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Writer and jazz critic Paul da Barros asks an essential question about jazz in the new century. “How can the music can get back into the culture in a meaningful way?”


If jazz cannot answer that question, then it is doomed to obscurity. Without a hook into how life is lived today, jazz will be museum music, the taste of a small minority of fanatics. No matter how many Clifford Brown solos these fans can scat from memory, their support alone can’t nurture a living art. For many, this threshold was crossed long ago.


Once, We Were Popular
Jazz started off as popular music, music that came from and directly served folks. Ragtime had its own dance, the Cake Walk. Early jazz in New Orleans was social music—played in brothels and speakeasies, in funeral parades and at celebrations. The rise of the big bands and the blossoming of “swing” made jazz the pop music of the ‘30s and ‘40s—in dancehalls, in radio broadcasts, and in the hearts of millions of jitterbugging teens… and their parents. Yes, there was a time when Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Tommy Dorsey were as big as Madonna or Jay-Z.


The ‘50s brought us rock ‘n’ roll, but not the death of jazz’s popular connection. Elvis Presley may have been bigger, but everyone still knew who Miles Davis was.  As The Beatles came to dominate radio, jazz still thrived on jukeboxes and even on the charts—Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd” was funky piano that went to number five on the pop charts in 1965. Jazz managed to absorb the influence of rock and soul without losing its essence, and plenty of rock musicians found themselves playing Coltrane tunes or, at least, playing his tunes the way they thought Coltrane would have.


cover art

Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense

(US DVD: 4 May 2010)

Somewhere around 1980 or so, however, the connection of any real jazz to the popular pulse becomes problematic. “Smooth jazz” became temporarily popular, but it’s not really jazz. Hip hop used a few notable jazz samples to create hits (US3’s “Cantaloop” in 1993), but the jazz music had become mostly just something to play in the background. A few jazz vocalists, such as the 70-plus Tony Bennett in the ‘90s and the sultry Diana Krall in the last decade made popular inroads, but they did so with music that might best be called “nostalgic”: that is, compositions, style and affect straight out of 1960.  The mass success of Norah Jones was no more jazz than, say, Carole King’s Tapestry.


So, What Is Jazz Today?
Ask the average person to name a jazz musician today. My informal poll reveals that the most likely answer is Miles Davis (died 1991), an answer that might have been given 55 years ago. Other common answers: Louis Armstrong (died 1971), Dizzy Gillespie (died 1993), Duke Ellington (died 1974), and Wynton Marsalis (at last, an actual living human being).


Which is to say: for most people, jazz is a dead man’s music. This just might be the problem in making jazz a sustainable art form.


For now, at least, I’ll confess that this is an extremist view. There is a teeming jazz scene all over the world. While the New York scene alone would seem to contain endless tendrils of possibility, there are nearly equal scenes in several European cities, in Vancouver, maybe in your town. Young musicians are studying jazz in record numbers, and their invention is both within and bursting beyond the great tradition in startling and glorious ways.


Still, however, the disconnect is between the quality and variety of contemporary jazz invention and its actual audience. How is this still-incredible music, the brilliant, second / third / fourth-generation result of Pops and Duke and Dizzy and Miles, going to find its way to the ears (and hearts) of younger fans—arguably the lifeblood audience it needs to continue?


Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense
Paul da Barros’ question comes from a recently released documentary that attempts to bridge the divide between new jazz and its ideal audience. Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense goes light on history—which has been told a million times over, right?—and features interviews and performances with musicians and bands in their 20s, 30s and 40s. A few of these have achieved significant renown, but most are big names only to dedicated jazz fans.


The film, produced by Paradigm Studio and culled from a four-part TV documentary, is just about a perfect balance between performance and conversation, with no intrusive narration trying to Explain It All To You. The musicians talk a great deal about why they don’t much care for the word “jazz”, they talk about why they won’t be, whey they can’t be entirely confined by the history of the music, and they assert with conviction that the truth and beauty of the music “is now”, according to trumpeter Nicholas Payton.


There are only a few elder statesmen on hand here. Herbie Hancock shows up, saying, “The younger musicians that are coming up are bringing new blood to jazz, new blood to expression.”  Singer Diane Reeves believes that the new music is ready to feed a hunger among people: “The music and the times are very linked.  Even though it’s still undergound.  When this new sound emerges, people will once again be active listeners because they’ve been fed a line for so long.”  And Wayne Shorter, the mystical and elliptical saxophone great, demands that musicians explore the unexpected.


But mostly this is a film that gives you hope that there is a rising tide of great, daring music that is bound to be discovered.  It is a glimpse, you end up hoping, into a future beyond category.


First Off: Don’t Call It ‘Jazz’
The challenge that de Barros presents is one of connecting “jazz” to the present. In the film he suggests, ““If you look back at what we know consider a golden age in the music in the fifties and sixties, you think of more than music. You think of integration, the civil rights music, you think of a kind of bohemian outsiderism. The problem jazz faces right now is, if you say ‘jazz’ to somebody, they don’t have something obvious in the present culture they can connect it with. What is it actually saying?  If you asked Lee Morgan or Sonny Rollins what their music was saying, they would say, ‘Well, I’m a black person in a white society with something to say and I need to be heard’.  That was part of the message of that music—that was part of the urgency of it.”


One solution to this problem, for musicians in the moment, is simply to avoid calling their music “jazz” at all.


Trumpeter Dave Douglas says, “I’m very careful not to use the term ‘jazz’ too loosely because then you open up this whole can of worms that is the argument of what jazz is. I think that’s a great argument to have. But in terms of the global vision of what music and what’s happening in the scene, it slows down looking at all the different music that is proliferating.”


There is plenty of historical precedent for this, of course. “Jazz” was a pejorative term early on (derived, apparently, from a slang word for sexual intercourse) and most musicians found it reductive.  Eventually, however, most had no way to avoid it. Miles Davis hated it, and he is arguably its iconic essence. In Icons Among Us, pretty much no one likes it.


Pianist Matthew Shipp sees the word as a trap, a dead end, even as he personified the idea of the music. “Jazz is just a four-letter word, it has no meaning. Jazz is a living organism. If jazz is to be a living organism, you can’t seek the living among the dead. “


Guitarist Bill Frisell also sees the word as a kind of fence even as he accurately understands the tradition as one of growth. “I don’t like when the name of something has the effect of excluding. If you say it’s one thing then it can’t be something else. The words are always smaller than whatever it is you’re trying to describe. For me ‘jazz’ is infinite. It’s always been about some kind of mystery. Historically, the nature of it is that it changes.”


Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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