In Conversation with Yuval Taylor
An interview with the editor of The Future of Jazz
Molly Sheridan: One premise of the book is that it questions whether jazz’s past has now become more important than its future, or whether jazz has any future at all. After editing this book, what’s your feeling?
Yuval Taylor: Frankly, I was dismayed by Greg Tate and Peter Watrous’s pessimism about jazz’s future. Greg feels that it has to be tied with “hip-hop musicality and technology,” which to me seems like the wrong direction. Peter was even more pessimistic, envisioning jazz drifting into a coma. Stuart Nicholson, like Greg, foresees a jazz also informed by a more contemporary dance beat. My own vision is closer, I think, to Ben Ratliff or Jim Macnie’s. When I hear the jazz coming from young players like Jason Moran and Medeski Martin & Wood—or older players like Wayne Shorter—I hear something brand new in the air, I hear a continuation of jazz’s evolution. What makes me hopeful about jazz’s future is, well, jazz’s past. So many directions that may have once seemed dead ends are now opening up brand new vistas. In the eighties, jazz-rock seemed like a real dead end, and indeed it was for many of its practitioners. Yet Greg Tate’s group, Burnt Sugar, is picking up on its impulse and taking it somewhere new and, judging from their live performances, incredibly exciting. On the other end of the spectrum, the writing in this book, in particular the chapter on the jazz revival, opened my eyes to some of the positive things coming out of Jazz @ Lincoln Center, where Wynton Marsalis is taking a long dead art form (swing) and making it new. The fact that he is, in my opinion, largely unsuccessful, doesn’t mean it can’t be done well. Innovations in jazz always build on what has gone before, and whether that’s western swing or free jazz, the innovations won’t end just because these are “old” forms.
Molly Sheridan: Can you talk a little bit about the process of putting this book together and the personalities involved? I read that it was done entirely over e-mail….
Yuval Taylor: That’s right. I don’t think, however, that e-mail made this book become, as one reviewer put it, a “blog.” Such a book could have easily been written with envelopes and postage stamps, or faxes, without changing it in any material way. Here’s how it was done. I chose ten topics and asked the writers to name their first, second, and third choices. I then assigned the topics and asked for all the essays by a certain date. Every ten days or so thereafter I would send one essay to all the participants and ask for their responses. A couple of the participants were very late: one of them sent a terrific essay, and then refused to respond to any others until I really put the screws on; another hardly gave me anything at all until the book was about to be finalized. This was, of course, frustrating. A couple of other participants sort of over-participated and I had to cut some of their responses. Some tiffs developed too, most of which I edited out as inappropriate and irrelevant. But on the whole the project went relatively smoothly.
Molly Sheridan: How contentious did things get between the various authors of this book?
Yuval Taylor: Well, at one point one author unfairly accused Peter Watrous of racism; and another e-mail to Peter was equally insulting. In other words, very contentious, especially around Peter’s comments. I stuck up for Peter, who didn’t need me to: he did a good job of defending himself.
Molly Sheridan: Let’s talk specifically now about some of the issues raised in the improvisation and composition chapter which we’ve excerpted here. I thought the discussion of how jazz’s evolution was linked to technology, specifically recording, was very interesting. What’s your impression how it effects jazz today and how it will in the future?
Yuval Taylor: Here’s my two cents: classical music is a written art form; rock is (or has become) a recorded art form; jazz is a live art form. Of course, this is essentialist thinking, but I do think it gets to the heart of the music. The major appeal of classical music lies in harmony, in the play of resolutions and dissonances. The major appeal of rock music, at least after 1965, lies in the manipulation of electronic sound. And the major appeal of jazz will always lie in improvisation, which really has very little to do with the recording process. Improvisation is done on the spur of the moment, live. And despite the blurring of the lines that John discusses in his essay, you can usually hear the difference between a written-out solo and one that’s improvised on the spot. I don’t think the future of jazz will really be very related to advances (or, in the case of digital sound, setbacks) in recording technology.
