Jazz Isn’t Out of Ideas. But the Critiques of Its Vitality Sure Are.
The jazz world is used to claims that the art form has died. So it’s a good bet that plenty of musicians rolled their eyes when they read “The End of Jazz,” a piece in the November issue of the Atlantic by the magazine’s literary editor, Benjamin Schwarz. Except he made a point that was both novel and bizarre: According to him, jazz is dead because the right kind of songs aren’t being written anymore.
Schwarz’s piece is actually a rave review of music scholar Ted Gioia’s book The Jazz Standards, a critical guide to 250 compositions mostly drawn from the Great American Songbook that are crucial to the jazz repertoire. (Disclosure: Gioia was my editor at the now-defunct Jazz.com.) But in the final third of his writing, Schwarz draws some interesting conclusions about the present state of jazz. Because the standards explored in Gioia’s book are mostly culled from the 1920s to the 1950s, Schwarz says that the text “raises doubts” about its author’s assertion that “the jazz idiom [is] a vibrant, present-day endeavor.’”
There are lots of folks out there who see jazz as a relic for precisely this reason: It’s associated with the songs of another generation. But right now, that’s especially untrue. Not since the early 1970s have musicians injected so many new, contemporary ideas into the music, whether through original compositions, modern twists on old chestnuts, or hip, recent covers. And guess what? D.C. is at the heart of that resurgence. Natives like pianist Marc Cary (now based in New York), singer Akua Allrich, and The Young Lions have been hard at work incorporating go-go, hip-hop, and neo-soul into the jazz vocabulary. One of the major obstacles they face is the perception that jazz is old, musty, and stuck in the past.
For that, thank writers like Schwarz, who toss more dirt into jazz’s empty grave. “[T]here is no reason to believe that jazz can be a living, evolving art form decades after its major source—and the source that linked it to the main currents of popular culture and sentiment—has dried up,” he writes. “Jazz, like the [Great American] Songbook, is a relic—and as such, in 2012 it cannot have, as Gioia wishes for it, an ‘expansive and adaptive repertoire.’”
That’s not a thoughtful, well-researched conclusion—it’s just an insult. Schwarz is saying to working jazz composers that they are feeble and not up to the task of creating living music. His argument insults the contemporary musicians who play older tunes: No matter how good they are at their craft, he suggests, they can’t breathe new life into the great old standards. It insults the very songbook he’s attempting to praise: The songs are still performed, improvised on, and recorded—not to mention beloved throughout the world—but the merciless steamroller of time has obliterated them, relegated them to history’s dustbin. So they didn’t endure? Huh. They must not have been that great after all.
What’s more, it insults the great contributors to jazz who were not of the Great American Songbook, the family of songs broadly acknowledged as the best of a generation before the 1960s. Schwarz says that repertoire was “the lingua franca of jazz; its material provided the basis on which to assess a performer’s improvisations.” And yet, by the time jazz began contributing to and playing songs from the Songbook, the form had already existed for three decades. How odd that an entire generation of musicians were writing and performing without their lingua franca. In fact, those musicians were relying on traditional New Orleans songs, ragtime and blues by the likes of W.C. Handy and Scott Joplin, and new tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, and others. Louis Armstrong would eventually delve into the Songbook—but only after completing his greatest recordings, the Hot Fives and Sevens of 1924-28, which miraculously never touched the Songbook stuff. Washington’s own Duke Ellington would become a major Songbook contributor, but he honed his craft in the pool halls and juke joints of 1910s D.C.
Schwarz seems to believe that a dormant Great American Songbook means that jazz can’t evolve. There’s something fundamentally wrong with that thinking. By his logic, jazz’s inability to progress stems from stagnancy in a collection of songs that doesn’t extend past even the middle of the 20th century. Wouldn’t losing that tether actually force jazz to proceed in a new direction?
As it happens, after the 1950s—roughly when the great source of jazz allegedly dried up—jazz kept growing. The 1960s were as revolutionary for jazz as they were for rock, with many of that era’s composers—Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter among them—writing tunes that are still standards today. Then came fusion. By the 1980s, the big complaint was that jazz had evolved too much since the Songbook era. Yet even the Complainer-in-Chief, Wynton Marsalis, managed to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996, for an original, large-scale work of music that was definitely undead.
Is it untenable that there is an addendum to the Great American Songbook in the works? What about all those composers in the 1960s? And what about the artists today writing new jazz, or drawing from today’s popular music (which is what the Great American Songbook was in its era: “I Got Rhythm” and “Night and Day” weren’t self-conscious art handed down from some ivory tower). Pianist Vijay Iyer has drawn considerable attention in the jazz press for interpreting Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”—a song Miles Davis began performing in 1984, not long after Jackson’s version charted. It has also been performed and/or recorded by jazz musicians David Benoit, Marcus Miller, Joey DeFrancesco, and Eric “ELEW” Lewis. It’s that kind of performance lineage, not its origins, that gives a song the makings of a standard. Similarly, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has been a recent favorite; Lewis has recorded it, as have Brad Mehldau, the trio The Bad Plus, and Robert Glasper.
Radiohead material alone has become a cottage industry in jazz: Look at D.C. saxophonist Bobby Muncy and trumpeter Joe Herrera, who sporadically lead a band called the Radiohead Jazz Project. Singer Lena Seikaly has also been known to perform songs by Thom Yorke & Co., as well as tunes by Beck and Aimee Mann. D.C. native Ben Williams, now a rising national jazz star, includes another Jackson tune (“Little Susie”) on his recent debut album, State of Art. And oh yeah—those local musicians are composers, too. Muncy is even part of the D.C. Jazz Composer’s Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting and advancing new and original music of every style of jazz.
There’s no shortage of players finding new life in those old standards, either. Each week the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra dives anew into the jazz repertoire, examining it from fresh angles. This season at the Kennedy Center, jazz advisor Jason Moran—highly regarded for his originality—is presenting the music of Fats Waller. Even in the jazz underground, the monthly CapitalBop jazz loft often features musicians like trombonist Reginald Cyntje and saxophonist Elijah Balbed, who find new and unique ways to play standards. Surely even Schwarz has heard the cliché, “It’s the singer, not the song.”
Like most of the “jazz is dead” arguments, Schwarz’s falls apart under the barest scrutiny. But it does shed light on an actual threat to jazz’s vitality: perception. Too many people really do see jazz as every bit the fossil Schwarz says it is. It’s not a relic now, and it wasn’t before, either, even at the height of its 1980s conservatism. Jazz is improvised music—it’s always about the moment, no matter what or when the tune is—and for D.C. music lovers, the proof is one trip to U Street away.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery