October 1, 2010

Blast from the Past: Can Jazz Rise Again?, June 2008

  In the spring of 2008, desperate for some new topic for the magazine, I came up with this headline: Is Jazz Dead?? I had been thinking for a while that the venerable genre really hadn't come up with anything new and exciting in a while. I decided to run the idea past my wife and teenage daughter, both of whom scolded me, saying "That's a stupid idea; of course jazz isn't dead!" So I changed the headline slightly and wrote the following story anyway!


Can jazz make a comeback?
  Since college, I have always had a place for jazz in my musical life. As a freshman at Ithaca College, my mind was blown by my college roommate who opened my ears up to the electric side of jazz – Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” and albums by Weather Report and Return to Forever. I was a rock ’n’ roller, but hearing horns added to the beat was exciting and “cool.”
  When I transferred to Emerson College two years later, I was all in with Pat Metheny and eager to hear more. A History of Jazz course with Tony Cennamo took me back, way back, to Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy, and others. I soaked it all in; big bands, bebop – I even caught the way-out Pharoah Sanders in concert. And I was never more blown away than when I first heard Miles’ “Kind of Blue.”
  Like most people when they first heard the album, it stopped me dead in my tracks and I said “Whoa.” It was the most beautiful music I had ever heard.
  Even today, I listen to it and it sounds fresh and new.
  It’s been a long time since I’ve been moved like that by jazz. Over time, while my love for music has not changed, my love for listening to jazz has. I still like to hear it, but it is not my first choice anymore. While I will occasionally put on a Coltrane or a Mingus album as background to something I’m doing, I’m more likely to put on a singer-songwriter or rock album that’s got me juiced.
  Recently, I’ve been relistening to the Miles Davis Radio Project, a multi-part series on Miles’ life that was first aired in 1991 (see accompanying story below for more on the series). It got me thinking about how wonderfully popular jazz was in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, and what has happened to the music since.
  In those days, jazz musicians were the stars of the day – Bird, Dizzy, Trane, Cannonball – everyone knew who you were talking about. They were personalities, icons.
  But who are those leaders, where are those personalities today?
  Some say jazz started its decline when musicians chose bebop over dance music in the ’40s; some say the popularity of rock ’n’ roll in the ’50s and ’60s made it more financially fulfilling for musicians to pursue rock, r&b and the blues over jazz.
Marc Myers, a New York journalist and historian, writes a blog called Jazz Wax (www.jazzwax.com). He says jazz’s decline is twofold: “The best argument I've heard for jazz's declining popularity in the mid-1950s and 1960s revolves around jazz's abandonment of dance music in the late 1940s. As jazz became more focused on technique and prowess and less on entertainment, the argument goes, the music ceased to have largescale social significance. Once jazz and jazz musicians began to take themselves too seriously and the music catered to distant outsiders rather than the jukebox, a beat-hungry generation turned elsewhere for its soundtrack.”
  He also says that promoting in the music industry at that time was new territory.
  “What jazz lacked,” he says, “was smart promoters to sustain jazz's charm and appeal. In all fairness, the marketplace wasn't set up for this in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
National distribution and marketing was in its infancy, the 45 rpm and 12-inch LPs hadn't made inroads until the mid-1950s, and stereo was still many years away. Television didn't exist on the level it did in 1964, and most jazz musicians weren't young or telegenic, anyway.”
  Some jazz artists were able to bridge the musical and generation gap by joining the rockers and going electric, like the charismatic Miles Davis did with the landmark “Bitches
Brew.” From his mix of rock and jazz came the superstar fusion bands of the ’70s – Return to Forever, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report. Beyond that, the ’80s birthed jazz lite, the hideous Kenny G and his wannabes, and then what?
  In recent years, the Bad Plus has fused jazz with a rock sensibility to ignite a following and Medeski Martin and Wood has updated ’70s fusion.
  And while there continues to be some great-sounding jazz being performed and recorded, there seems to be a lack of innovation and certainly a lack of personality.
  “Originality is nice to find but is no longer the holy grail [of jazz musicians],’’ former Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins writes in his book “Weatherbird: Jazz at the Dawn
of Its Second Century.” “Interpretation has trumped it. ‘Can you play?’ has supplanted ‘Can you play something I've not heard before?’ – something that comes only from you, and not from your favorite records.’’
  The brothers Marsalis – Wynton and Branford – are as close as we’ve come in the last couple decades of being any sort of jazz stars, but “neo-conservative’’ Wynton, a great musician and keeper of the jazz flame, seems to turn as many people off as he does on with his reluctance to accept new forms of the music.
  Some, like trumpeter Roy Hargrove, have tried to meld hip-hop with jazz. I love the attempt; the results are only minimally effective, and disappointingly it has not sparked any kind of trend to pursue it further. There are young jazz talents out there: Cyrus Chestnut, vibist Stephon Harris, pianist Jason Moran, to name a few. But jazz needs an identity boost, someone to step out and try something different.
  How do you hook young kids with music? Shock value: Take a stand, make a statement, be noticed. It may be harder to get young people today to listen to jazz, but kids have access through the Internet to more music and may be more open to new sounds.
  The last of the old greats are dying out.
  Sonny Rollins and McCoy Tyner are still out there performing occasionally, but when they are gone will jazz innovation only be available on vintage recordings?
  Then again maybe jazz fans don’t care that much. As Myers writes: “When all is said and done, don't most jazz fans really like the fact that the music we love isn’t accessible to millions of people? That it's a private club requiring knowledge and years of listening? And therein lies (another) reason for jazz's improbable comeback: Jazz fans secretly prefer that the music remain unpopular. If jazz came back on a Super Bowl level, its widescale popularity would certainly make a lot of fans feel, well, pretty un-cool.”