Molly Sheridan: I was also struck by the range of the various writers’ opinions on improvisation vs. composition—its importance, its sophistication. Where do you come down on the issue? Do you think your average music listener grasps the degree to which traditional jazz improvisation is not just “noodling around”?
Yuval Taylor: Two different questions. As for the first, listen to the difference between the Original Dixieland Jazz Band‘s 1917 recordings (no improvisation) and the real first jazz records, Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds‘ 1920 recordings (collective improvisation galore). The difference is crystal clear. While I love many, if not most, jazz compositions, and it’s an area that I’m extremely enthusiastic about (I can’t get enough of Ellington), a great composition doesn’t make it jazz—you need real, identifiable improvisation in there too. On the other hand, “noodling around” is exactly what I think when I hear a five-minute jazz solo based on a blues riff. Sophisticated composition has been a touchstone of the best jazz since the very beginning (even Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds, while crude improvisers, played some pretty sophisticated songs). “Noodling around” is a word I also apply to a kind of “non-collective” improvisation which I myself have heard quite enough of. I’m pleased to see in today’s best jazz groups the kind of collective interplay that has been missing in a lot of late mainstream bop ensembles—you know, the kind of gig where one person solos while the rest go through the motions. Contrast that to Wayne Shorter’s new quartet. You have to get the balance right, and both composition and improvisation should be at least somewhat sophisticated (without losing emotional intensity thereby). As for the average jazz listener, I don’t think such a being exists. There are all kinds of jazz listeners, including some who get off on a ten minute-long Jerry Garcia solo. None of them are really average, are they?
Molly Sheridan: Quite right. Now, there’s a mention of how jazz developed out of the African American social structure and how that has influenced its performance, adding a kind of spiritual quality to its performance in some cases. Do you think that sets it apart from other musics in some way or connects it? How does that match up with more traditional composed music of say a symphonic tradition?
Yuval Taylor: I’m not sure this is really in the book. All music developed out of a social structure, and I honestly don’t think jazz is any more spiritual than, on the one hand, Bach, and on the other, Indian classical music. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that jazz is a far less spiritual music than those two examples. Don’t forget its origins in whorehouses and barrelhouses, gin joints, and strip shows. And I’ll add that if jazz tries to get too spiritual, it loses some of its earthy appeal.
Molly Sheridan: Well, there is a graph discussing how jazz is a profoundly social music and that “many jazz musicians speak of their music in metaphysical or spiritual terms, or justify the music in terms of personal and collective survival.” I guess what I was curious about there was exactly the connections you pointed out—that Indian music and Bach can be just as spiritual, but in a different way. Perhaps it depends on the temperament of the listener. But that moves me to an extension of this topic. As global communication improves and people gain emotionally and intellectually from all sort of new musics, what do you think jazz will offer specifically that other music may not?
Yuval Taylor: I think John’s comment doesn’t imply that jazz is really a spiritual movement but that jazz musicians speak of their music in spiritual terms. That’s the case with any deeply involving vocation, isn’t it? As for what jazz will offer that other musics may not: in no other music can the audience say they were there at its inception. Since jazz is created on the spot more than any other music, the audience at a jazz show can watch, listen, and even, in some sense, participate in its very creation. That’s what the best jazz can offer: the feeling of being “in the moment.” Of course, this has nothing to do with “global communication,” which actually works against this feeling—you can’t feel “in the moment” listening to music on the Internet.
Molly Sheridan: Of the performers out there now, who do you feel is creating the work that will have the most lasting impact on how jazz develops in the future?
Yuval Taylor: One of the reasons it’s so hard to answer that is that many of the artists who have had the most lasting impact on jazz in the past were once the most marginal artists of all, e.g. Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman. So, honestly, I can’t tell if Henry Threadgill or Wynton Marsalis will have a more lasting impact. My wild guess would be, in no real order at all: Henry Threadgill, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, John Medeski, Marc Ribot, Ken Vandermark, John Zorn, Wynton Marsalis, and, perhaps, a man who is not a jazz performer at all, Manfred Eicher. All of these have introduced something new to the jazz stew, and many of them have established some kind of movement, collective, or group of followers.