Jazz actually has a number of deep unexplored territories, things that could have happened and that are worth thinking about. We can be iron men and iron women, climbing to the new heights. It's still possible. The base camp is the post-bop that never quite made its way into the mainstream even though it was highly regarded for a while. The highway that took us to where we are today is a detour from these musical territories.

Now you've seen the wind up, time to get ready for the knuckleball. I'll just assume that you agree with my basic point that much jazz circa-2008 is about refinement and manipulation of an existing body of ideas and it has been that way for a while. If you really think Blood in the Fields is the jazz' equivalent of the Ring cycle, then this essay isn't for you. But hey, we'll still be friends when I see you at the Lincoln Center snack bar because I love Wynton, too. Long live the (un)digital underground.

For those of you who wish to indulge me, the book does a few things. First, I'll discuss the unexplored terrains of jazz by looking, in detail, at a few musicians. One is Woody Shaw. In the 1970's, it looked as if Shaw was going to push jazz in a new direction. Shaw was a very mature player of bop and free music. One of the few trumpet players who could hang with Eric Dolphy and live to tell the tale. By the time of Rosewood, in 1978, Shaw had clearly transitioned into a major jazz figure. He'd written compositions of grace and beauty, hatched a new trumpet lineage, and was collecting Grammy nominations and Downbeat awards. You'd think he'd become part of the jazz foundation, much like Miles and Brownie and Dizzy.

Woody showed the way, but today, his music is remembered mainly by trumpet enthusiasts. The neo-classicism of the 1980's renders someone like Shaw a vague, diffuse memory. People would rather delve into another Cole Porter songbook than contemplate the delicate prettiness of Katerina Ballerina, or paddle down the rumbling river known as the Blackstone Legacy. I'll spend some time explaining, in my view, what was so musically compelling about Shaw and indicate what was potentially revolutionary about his path.

I'd like to discuss other musicians who showed us different, but equally exciting, paths. There's John Carter, the great clarinetist. Like Woody, Carter imprinted his personality on jazz, but his music differed in its grounding. Woody created an emotionally turbulent, yet pretty, music, built upon an unsettled, troubled personality. Carter's was more historically grounded. The clarinet channeled ancient, resonating experiences. His music wasn't merely an homage to field hollers, or a gesture toward Africa. It was a multi-layered project, an unpeeling, a retracing, an assimilation of moods and modes. More investigation than evocation. There's also Horace Tapscott and Sun Ra, both reinventing the big band. Then there's modern folks like Leo Waddada Smith, digging into the delta. Over and over, we were shown new paths, but the music has passed them on.

The purpose is not to praise the dead, but to see through the eyes of the elders. To see the light of another time, when the music of today had not yet come. To think about what made their music urgent, worth living a life by. To think about what jazz might have been if highly structural post-bop had become the new jazz language instead of the revived hard-bop and swing of the 1990's.

Now I'll like to get a little sociological too and unpeel the jazz culture of the 1970's and 1980's. I don't mean that I'll go into the ins and outs of jazz clubs, or the biographies of various musicians. Instead, consider how we thought about jazz in that era of the 1970's and 1980's. I won't go into the tired territory of "rock killed jazz." It's simply not true. Jazz, though financially impoverished, continued to bloom even when new generations turned away from jazz in the late 1960's. Remember, Miles could fill a stadium of people doing electrified European art music. I won't go into another baseless rant against jazz education programs, screwed up Real Book changes, or Jamey Abersold records. These really aren't problems.

Also consider how American high brow culture changed its focus right as a new generation of giants, like Woody, was stepping up to the stage. In books, magazines, and television, we looked away just as jazz was about to take a new shape. The main argument I'm making isn't that jazz was killed by some bogey-man, like the record industry or Wynton's neo-classicism. Rather, as a musical public, we deprived the music of what it needs ­ a supportive critical audience. The shift can be seen in how major cultural institutions preferred classical jazz more than the rumblings of the loft scene. Rather, phenomena like neo-classicism are symptoms of our culture, not causes of it.

But you know what? I'm not bitter. It's OK that jazz is dead. Really, it is. I've reached the acceptance stage. You know why? Jazz has been recycled into other vital music. Jazz grows when its consumed by others. That's why I'll end here with a discussion of how jazz seems most alive in hip-hop, electronica, and other music. DJ Qbert is a starting point here. The master turnatablist, to put it bluntly, is the reincarnation of Charlie Parker. He's recognized by his peers, and those with ears, as a virtuoso of the highest caliber. He's developed an urgency found only in those who've been to the mountain top. It's not surprising. He came out of the vibrant Bay Area hip hop scene, but most importantly, he spent a fair amount of time studying Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. And what's remarkable is that he's popular. DJ Qbert essentially plays a highly abstract form of music that employs the logic of extended improvisation, yet, he's able to attract legions of followers. No love songs, no 4/4 forms. Just wish-wish-wisha. But utterly urgent. Qbert isn't the only one, hip-hop is full of musicians who've used jazz as a crucial element of their sonic vocabulary. You can find jazz in pop-music that samples the Red Clay baseline, hip-hop that breaks out into extended Tynerism, and the Lydian mode of bluegrass improvisation.

If the grandpa's dead, let's read the will and collect the money.

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