Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Shape of Jazz to Come

There is a common posture among jazz fans, a Miniver Cheevy-like regret about jazz's fate.  I went through that regret.  When I noticed about three years ago that most of the jazz music I listened to was recorded before 1965, I started to think about what that meant.  Was I an atavism?  That seemed too simple.  Was jazz an atavism?  I didn't know enough to decide.  I still don't, but I now know that jazz is special, for one reason, because it led me to these important questions.

In my profile for this blog, I write:  "I care about jazz immensely--not as a zealous advocate or a surly eulogist."  It's clear I'm doing some advocacy just by having this blog.  But when I started writing in August, I didn't want my entries to seem like pleading.  I didn't want to reinforce some false sense of jazz's victimization.

I don't think hope hurts, though.  For me, it's always a pleasure to go out and see a great live performance.  I think most jazz fans get into jazz through records.  I did.  If you start out listening to older records (as I did), you eventually start to realize that most of the musicians you're listening to are dead, or very old.  I saw Oscar Peterson at the Blue Note about a year before he died.  I was 18.  He was about 80.  The experience depressed me. 

When I wrote hope doesn't hurt, I didn't mean hope for jazz's popularity.  I meant hope for yourself.  Because ultimately, I've noticed jazz doesn't really have problems.  Its listeners do.  Here's a quote from the great French pianist Michel Petrucciani: 

“To me, there is the creator of that music.  You know, they are creators of that music, like the classical composers.  And Trane was one of them, and Bird, and Bill Albert Evans was one of them, and Tatum, you know, people like that.  I think they really created what we call now, jazz.  I mean, it was jazz then too, but somehow, they really give so much information so that young people, like me for example…I mean...It’s so easy nowadays to be young and play relatively well because there’s so much information.”

As a guest on Piano Jazz, he was responding to Marian McPartland's question about what he thought of John Coltrane.  That was in 1986.  He died in 1999 at the age of 36.  But if his words were true then--"It's so easy nowadays to be young and play relatively well because there's so much information"--imagine how much truer they are now, about 25 years later.  Here's another quote, from New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff:

“Jazz is in a funny moment.  It’s big cultural moment may have passed, I mean, I wouldn’t argue against that.  We want things—in popular cultural, in entertainment—we want things, you know, fast and succinct.  And jazz takes a while.  You know, jazz is sort of always going somewhere.  It doesn’t just declare what it’s all about in two and a half minutes.  And yes, all these people have died, but also, you know, in an earlier time, up until the early sixties, the media was much more focused on jazz.  There was a time when jazz was just about semi-popular.  Well, it was popular further back in the swing era, but then in the late fifties and early sixties, it was sort of semi-popular.  Now it’s not even that.  But, there’s tons of musicians, young musicians coming out of music schools.  I mean, more so than ever before.  You know, there’s been this great explosion of jazz education since the seventies.  And I mean, a lot of these young musicians don’t have enough gigs, they don’t have enough places to go.  But tons of people are playing jazz now.  And I still hear great musicians all the time that I’ve never heard of before.” 

He was responding to Tavis Smiley in an interview from 2008 about, basically, the loss of jazz icons and the shape of jazz to come.  I think the two quotes fit well in succession.  There is so much information out there--on recordings, in transcriptions, in books, videos, interviews, pictures, blogs.  There's a lot for a musician--and a listener--to take in.  Of course there really aren't enough places for jazz musicians to go.  That could be a result of jazz's dwindling popularity.  Or it could be that there are so many more jazz musicians--the competition is higher.

It's probably a combination of the two, but that problem is not endemic to jazz.  I'd like to be a writer.  (That's ultimately why I have this blog.)  I'll graduate in the spring, and then I'll start looking for jobs.  I have no idea how hard it will be to get a good one, but I imagine there are a lot of people like me who want what I want.  The competition is high, and there aren't many jobs. 

I've come to the conclusion that to get closer to what I want, I'll have to work very hard.  I'll have to keep learning by doing--to never think I've learned enough--to get better at what I want to do.  I might never get a job writing.  I'll never know if I don't try.  And in a way, I think that jazz musicians just graduating from school have to think in the same way if they want to differentiate themselves and perhaps succeed.

Sure, that mentality is not new.  It could always apply.  But now, when it's hard even to get an unpaid internship--when so many recent graduates are moving back in with their parents--it seems truer.  When you decide to go into the arts, that's a brave move.  When you decide to go into jazz--in these rough times--I think it's noble and brave and worthy of attention.  That doesn't mean jazz musicians will ever get the attention they deserve.

It may be harder and harder for jazz musicians to differentiate themselves--because they have to deal with about 100 years of recorded material, and because there are just so many jazz musicians.  But in a way, that's fitting for jazz.  When I listen to a jazz record, I'm not listening just to jazz, I'm listening to Ben Webster's vapory tremolos, Albert Ayler's earthy wail, Pat Metheny's radiant guitar notes, Gonzalo Rubalcaba's sensitive touch, Gretchen Parlato's nimble enunciation.

Perhaps the main point of playing jazz is to develop your own sound, your own musical voice. That may be getting harder and harder to do.  But there's no reason to regret this.  Because it's harder, it makes the music more valuable.  Earlier I wrote I'll have to think I've never learned enough in order to differentiate myself.  I think that the best jazz musicians are those who have thought like that, who have regarded their sounds as constantly unfinished, always in need of revision and scrutiny.

I look forward to graduating in the spring, to finding work I enjoy.  That might not happen right away, but I imagine it will happen.  I don't know what jazz will look like in the next few decades.  But I look forward to finding out.