Revisiting Miles
  In 1991, a friend sent me seven cassette tapes he recorded off the radio. Back then, with no Internet and no other way to transfer music, this was a big deal. And on them was another big deal: Those seven cassettes made up the entire series of “The Miles Davis Radio Project,” which detailed Miles’ life and music through interviews and recordings – some previously unreleased.
  The documentary, produced by Steve Rowland and narrated by the actor Danny Glover, follows Miles’ career, adding insight and candid commentary from Miles’ friends and fellow musicians including jazz historian Quincy Troupe, George Duke, Carlos Santana, Joni Mitchell and Olu Dara. Duke talks of Miles the superstar of the ’50s, dressed in fine Italian suits and driving fancy sports cars; Miles’ ex-wife, dancer Frances Taylor, talks of the two-headed monster Miles, saying she had to walk on eggshells around him, not knowing at a moment whether he was going to hit her or make love to her; and Santana talked of Miles the bluesman with a trumpet, explaining how Miles’ playing was much like that of a blues guitarist getting “inside the note.”
  All of these interviews make for fabulous listening.
  Accounts from the “Bitches Brew” years are tremendous, with percussionist Airto Moreira relating a story about when he was in Miles’ band opening for the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West in San Francisco: “The audience, they were rock ’n’ rollers, man, and they were totally crazy. Everyone was on acid... they would dance to anything. We would play this very complex stuff... it was like a ramble kind of thing and people they were dancing, they were rolling on the floor.”
  Through it all, Miles’ music is weaved expertly between Glover’s narration and the interviews.
  If you’d like to hear the series, it is available by download at www.artistowned.com for $35.
  Another way to get your Miles fix is a book by music historian Ashley Kahn called “Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece,’’ published in 2000. Kahn was able to get access to the master tapes of the legendary 1959 sessions, as well as an interview with the last surviving member of the amazing band, drummer Jimmy Cobb. Kahn details how each song progressed as well as conversations that took place and recorded, and puts everything in historical perspective to tie it all together.

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