Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Is Jazz Dying?

Among the several virtues of the recent film La La Land is that it has gotten people talking about jazz. A few people. One of the protagonists in the film (Ryan Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist who has a dream of opening his own club. He's afraid that the jazz traditions are dying, and yet he finds it impossible to make a decent living without stooping to accept a job as a sideman in a pop-funk band.

Some viewers have commented that the way this issue is developed in the film is a little childish and generally unconvincing. I agree. Here are a few reasons:

a) Few unemployed jazz musicians living in one-bedroom apartments seriously imagine they might lease or purchase a historic ballroom in Los Angeles any time soon.

b) In any case, running a club is an entirely different kettle of fish from playing music on the highest level. Both take a lot of time, but they aren't the same thing at all.

c) Most aspiring musicians of any genre spend a great deal of time jamming with their musician friends, trying to develop new sounds, rather than sitting alone at the piano trying to copy riffs from LPs that are fifty years old.

d) The manager of the nightclub where Gosling works could easily have agreed to let him play something more complex  than "Jingle Bells," if he kept it mellow, and he could easily have agreed. It not, he could also have amused himself jazzing up the items that were on the playlist for his own pleasure without alienating the dinner guests unduly. That's what jazz musicians do. (Check out Charlie Parker's version of "White Christmas" on iTunes.) As it stands, the conflict in the film rings false.

All of this doesn't effect the film much, however. La La Land is a fantasy, and jazz is a pretext, and it works well enough under the circumstances. So let's not get too concerned about it. The question remains: Is jazz dying? And the answer, to anyone who knows jazz, is an obvious no.

Most people don't know much about jazz, and I suspect that many adventurous listeners who give it a try find that they don't like it much. Yet in the set of statistics I just dug up online, which runs to 2014, jazz accounted for 1.4 percent of music sales—the same as classical music. Not bad! I suspect if it rose much higher we could attribute it to the success of one particular vocalist or "crossover" artist who would no longer be doing "real" jazz anyway. 

There are many types of "real" jazz, of course, though they aren't mutually exclusive. You might like Trad Jazz, Swing (Big Band), vocal jazz, Bop (cool, West Coast, hard bop), Modal, free jazz ("out"), fusion, Euro (chamber jazz), or "ethnic" jazz, by which I mean jazz inflected with Asian, Brazilian, or modern African elements, to mention a few of the most obvious style-niches.

The beauty of jazz—I think the film got this right—is that those who love it really love it and are thrilled to be in its presence on any given night. Jazz blogs abound covering some of its many underground nooks and crannies. (One I read regularly is dothem@th, maintained by Etan Iverson, the pianist of The Bad Plus.)

The energy of a live jazz set tends to wax and wane, and the temptation musicians face to coast is ever-present—especially on a Monday night in Minneapolis. I consider my time well-spent if there are ten or fifteen incandescent minutes in a given performance. Often there are more.

I've been going to jazz shows since the late 1960s, when the Guthrie Theater presented a top-notch series (Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd, Garry Burton, etc.). In those days the storefront club Cafe Extraordinaire (located where K-Mart now sits on Lake Street, but one hundredth the size) also booked some big names into its dark, low-ceilinged room full of folding chairs (e.g. Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson). The six dollar cover seemed enormous to a high school kid like me, and the club was twenty miles from home, but it was worth it to listen to the McCoy Tyner Trio while resting my tennis shoes on the front leg of his piano!  

All serious jazz fans maintain a memory list of greats they've heard "live"—experiences often only dimly captured in recordings. I won't bore you with mine. But I would like to send one query out into the blogosphere. I once heard Charles Mingus play a surprise set at the Guthrie with only two or three days notice. I heard about it on the radio (KSJN).The two young reed men in his group were fantastic, but at the time I'd never heard of them and didn't remember their names. In retrospect I wonder if they might have been Rickie Ford and Sonny Fortune. Can anyone help?

The greatest challenge jazz presents to newcomers is simply one of sorting out the styles. If your introduction to jazz piano, for example, happens to be Thelonious Monk, you'll have a very different impression of jazz than if Bill Evans is your guide. And what about Jaki Byard, Muhal Richard Abrams, Bud Powell, Robert Glasper, Mal Waldron? The stylistic differences are striking, radical, and the list goes on and on.

If you emerged from the theater after seeing La La Land with the idea that you might like to learn a little more about that elusive thing called jazz, here's a short list of recent mainstream piano recordings to check out on iTunes. Why not download a few numbers? It would cost less than your morning latte. I wouldn't say these are the BEST. They're just a few albums I happen to own myself.

  • Kenny Barron/ Dave Holland: The Art of Conversation (2014)
  • Bill Charlap: Notes from New York (2016)
  • Gerald Clayton: Life Forum (2013)
  • Chick Corea: Further Explorations (2011)
  • Herbie Hancock:  River - the Joni Letters (2007)
  • Brad Mehldau/Joshua Redman: Nearness (2016)
  • Fred Hersch: Night and the Music (2007)
  • Robert Glasper: In My Element (2007)

And for historical perspective I'd throw in the 2 CD set by Bill Evans called Some Other Time, recorded in 1968 but released only last year.

I haven't followed jazz avidly for a long time, though I occasionally "dip in" to see what's happening. I also belong to a Jazz Night group that meets once a month to listen respectfully to selections brought by the various members. I came across a very thick book the other day, Jazz Record: the First Sixty Years, by Scott Yanow, in which he chronicles the art form in exhaustive detail over the course of 800 pages of fine print. The narrative ends in 1976, but Yanow concludes:

Some of the lazier observers of the current jazz scene have complained that jazz has lost its direction since the 1970s and that the music has run out of fresh ideas. The truth is that jazz is in a golden age that started in the mid-1890s, accelerated around 1920, and has not stopped since. The music on a whole has never had an artistic off period, and it continues with brilliant performances and recordings up to the current time.

He follows this remark with a list of roughly three hundred "young" performers, only a smattering of whom I've heard of.

In short, jazz is still very much alive and well. The challenge for the performers is one of making a living from it. The challenge for us lies in sorting it all out.

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