Sunday, January 17, 2010
Death of Jazz...Hope of Jazz
Having just completed my 5th jazz festival week in Panama...I am filled with a number of mixed emotions about music and specifically the genre they call "jazz". Jazz can mean many different things to various people. While jazz is somewhat THE original American music of this century, having supposedly started in New Orleans in the 1910s-20s...today it can mean a wide variety of sounds and styles. The dictionary defines it as: "intricate, propulsive rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, improvisatory, virtuosic solos, melodic freedom, and a harmonic idiom ranging from simple diatonicism through chromaticism to atonality." As an art form, it also raises many conflicts in the music/arts world about what it should sound like or who or what style is the "truest" form of "jazz".
This is the first festival week in which I participated in the jazz offering on a local basis. While not an official part of the "Jazz Festival" as promoted by the Danilo Perez Foundation in Panama, a local club/restaurant owned by friends decided to support my newly formed local band with an additional investment of bringing two Chicago jazz/blues musician friends to bring our concept of the jazz genre to the "street level"...literally. I have long felt a country or region's true musical culture is what you see in more informal presentations on the streets or "regular" bars or venues on a smaller scale. My criticism of music in Panama has been that it is usually found in the casinos...in my mind a terrible environment to try and experience "art"...or in expensive large venue concerts that only the rich or middle class can enjoy/afford. And when it is in an affordable location, the promotion/publicity is so bad that no one knows it happened until after the fact. Sad really.
I have enjoyed the past years of these local festivals and also have been to many other jazz festivals over the years from Chicago to Detroit to San Diego to New Orleans. The joy in most cases to me is the variety of sounds and styles you heard at many of these festivals. I think the biggest is in Montreal each year, and one day (maybe this year?) I will have to experience that one. Yet, as a musician for most of my life, I have never felt comfortable devoting myself to only being a "jazz" artist. Part of that has to do with my varied background of musical training (from classical to gospel to pop)...and the other has been seeing the relative few people who know, understand or even LIKE jazz music. Unless you are at the very top of the field, it is very difficult to make a living as a jazz musician. If I were to make a comparison to the art world, it would be like being an "impressionist" painter. While at the time and even now "impressionism" has made a huge impact...it is still a very particular taste in art and a small minority in that world who truly appreciate it. It happens to be about my favorite style of visual art, but I know I am in the minority...probably like my music tastes as well.
Anyways, with all that said, I have to wonder about the future evolution of jazz as a musical idiom. Will there continue to be a market for it? Where is the sound going and who will determine its direction? Artists or "business" concerns?
When in my 20s and trying to make it in the music "biz", I quickly developed a sour taste for the business of music. No one wants to pay the value for the "arts"...and in most cases what people see or hear in the "arts" is nowhere near the best material artists have tried to submit. In most cases, industry venue owners have no musical background or real talent. Sometimes you can understand the mentality where jealous people who have dead-end jobs and reasonable levels of self-loathing think that you should just do this stuff for free because it provides such passion and joy to yourself. If passion and joy were a paycheck, I would have always been a rich man.
Then there's the other aspect of societies "attitudes" towards musicians and artists. It is normally deemed as "insecure", difficult to place monetary value on it...and therefore not that respected as a profession. A majority can only make a living "teaching" others to try and do what they do...but few are paid fairly for their own performances. 98% of the worlds best artists live paupers lives financially. We pay much more for our fetish of beautiful flesh and people who make us laugh than we do true artists.
I have always liked and probably related to the "type" of people who are jazz aficionados and artists. They tend to be strong individuals and different to the point of eccentric. Definitely not your mainstream members of society normally. Fortunately, some of these eccentrics are very wealthy and intelligent...and to that end they help support the art form from their other walks in life. But lets get real. If you want to make a living in owning and promoting live music venues or recording music...jazz is going to be way down your list of priorities financially. But for me, like many areas in life, the most valuable, precious things are not those appreciated by the masses. If I want to measure my existence that way, I will just listen to "popular" radio stations, view only "blockbuster" box office hits at the movies and eat most of my meals at chain-food restaurants.
Like so many art forms, jazz is not a stationary music idiom. It has changed a lot in these almost 100 years of the artform...from dixieland to delta blues, bluegrass to Memphis R&B, to Chicago and New York's Bebop and avant garde traditions...jazz is a many splendored thing. And like the visual arts, it has its variety of tastes between older traditional ones to the younger, less disciplined versions. It all cross breeds over time to offer us different tastes and presentations that hopefully continue to hold our interest.
The danger I find these days is a combination of a lack of respect for the traditional jazz forms...and an almost mindless adoration for extreme contemporary styles that have little organization in either melody or rhythm. Many in the idiom explore difference for difference sake...and originality to them means never playing the same song twice the same way. Creatively I can appreciate the challenge of composing a different version of the same song every night...but as part of our human condition, I'm sorry. Some nights are just going to "suck". There are times when it is valuable and joyous to play the traditional licks of some of jazz's greats like Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Fats Waller and a plethora of other greats I could name. I can also appreciate originality in a version of tunes generally associated to these greats...as long as I can still recognize the melody. Unfortunately that becomes difficult in some contemporary jazz groups today. Why call a song "Nights in Tunisia" if it bears no resemblance to Dizzy Gillespies original intent? It would be like taking Beethoven's "Solemn Mass", putting it in a major instead of minor key, changing the time signature to maybe a 4/4 disco beat...and still calling it "Solemn Mass". Doesn't work for me.
Since we were playing this week ourselves, we didn't get to attend the regular jazz fest concerts in person. But...we did catch some of the performances on cable TV here...which is a nice touch. Unfortunately...a couple members of my band commented "we are observing the death of jazz as an art form". As we discussed it, I think the core of that feeling was that many of these young players have fantastic "chops" (fundamental technique and knowledge of their instruments), yet many have no discipline or soul regarding how many notes they play or how they play them. It seems to be a tendency to play as many notes as we can get into 4 or 8 bar solos...and play them at one level...LOUD. While you have to love the energy of youth in many ways...in music it often takes a very mature soul to really "make music" at many levels. And the magic of music isn't the technique or amount of notes played. It is about the intent and emotion behind those notes as often expressed in meaningful spaces of no sounds/notes at all. For me the originality is in the silence between notes...and I once again instruct myself to remember that.
On the bright side, I was very encouraged by the reactions I saw this week to my band's music. For me the "hope" in jazz is that the younger generations are exposed to...and appreciate...the artform. Music to me is THE Universal language...and to the extent that it can reach young and old alike...and I mean THE SAME SONG...is what gives me hope that we humans can continue to relate and pass on the best in values and art forms forever. It is one of the few human experiences that unites us instead of dividing us...one of the few hopes we have to overcome wars and human conflicts. Words obviously aren't working.
To my younger friends and readers I will state that I try to listen and understand all musical art forms. I don't like them all. I admit to having difficulty appreciating rap, reggeaton, and twangy country music. Yet I will respect your right to enjoy those idioms if you will at least listen to a variety of other musical forms every once in a while. I get encouraged when I see teenagers today who discover and appreciate 70s rock. I get BIG TIME goose pimples when I hear great teenage classical talents from all around the world perform together at the famous Interlochen National Music Camp and Arts Institute. But some of my highest moments are when I see young people bobbing their heads or swaying in their seats to some of the original swing and bebop jazz tunes of the 40s through the 60s. That is the moment when I sense the power of that universal language and spiritual side of music that will hopefully last forever.