We all know that American music is comprised of a multitude of genres, subgenres, cliques, factions and styles. The swath of American music is so wide that many of its most broad-minded proponents from one camp unabashedly and sincerely argue that some of the other widely listened to varieties of American music aren’t really music at all. This was the case for jazz in the first two decades of the 20th century, when many respected members of “proper” society considered the nascent genre as so much caterwauling of licentious verbiage over primitive drumbeats and rudimentary chord progressions. Now it is the official musical art of America, a “national treasure.” As we near the 100th anniversary of the first recording of “jass” music, we should pay at least some cursory attention to what jazz is.
Jazz is a music that emerged from the ghettos of New Orleans. While it may have originated and possibly have been simultaneously performed elsewhere, jazz was first identified as a music played by New Orleans musicians. The musicians who played it by the time it was first recorded were Americans: African American, Native American, Italian American, German American, Jewish American, and Mexican American. All were involved, but by far the best jazz players were Creole Americans from New Orleans. By the third decade of the 20th century jazz was firmly entrenched in almost every city in America. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Kansas City were centers where the music was being played. While jazz began as a highly competitive field of music, it also acted as a unifying force among African Americans and working-class youth and was associated with the Socialist Party of America during the 1930s and 40s, largely through the efforts of John Hammond. Since then jazz has been used to promote America’s military and capitalist ventures during both World Wars and the messages of the Civil Rights, Black Nationalist, Native American, and anti-war movements as well.
Since 1917, the recorded music industry has identified, promoted, and sold the work of select “stars” that have set standards for performance and overall style. Despite the competitive aspects of jazz, there has always been a jazz community which attempts to bridge socio-economic differences that are part of America’s culture. It can be argued that jazz is little more than that; an attempt to bridge socio-economic divisions. Probably the most obvious example of this is the jam session; loosely organized events where jazz musicians listen to and play with each other. Musical development is explained and explored, new artists are presented to established artists by sponsoring mentors, and discussions (sometimes rather heated ones) about the state of the art abound. For young musicians, the jam session is traditionally where lasting relationships and career directions are first made.
The way jazz was originally taught was through mentoring and independent group study. There were no institutions that taught jazz as a curricular topic until the 1950s, although certain pedagogues, such as Lennie Tristano, would teach large enough numbers of private students to qualify as alumni of an informal “school.” Because improvisation is a salient feature of jazz, a wide range of highly personal approaches have always been at work. Even when imitating the “look-and-feel” of a popular record “star” (i.e. Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis), an artist can usually be identified by a well-versed listener. Since the 1950s a jazz academy has emerged. Its various institutions compete among each other for affluent or grant-savvy individuals to earn bachelors, masters, and even doctoral degrees in jazz performance, composition, theory, and history. Because of jazz’s legacy of connectedness to socio-economic trends, the fields of jazz studies can overlap into other fields (American studies, Afro-American studies, sociology, film studies, dance, ethnomusicology, etc.). Now the jazz academy competes with the jazz community as the arbiter of what and who will be identified as the best examples of what jazz, America’s original musical art form, is. In many ways, this appropriation of the jazz legacy by its academic proponents has had an unsettling effect among the larger jazz community. Many traditionally-schooled artists find themselves left out as more and more teaching jobs require academic credentials that weren’t needed 25 years ago. Some identify a new style of “academic” jazz they consider lacking in emotional content and feel the necessity to delve deeper into a personal expression that disregards much of the overall texture of the greater community, which is the sonic base for the academy.
Through it all, the recorded music industry is feeling a pinch. Artists identified with jazz have largely lost their pop star potential (even though bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding—amid some controversy—took the Grammy for best new artist of the year and artists like Sting and Harry Connick, Jr. began their careers playing jazz). When Maria Schneider took the Best Large Ensemble Album award in 2005, a potential death-knell for the industry was rung as the album, Concert in the Garden was only available for purchase on the internet and through the collective, ArtistShare, that she helped to spearhead. Now we see the “official” categories that the recorded music industry considers to be jazz whittled down to four (Best Improvised Jazz Solo, Best Jazz Vocal Album, Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album). That this year’s Best Jazz Vocal Album went to Terri Lyne Carrington , a drummer who included several vocalists on her album, The Mosaic Project, is a new point of concern for the jazz community as well. Many jazz artists feel like the only road to hoe is the one that leads to recording projects and venues that cater to more pop-oriented music and audiences that don’t know from jazz or music in general.
Many of the venues that are dedicated to presenting jazz have to charge admission fees that are out of the range of most jazz musicians’ budgets. This has led to a socio-economic rift in the jazz community that mirrors the one of American society in general and forces many artists to rethink their relationship with jazz. This isn’t particularly new to the jazz community (or the music world as a whole, for that matter); the history of jazz is rife with artists who prefer to not be called jazz musicians (Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus, for example), claiming that the label is too limiting. A current example of how this plays out is Nicholas Payton’s recent announcement that he no longer plays jazz, but instead Black American Music, while Wynton Marsalis has no problem with being associated with jazz. (Another facet of Marsalis’s relationship to jazz is denunciation of hip-hop music and culture.) While either or both of these excellent trumpeters may have forgotten the inclusivity of jazz’s historical legacy, it is clear that competition is still a driving force among many of jazz’s greatest artists.
(To be continued.)