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Last month, I was asked to represent my country in an international showdown, a high stakes battle for global bragging rights. Am I headed to China to compete in the 100-meter dash? Alas, I’m no athlete. I’m a jazz critic. So, I was asked to go on the radio.


The show was Soundcheck on New York’s NPR affiliate WNYC. Every Tuesday, host John Schaefer features a “Soundcheck Smackdown”—a critical debate about music, with recorded evidence and audience call-in. The topic was a classic jazz debate: which is better, American or European jazz?


When the producer asked me to participate, I instinctively wanted to take the less obvious side. The standard answer, of course, is that American jazz is dominant. After all, jazz was born in the US, it is often called “American Classical Music”, and the music is steeped in America’s great and singular innovation, the blues. But European jazz is the hipper choice, right? At least in the US, European jazz is more an aficionado’s game. And, though I cannot always spell the word correctly, I fervently hope I am an aficionado.


In the end, however, my “opponent”, Peter Margasak, writes the “European Scene” column for Downbeat Magazine, so I was asked to be a patriot. Cool. I could do that. The show, as broadcast, can be found here.


The whole “smackdown” concept might be a bit silly, sure. Some folks who called or emailed in noted that music is music, who cares where it’s made? There’s no doubt—jazz is now a fully global phenomenon with musicians from all over the world mixed together wherever you find the art from flourishing.


But still, even today there are some distinctive characteristics to American and European jazz styles. Which strain of music is most forward-looking? Which suggests the most promising vanguard for a music that seems to lose listeners even as its creativity expands? Which might reverse the trend toward flight from jazz as overstuffed museum music?


Let’s see if we can unpack the argument evenly here.


Some History
In the beginning, the phrase “American jazz” was a redundant and the phrase “European jazz” was an oxymoron. “Jazz” was the only utterly American art form, the artistic culmination of the collision between the African and European musical traditions made possibly only by the tragic fact of American slavery. In jazz, America had produced a sublime and unique refinement of the blues, and one that traveled the world as our country’s great ambassador. Sure, jazz was played in Europe eventually, by American ex-pats and then by smitten Europeans, but that didn’t make it “European jazz” any more than playing Mozart in Boston made that “American classical music”.


Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt


Oh, but there were exceptions. The plainest is Django Reinhardt, the Belgian gypsy guitarist who seemed to emerge singularly in Europe during the early 1940s as an original stylist both steeped in the US jazz tradition and channeling something unique. Playing in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, a five-piece string band that also featured fleet violin work by Stephane Grappelli, Reinhardt was immediately fresh. His playing had the flash of bop and emotional connection of swing, yet it also contained traces of European folk tunes that Reinhardt no doubt learned as a kid growing up in gypsy camps. Like a European “negro” of a sort, the guitarist was embraced as an authentic jazzman from the start.


Most European-born jazz musicians prior to 1960, however, were happy merely to mimic American originals. The music was plainly loved in Europe—indeed, it is a truism that jazz, largely ignored in the US after the height of the “swing era”, has continually been celebrated in Europe as a form of high art. (The same may be true in other countries, like Japan for example, where jazz musicians have been celebrities with prime-time television specials.)


By the 1950s, there was a thriving jazz scene in a dozen European cities, with thousands of home-grown talents, many of whom recorded with jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon. But the music could still hardly be termed “European jazz” in the sense of being different or distinctively European in either provenance or sensibility.


But all that was to change.


Jazz Liberation
In the 1960s, jazz was liberated in a variety of ways. Musicians like Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, and Anthony Braxton started making music that was less and less dependant on conventional harmony and straight swing rhythm—and in many cases these “free” musicians used traditions beyond the US to help them renew the music. Without question, the European classical tradition of the day—atonal, avant-garde, experimental—gave inspiration to the “new thing” jazz.


As a result, European jazz musicians had a new purchase on how they might fit into the music. “Their” music and tradition was no longer just a grandpa to jazz, it was now a fresh source of inspiration at the cutting edge. In no time at all, an avant-garde jazz scene arose in Europe that had a forward-looking bent. Musicians such as Peter Brotzmann, Evan Parker, and Misha Mengelberg may have had training and background in mainstream jazz, but they exploded into the scene first and foremost as free players. All three can claim important American influences, but no more or less so than their US contemporaries.


Most importantly, Europeans seemed, from early on, to embrace jazz freedom with less sanctified angst than American jazz players. In the US in the ‘60s, “free jazz” was a cause but also a pair of fighting words. The jazz press was divided about it, and musicians as prominent as Miles Davis attacked it like sin. Europe just played it, and well. Unshackled from imitating their American betters, European free players found themselves.


American Invention, Continued
But the notion that the European scene overtook American invention when Coltrane died in 1967 is narrow indeed. The market for jazz in the US seemed spent at the time, with the rise of rock putting the nail in jazz’s commercial coffin. But that may have been a good thing, freeing serious musicians of commercial expectation. In Chicago, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) was rising and creating a new well of improvised creativity; in New York, a loft scene was brewing and on its heels a generation of musicians who would play every kind of music at once in dance clubs as well as jazz clubs. In the 1970s and 1980s, the US was every bit as daring as Europe, but it just wasn’t as obviously so.


The concern on the US jazz scene with the new music’s relationship to tradition was not altogether bad. American jazz was hardly a pure-bred thing—it had successfully absorbed Afro-Cuban styles, Brazilian sounds, even the backbeat of rock. If each expansion of the jazz vocabulary in the US was a bit of a rebirth, then it was also a messy birth with the necessary crying and gnashing of teeth. “Is this still jazz?” people would obsessively ask. “Does this fit?”


