The Future of Jazz
By Will Friedwald, Ted Gioia, Jim Macnie, Peter Margasak, Stuart Nicholson, Ben Ratliff, John F. Szwed, Greg Tate, Peter Watrous, K. Leander Williams;
edited by Yuval Taylor
A Capella (Chicago Review Press), May 2002, 241 pages, $16.95
reviewed by Don Rose
Yuval Taylor, who did such a fine job at Da Capo Press with its program of reissuing jazz books, has come up with one very neat idea: get an interesting assortment of jazz critics and writers (some of whom are musicians) and have them interact on a series of issues relating to where this music may be going.
With most of the work being done by e-mail, each of the writers was assigned a topic and his essay was sent around to all the others for comments, all of which were published with minor editing. Reading it is like sitting in on one of the great jazz bull-sessions of all time. I’m not the only scribe who is envious of those who had the chance to participate, because it is certainly one engaging conversation.
Taking up a series of vital and often controversial questions, such as jazz and race or the function of the jazz repertory (where there are kind words for Bill Russo’s Chicago Jazz Ensemble), there is a substantial amount of debate here but without the backbiting and rancor one often finds in such discussions. These are serious guys who go about the conversation in a straightforward, open, learned but not academic way, even when you get significant disagreement.
Only Peter Watrous, who leads off with an essay attempting to define the “mainstream,” comes off a bit dyspeptically—which may be both cause and effect of his decision to quite writing about jazz after a well regarded, twenty-year career. The Chicago Reader’s Peter Margasak, on the other hand, has the most depressing subject to deal with: the business of jazz. All the contributors wax more than a bit dyspeptic on that gloomy topic.
Taken as a whole, I’m not sure the book or any individual contributor really came up with a reliable prediction about the future of the music, though there is a clear consensus that whether or nor not Americans are carrying the torch, the whole world’s musics are contributing to our national gumbo—particularly Latin American music, which has began making incursions into jazz in its earliest years.
Stuart Nicholson, in fact, argues in several places—as he did in a well-played New York Times article last year—that Americans are no longer in the forefront of the music and have been supplanted by a batch of northern Europeans. Others point out—and I agree—that some of the Euro jazz he champions can scarcely be considered something new and progressive. OK, he says—maybe not progressive but new in that it adopts contemporary popular rhythms and again makes jazz a dance music.
Ted Gioia questions the whole concept of musical or artistic “progress” in this postmodern age, noting—as he did to a limited extent in his excellent “The History of Jazz,” that while the concept may have been valid in the '40s, '50s and '60s, it is not a relevant guideline today. He points out that progress in the arts is essentially a “cultural construct.”
Gioia’s comments came in response to Greg Tate—columnist for the Village Voice—who opened the discussion on free jazz and the avant-garde. After identifying some 30 discs as the “indispensable artifacts of this movement, which could now be in its 45th year of storming the barricades,” he points out that said body of work still remain under utilized by today’s musicians. He takes heart, however, in recent efforts by pianist Jason Moran and tenorman Mark Warner. Tate also tends to see the future in ultimately infusing the best of hip-hop elements into the jazz scene.
Ben Ratliff, the New York Times’s exceptional young jazz-and-pop critic, in his opening gun on race, while fully exploring the origins of the music tries to put behind us all the worry about whether jazz is really a black music or a hybrid or whether there’s a true black sound or style. What he comes up with is the interesting concept that jazz has lost much of its audience, particularly among younger blacks, because musicians in recent years have focused primarily on harmony.
“As indicators of a culture,” he writes, “rhythm is most powerful, then melody.” He says the focus on harmony since the ‘70s came because it hadn’t “been explored to death” but “it lifts us away from any basis in reality if we try to link it to race or cultural identity.” He feels also that “the future of jazz is miscegenation.” Meaning musically, of course.
There’s hardly any “avant vs. tradition” argument going on in the book. Fact is, many of the writers are young enough to have grown up in the age of free music and thus their first sips of jazz were from the avant cup. Perhaps that’s what makes this grouping as interesting as it is.
Collectively they are also more tolerant—even supportive—of rock-jazz, though they define the amalgam differently from fusion, which continues to have a bad name. Their various contributions in this area are part of what seems to be an ongoing revisionist approach to the amalgam and in particular to Miles Davis’s electric period altogether.
All the writers, naturally, find fault one way or another with the Ken Burns series on jazz that dismisses or ignores the avant garde as well as fusion music, writing all this out of the canon by indirection if not direct attack.
Another fine discussion takes place around John F. Szwed’s opener on improvisation and composition. Szwed, a Yale professor and author of the lauded “Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra,” gives a fine history and breakdown on the styles of improvisation (expanded nicely by a Nicholson dissertation on patterns and pattern-running), and balances it with an intelligent discussion of jazz composition and its role.
Again, on a subject that used to draw vigorous arguments (can it be jazz if it is written and not improvised?) most agree on the legitimacy—even desirability—of jazz composition, long or short form, finding it part of the jazz process. Improvisation is really a form of composition you know—though none denies that improvising is still the soul of jazz-making.
Rounding out the volume are discussions of jazz vocals led by Will Friedwald, author of several good books on singers and song; international jazz led by K. Leander Williams, a staff writer at “Time Out: New York” magazine; jazz institutions, infrastructures and media by Gioia and a half-serious free-for-all wherein each writer “predicts” what jazz and the world will be like in a given year in the future.
Margasak captures the essence of this last section when he says, after guessing what jazz will be like in the year 2042, he will be finishing his second term as president of the United States.