Jazz died in 1959, and I can prove it (or Nicholas Payton can)

My good friend and bandmate John Venter just shared this with me.

On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore

Read it. Read it all.

It sums up a lot of the feeling that I have had, and shared, for a long time. Sure I love the sound of a good jazz band. But the real deal is that when, in conversation, I have compared it to a Society for Creative Anachronism event, or to Civil War reenactments,  Those statements bought me plenty of hairy eyeballs, but that is what I feel. As much as I love the music I could never throw myself into the act of learning jazz standards. Lord knows I have tried. I don’t have a problem with other people doing it, but I am not the man for the job. I want to act on my musical impulses, whether they are informed by jazz or not.

There have been many efforts to adjectivize the art form. The New Thing. Electric Jazz. Hard Bop. Smooth Jazz. Euro-Jazz. Afro-Jazz… For more than 60 years the focus has been on  “modern jazz”, and I think there is a case to be made that “modern jazz” is/was a label to keep the form from truly advancing, or was instantly an extinct idea. Maybe both. I still use “jazz” and “free jazz” when tagging my music when I publish on sites like Bandcamp. I use the label cautiously, but I use it because it is a known concept and can be helpful for listeners. But when you listen to one of my tracks, brother, it ain’t jazz, free or otherwise. I am informed by Jazz, and educated by jazz. But the music is hopefully a music of the present.

My exposure to Jazz goes back to infancy, if not the womb, and much of that early exposure was crossover jazz, like Bird with Strings, or Jamal at the Penthouse. Name players in front of a string section. It was a lot safer for suburban whites to consume than something like Monk or Art Tatum. When I started to check out “jazz” I immediately gravitated to the harder-edged, bluesy, emotional music of the early 60’s. The Hard Bop scene, especially Mingus and his circle of players and composers, has been a huge influence on me. Much of that was recorded from 1960 onward, and that is at least an anecdotal support for Payton’s premise. These musicians were taking jazz forward by bringing it back to the roots of blues. Moving the forms away from the conceit of advanced european harmonic concepts (i.e. “birth of the cool”) and toward the I-IV-V, the funky cousin of the ii-V-I. This pushed open the doors for modal approaches, and other less restrictive platforms on which to improvise. Jazz was dead, but there was no stomach for a new genre or label. They would be marketed as jazz, then as now as forever.

There is an even darker side to that exposure. The more I learned about Charles Mingus, and how he was “angry” and “volcanic”… the more I was convinced that the roots of his mania were planted in being shut out of being a classical cellist as a youth. He could have been one of the greats in American classical music. Why wasn’t he? There was no place for a black classical cellist in 1940’s Los Angeles (and there was no other venue for cello, truly). He switched to bass, and focused on Jazz, because it was accepted. While he had an amazing career full of powerful music, I can’t help thinking that his stature as a “third stream” artist is a way to put a happy face on the racism that pushed him into “jazz”. Jazz may have been dead much earlier than 1959. It could have been dead in 1941 if you want to push the concept.

The argument about what, and who, is “jazz” stretches into the Jazz-purity quest of Wynton Marsalis, and the sneering of Stanley Crouch. They want the body kept alive by any means necessary. They have the right, and they have the platform, and even the funding, to pursue that goal. But the story as seen in an objective light might accurately be that they were performing CPR on a corpse. Crouch lambasting Miles for not making more Kind of Blue is an apex example. Miles was not an observer, he was a participant, and had been present at the funeral. He knew it was dead. Crouch was looking to preserve his domain at the expense of an artist. “Sell Out”, he hissed.

The deal is that the 20th century is chock full of artists who have tried to use jazz as a launchpad and not a crashpad, and they have been routinely marginalized and misunderstood on purpose. Monk. Ornette. Sun Ra. Cecil. Pharaoh,  Roland. They were all held up to the light of Pops, or the Hawk, or even Bird (who was punk to the core, trying to blast jazz free by brute force). They were never allowed to occupy the next plateau, the next “jazz”. They were tethered to a pyre no less real than Jean D’Arc. And all the while jazz has been dead.

Name the most successful “jazz” artist today. Where can you hear their music? Where can you see them play? Is it truly the fault of an entire society that jazz has lost its relevance? Can it be, in an age where music and information are more available than ever, that this American art form from the cusp of the 20th century could be so roundly ignored and unprofitable? Or is it like trying to sell crystal radios to the iPhone generation? An anachronism, as beautiful as a tintype and about as relevant.

Enjoy jazz. It isn’t going away. I spent some time digging Angelo Debarre playing gypsy jazz in his hard-hitting and direct style just last night. It was beautiful. It still is today. It still will be forever. But it isn’t new. It is a photo of a corpse. A beautiful, romantic, hard-won, photo of a corpse.

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