Lester Bowie

Lester Bowie


Perhaps these questions slowed down US jazz, making it less “anything goes” than its European cousin, but the questions also kept American jazz more integrated with its history. Listening to Lester Bowie and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, for example, there is never any question about the group’s grounding in the blues or in the messy contrapuntal tradition of New Orleans. It was typical of Bowie to record doo-wop songs (“The Great Pretender”) as well as abstraction, to improvise on Whitney Houston tracks as well as, well, nothing at all.


Here’s a nice irony: while there certainly were European musicians combining jazz with the folk traditions of their countries, perhaps the most successful example of the practice has American fingerprints—the scene folding the klezmer tradition into jazz was a New York phenomenon. (Arguably this begins with some traces of klezmer clarinet styles in the music of Benny Goodman and George Gershwin.) John Zorn with his group Masada and Dave Douglas with his Tiny Bell Trio both made this European/Jewish folk music a keen and accidental cousin of the blues, and their music is a brilliant jazz development.


Even the least attractive element of the US scene since the ‘60s—the continued concern among US jazz musicians with trying to sell records—may not have been entirely bad. One of the finest jazz musicians since the free era dawned is saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Shorter’s career (like that of his friend Herbie Hancock) spans free playing, mainstream playing, commercial success, and highly individualized seeking. Shorter, always operating within jazz commercial context, created timeless compositions with a fresh harmonic palette (“Speak No Evil”), engineered fusion with rock that managed not to embarrass either style (much of the work of Weather Report), played breezy Brazilian fusion (Native Dancer), and creatively used classical sources (Mendelssohn in “On the Wings of Song”). Having found ways to grow jazz beyond revolution and abstraction, Shorter remains a vital presence on the scene today, 50 years after his personality first emerged. Hemmed in some by the arguments of the marketplace and the tradition to which he has paid some attention, Shorter has been a supremely integrative jazz musician even as he has innovated.


The Comparative Scenes Today
My “argument” with Peter Margasak was supposed to be about the modern jazz scenes in the US and in Europe. Peter cited the wonderful group the ICP Orchestra, for example (led by Misha Mengelberg), and I pointed to pianist Robert Glasper. Both are wonderful, in fact—fresh, thrilling, alive, terrific. Peter claimed that the European scene was more progressive, less weighed down by convention. I argued that the US scene was better integrated—a logical extension of jazz history rather than a mere exercise in aimless freedom.


Both points are right, and both points are generalizations.


For example, I am a huge fan of the Norwegian/Swedish quintet Atomic. Atomic (Magnus Broo on trumpet, Fredrik Ljungkvist on saxophones, Håvard Wiik on piano, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on bass, and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love) plays explosive, blues-infused free-bop that draws on Art Blakey as much as Ornette Coleman. Each player sounds original and fresh, not imitative, while there is certain lineage to their jazz forebears. In short, Atomic sounds a great deal like the finest examples of American jazz that I could cite in my radio argument.


On the flip side, there are current American jazz players who sound a whole lot like they would fit into today’s European scene. Pianist Matthew Shipp was born in Delaware, but he often sounds like a continental: he plays with tremendous abstraction, and when he’s drawn to popular forms it is more likely to be the electronic dance textures of “house music” that have intrigued Europeans.


The larger truth, of course, is that of globalization: a force even in jazz. If there truly were separate jazz scenes in the ‘60s and ‘70s, then those scenes are increasingly unified. I’ve seen Atomic in a small Baltimore club on a double bill with the great Chicago group led by Ken Vandermark. I saw the ICP Orchestra play an all-Ellington show in Washington, DC. Brooklyn-based composer/bandleader/bassist Anna Mette Iverson has a classical background from training in Denmark, but she is a graduate of the New School—and it’s not unusual to hear her gigging with, say, an Irish group performing jazz in Dublin. Is Russian-born trumpeter Alex Sipiagin an exemplar of European jazz? I mean, he lives in New York with his wife and singer Monday Michiru, who is the daughter of Japanese-born jazz musician Toshiko Akiyoshi and American jazz saxophonist Charlie Mariano. Who even wants to sort it all out? The music speaks its own singular language.


One Scene, a Million Scenes—One Music, Infinite Styles
Maybe the larger question when comparing American and European jazz is, inevitably: What is “jazz” anyway? My subtle prejudice for the American variety comes from my sense that US-made jazz incorporates more centrally the core values of jazz—blues sensibility and elastic rhythm. But who is to say that these elements are crucial to jazz?


European jazz musicians today are more likely to incorporate Icelandic folk melodies, naturally. And why not? Accordion virtuoso Frode Haltli exploits Norwegian psalms, dances, and folk tunes on his ECM records. So, is it jazz if you improvise on such sources, with little trace of blues? If so, wouldn’t that make almost all Indian classical music a kind of jazz? And, if so, is that really a problem?


In the end, arguments about “art” are exercises in aesthetic relativism anyway. Haltli and Shipp and Mengelberg and Shorter are musicians, and they all use improvisation. Beyond that, questions of similarity or preference are matters of individual perception and taste. The oft-quoted line from Ellington is that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. But even there: good or bad according to whom? Every musician is his own style—it’s a world of a million little scenes or maybe just one scene, right?


In my gut, it’s hard for me not to believe that there is something unique on this American soil that helps jazz to grow. My head knows it’s not true, but my heart beats red, white, and blues. Plus, is there any city you’d rather be in for jazz than New York?


But in New York, the world gathers to play music. Jazz will always be American, but it has been our gift to the rest of the planet. We should be pleased that, in 2008, the world is fully capable of returning the gift.


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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