We Are in the Future 

A roundtable of noted jazz critics gauge the music’s 21st century trajectory

A roundtable of noted jazz critics gauge the music’s 21st century trajectory

Where is the future of jazz? Is the music in danger of becoming a backward-looking, over-refined art form that has lost all touch with its roots in the blues? Is an entire generation of new players learning only how to imitate past masters and thus not producing any original styles, voices or compositions of note? Are such players merely the products of an increasingly homogenized, self-perpetuating set of jazz institutions that speak only to each other, and not to a larger public audience? Finally, is the public image of jazz reducible to the traditionalist pontifications of Wynton Marsalis and his cultural disciple Ken Burns, who perpetuate an exclusionary model of jazz history and reflect the most deadening efforts of public television and radio to provide alternatives to mainstream media?

These and other questions set the tone for The Future of Jazz, a round-robin discussion that arose from a series of e-mailings among 10 generally well-regarded jazz critics on 10 crises besetting the music and its cultural impact. Among these topics are the legacy of jazz-rock, which is placed in the broader context of jazz’s ongoing appropriation of contemporary and world music styles; the relationship between traditional jazz and the avant-garde; the function of a common repertory and improvisational techniques that can foster tradition as well as enable change; and the issue of racial representation in the music and its advocates.

Though most of the critics represented in The Future of Jazz are based in New York and thus less likely to see Wynton or Burns as dominating presences, the editor has tried to find ways of representing diverse voices in terms of cultural politics, race and involvement in performing music. The results, especially among 10 critics who sometimes seem to be competing for the alpha-male position, can amount to a form of posturing to see who can produce the harshest jeremiad on the state of jazz.

If such pronouncements are often countered by moderates like New York Times critic Ben Ratliff, the responses are not entirely reassuring. Besides making the unremarkable point that one member of Wynton’s Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, sax player Ted Nash, can also play on the downtown scene and produce a more eclectic, “out” sound than his mentor, Ratliff offers a number of constructive but utopian suggestions on how to cultivate more individualistic and original sounds. Among other things, he argues for channeling more foundation money to smaller clubs; promoting greater international exchange programs for young players; including new, not nostalgic, jazz pieces in movie soundtracks; and securing outlets for America’s most innovative “high culture” music beyond NPR and PBS.

Yet the overwhelming tendency of both private sector grants and capitalist ventures regarding jazz is toward well-established, culturally conservative and highly visible showcases. When Ratliff cites a handful of recent major-label signees who seem to offer more eclectic, nontraditional approaches, like trumpeter Dave Douglas, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and pianist Jason Moran, he only offers the exception that proves the rule. Only a few jazz artists, usually somewhere between the extremes of hard-bop revivalists and avant-garde warriors, survive for very long with major labels. Moreover, they’ve often done so only by courting audiences outside the usual jazz-fan base. Witness Dave Douglas, who slipped quite a few places in the most recent Down Beat readers’ poll after being lionized as the next big thing only a couple of years ago, shortly before the conversations that form the backbone of The Future of Jazz took place.

The Internet chat-room format of the book at times promotes pointless noodling, such as the moot question of whether John Coltrane was “mainstream” or “outside” when he was playing with Miles Davis in 1960. Why are such seemingly backward-looking, technical definitions parts of a book on the future of jazz? Though no one would expect this book format to result in a jazz journalists’ version of Plato’s Symposium, the participants do wisely agree that the developments of the future have to be understood in light of the watershed movements of the past. As Sun Ra biographer John Szwed (the lone unabashed academic voice in this book) acknowledges, after 1959-60, the multi-directional post-bop developments in jazz prevented a “widely acceptable definition” from emerging, thus politicizing the use of the concept “mainstream” as resistance to innovation.

The problem today, points out Greg Tate, a writer for the Village Voice, is the “lack of heat, friction and tension” that typifies the playing of a young, virtuoso crop of graduates from Berklee, North Texas and other top jazz institutions who do not have to “answer the challenge of a prevailing counteraesthetic.” Tate and other contributors also point to the absence of a younger African American presence in jazz culture, especially in keeping “outside” forms alive. If some can cheerily argue that we should now, in the age of multiculturalism, reach beyond discriminating between distinctly black and white contributions to jazz, others more provocatively unearth the political motivations in controversies over essentialist definitions of jazz that are rooted in the persistence of blues structures.

The critics in The Future of Jazz end the book by offering tongue-in-cheek prognostications of where jazz will stand at various points in the next 50 years, ranging from a technologically enhanced worldwide diaspora to a chess-club-like esotericism. They are generous enough to admit, though, that their magisterial pronouncements may have no effect whatsoever on the day-to-day lives of musicians, whose evolution or stasis is due largely to forces beyond most critics’ control.

Perhaps the best antidote to the doomsayers of The Future of Jazz is the similarly, though misleadingly titled Future Jazz (Oxford University Press, 256 pp., $13.95) by frequent Down Beat and NPR interviewer Howard Mandel. Though the book, cobbled together for the most part from pieces he wrote in the mid- to late ’80s and then lightly updated, has something of a time-capsule feel, Mandel allows the musicians to speak in their own voices, being generous almost to a fault.

The strongest possibilities for the future of jazz, he seems to be advocating, grow out of a genuine communal sense that allows for ethno-cultural introspection and multifaceted expression. Best are the chapters on the revisionist Jewish music scene that grew under John Zorn’s leadership in the Knitting Factory in the late ’80s and on the AACM, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Originating on Chicago’s South Side during the ’60s, the AACM is still very much alive today, as witnessed this past summer when saxophonist Maurice McIntyre’s disciple, Bed-Stuy-based Andrew Lamb, played a Nashville date at the French Quarter Cafe. On the other hand, sad portraits of guitarist-vocalist George Benson still seeking to recapture the success of his ’70s pop-jazz hits simply do not belong in such a book.

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