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Jazz in TimeBeyond the Sixties
Beyond the Sixties, History in the key of jazz Beyond the Sixties, History in the key of jazz
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Beyond the Sixties

By Loren Schoenberg, Conductor and Saxophonist

Jazz has developed exponentially since the 1960s. As it gained status around the globe as a music representing freedom, musicians have freely integrated jazz elements into their own musics. Out of this symbiosis, many genres have evolved which bear little relation to jazz's American roots. This is the fate of a universal art form, and it should be welcomed.

Take, for instance, the recent efforts of the Japanese pianist/composer Masahiko Sato, who has been integrating the jazz idiom with that of traditional Japanese music. One offshoot of this movement has been to raise yet again a question that has been debated since the 1920s: What is jazz? Suffice it to say that if someone calls their music jazz, then those who like it may consider it such. We know that Duke Ellington, as early as the early 1930s, found the term "jazz" restricting. Indeed, the time may be approaching to abandon all the categories and just refer to music by the person who played it. After all, "bop" is much too large an umbrella to cover the music of Parker, Gillespie, Monk and Dameron. As so venerable an observer as Benny Carter told graduates during his 1991 commencement address at Rutgers University:
"I've always been wary of labels, not just in jazz, but in the arts in general. Besides being imprecise, labels can be limiting. They limit you in what you may draw from, as well as what you may become. For example, when people ask me some of my influences as a saxophonist, they think I'm joking when I mention names like Rudy Wiedoft, a saxophone wizard of the 1920s, who specialized in highly technical pieces like Saxophobia, which demonstrated incredible mastery of the instrument. Or Wayne King, who was known as "The Waltz King," and whose saxophone sound was beautiful to me. People gasp and say, "But they're not jazz musicians!" My answer is that I never tried to learn jazz from them. I simply respected what they could do with the instrument-how they played, not what they played. So, one piece of advice I can offer is, learn whatever you can from whomever you can. Don't limit yourselves by labels, whether in music or any other artistic endeavor. Furthermore, artists can learn from other artists, no matter what the medium."
That's the best advice one can give these days. The trio Carter, who is now 93, led in 1995 with pianist Eric Reed (born 1970) and bassist Charlie Haden (born 1937) played a kind of jazz that would be impossible to put into one of the pre-fabricated jazz categories. Reed is a fully contemporary pianist who has played with Wynton Marsalis and now leads his own band. Haden was the musical anchor of the original Ornette Coleman Quartet, founded the Liberation Music Orchestra and in recent years has been leading his Quartet West. Haden's conception cuts a wide swath across American music. Add to that Carter's experiences, which parallel the development of jazz across the century, and the futility of finding a label to cover it becomes obvious.

Throughout the history of jazz, critics and fans have always debated what they considered to be the "real thing." Take for instance "smooth" jazz. There have always been more commercial forms of the music that have diluted the art to reach a wider audience. It happened in the 1920s with Ted Lewis, and it happened in the 1990s with Kenny G. It has frequently been said that these musicians bring more people into contact with "pure" jazz, and that very well may be so. But within the realm of the serious jazz artists, categories these days have been rendered pretty much meaningless. While categories such as Free Jazz, Avant-Garde and the like are convenient, they frequently confuse as much as they clarity.

A handful of the players who came to be known as "free jazz" musicians, such as Andrew Cyrille, Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd, shared the bandstand with "swing" (another vague term) masters such as Coleman Hawkins, Pee Wee Russell and Vic Dickinson, and spoke their language. Where does one put pianist Paul Bley, who adapted Ornette Coleman's music to the piano, but who was a past master of traditional jazz harmony? The bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik played in Thelonious Monk's quartet with John Coltrane, and then spent many years mastering the oud and combining jazz with Middle Eastern music. What category would he go in? Today it would be "world music", a rather meaningless term when you think about it, given the cross-cultural influences that have effected so much of the music around the world. Other musicians with less direct ties to the tradition also became original voices. In recent years John Zorn, Steve Coleman, Bill Frisell, Dave Douglas and Don Byron have explored diverse musical landscapes, some of which intersect with jazz, and some of which don't.

"Fusion" was named after the blending of jazz with rock (with a more than a dollop of funk thrown in), a mixture that eventually hit a brick wall. The rhythmic bases of the two styles were incompatible, but there is no denying that many creative musicians found the genre enticing. Certainly, the electric bassist Jaco Pastorius created many masterpieces in the idiom, as did a handful of others. As the writer Stuart Nicholson (in his definitive book Jazz-Rock: A History) put it: "For at least two years prior to Bitches Brew, jazz-rock had been bubbling beneath the surface, but the style needed someone of sufficient stature to 'sanction' the dawn of a new era."

The fact that Miles Davis was the prime instigator was undeniably the major factor in the music's initial appeal. Davis jettisoned the music that he had been such a pivotal figure in for a quarter of a century. This is not to imply that it lacks complexity, but at the base of the music is a rhythmically static cycle that would have been an anathema to Davis just a few years earlier. Fusion as a concept continues today, as many musicians, including Joshua Redman, Christina McBride, Russell Gunn and James Carter are creating new amalgams of contemporary pop trends and the jazz tradition.

In other words, any sort of definitive list of who and what is happening today is doomed to failure. Jazz has been treated so poorly by the mass media that the advent of a documentary such as JAZZ has, within the jazz community, taken on a responsibility that is in some regards misplaced. It is as though all of the slights and misrepresentations of the past must be rectified by mentioning every major player's name, at the expense of a clear narrative that is aiming for something much larger in scope in terms of our American experience. Such detail would quickly lose the great majority of viewers who have no previous interest in the music or its background. JAZZ has also been taken to task for not addressing in depth the music's more recent developments, but such judgements would be premature, for the dust has yet to settle.

What does it mean to call someone a neo-Traditionalist in the year 2001? What tradition, and why "neo"? Ornette Coleman's music of 1960 is now 40 years old, but a musician delving into that stream would hardly be called a traditionalist today, while someone creating within the idiom of the John Kirby Sextet, Count Basie or Benny Goodman would. Musicians continue to arrive on the scene dedicated to every idiom of the jazz tradition. It might be worthwhile to establish your own criteria for what presses your aesthetic buttons, make your own decisions, but leave the style-tagging to the jazz media, which always needs something to hang its current sympathies on.

As mentioned earlier, virtually every country in which jazz has developed has its own traditions and unique amalgam of musical influences. If you ignore these important developments, you engage in aesthetic xenophobia. The writer Stuart Nicholson recently surveyed the European scene, and singled out the following players as original and compelling:

Norway - Bugge Wesseltoft, Nils Peter Molvaer

Hungary - Dresch Quartet

Sweden - Esbjorn Svensson

France - Erik Truffaz

Holland - Yuri Honig

Great Britain - Courtney Pine

Austria - Max Nagi

Finland - Trio Toykeat

Here is a site that will start you at least on a good survey of contemporary jazz around the world:

The Danish Jazzpar Award has been given to a refreshingly disparate list of players who have found their original voice at http://www.jazzpar.dk.