If you’ve followed the jazz press at all in the last decade, there is little doubt that you will have read about the decline, the demise, or the death of jazz. As someone who has been invested in jazz as a student, performer, and academic for the past 15 years, the idea that jazz is dead or dying has always seemed both ever-present and ridiculous: the death of jazz has constantly been proclaimed, even as I, and those around me, actively participate in the field of jazz in a variety of ways. Regardless, such proclamations periodically incite a flurry of activity; one of the most prominent and recent of these dust storms occurred in 2009, following Terry Teachout’s “Can Jazz Be Saved?” in The Wall Street Journal. Teachout cited declining audience statistics from the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, which he believed proved that the jazz audience in 2008 was smaller, older, and less active than it once was.
Critics were immediately up in arms at Teachout’s seeming lack of faith in jazz’s vitality; many, perhaps most notably Nate Chinen of The New York Times, offered their own observations of jazz scenes dominated by young audiences. For Chinen, avant-garde and mixed-genre groups such as Medeski, Martin, & Wood (MMW), AlasNoAxis, and Blackout, and musicians who performed in both jazz and hip-hop groups, such as Robert Glasper and Jamire Williams, demonstrated the flaws in the NEA’s survey: “Musicians like these often work just far enough on the jazz periphery for their movements to elude the tracking of a government-run survey.” In his response to Chinen, Teachout made clear that he included groups like MMW and The Bad Plus (a group that fuses classical music with jazz) in his definition of jazz.
As someone who has been invested in jazz as a student, performer, and academic for the past 15 years, the idea that jazz is dead or dying has always seemed both ever-present and ridiculous.
When critics declare the death of jazz (or the need to save jazz), as they have throughout history, they are also actively defining the genre and declaring where its boundaries lie. For instance, when Teachout and critic Ted Gioia asked in 2009 if jazz could be saved, they based their question on a specific definition of jazz, a definition from the NEA’s survey, which drew lines separating jazz from classical music, broadway musicals, classic rock, contemporary rock, rap/hip-hop, blues/rhythm & blues, Latin/salsa, country, bluegrass, folk, and gospel music. To declare the death of jazz, then, is to exclude cross-genre collaborations, influences, and musical approaches—to limit and even stifle its diversity.
Imagine my surprise, then, when two recent articles proclaimed jazz’s newfound vitality: Ted Gioia’s May 27 “Is Pop the Future of Jazz?”, published in The Beast, and Seth Colter Walls’s July 8 “Is Jazz Entering a New Golden Age?”, published in The Guardian. In their articles, Gioia and Walls both cite the recent presence of jazz in popular culture: a New Orleans jazz style trumpeter on Beyoncé’s Lemonade; saxophonist Kamasi Washington and pianist Robert Glasper’s collaboration with Kendrick Lamar on the album, To Pimp a Butterfly; Lamar’s use of the chord changes from Miles Davis’s “Nardis” on his Untitled Unmastered album; Lady Gaga’s collaborations with Tony Bennett; the films Miles Ahead, Born to Be Blue, and Nina, which to varying degrees chronicle the lives of Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and Nina Simone; pianist Vijay Iyer’s recent feature in The New Yorker; David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, which featured various jazz musicians throughout; and bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding’s newest album, Emily’s D+Evolution, which critics called more R&B/rock/funk fusion than jazz.
As Gioia and Walls note, many of jazz’s recent forays into the spotlight have demonstrated jazz musicians’ ability to translate their expertise to other musical styles and their interest in doing so (and, I might add, non-jazz musicians’ similar interests and abilities). Both Gioia and Walls write that these cross-genre collaborations are what will keep jazz fresh, interesting, and alive.
But this is nothing new. As Gioia writes, “Jazz has always benefited from a dialogue with popular music.” The list of jazz musicians who were either influenced by non-jazz musics or collaborated with non-jazz musicians is endless: a few examples that quickly come to mind include Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Lewis, and Miles Davis, who each collaborated with European classical musicians; Dizzy Gillespie collaborated with Cuban-born musician Chano Pozo to create “Manteca,” one of the first and most popular songs to fuse jazz with the clave rhythmic pattern; Dave Brubeck, inspired by meetings with musicians from Poland, Turkey, and India during his 1957 State Department tour along the Iron Curtain, composed a number of pieces in unusual meters; Stan Getz collaborated with Brazilian musicians João Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim to create the hit bossa nova album Getz/Gilberto; and Herbie Hancock collaborated with numerous pop and hip-hop musicians in the 1980s, creating one of the first jazz/hip-hop fusion pieces, “Rockit,” and performing in a synthesizer show-down at the 1985 Grammy Awards with Stevie Wonder and synth-pop musicians Thomas Dolby and Howard Jones.
Although critics have historically acted as the interpreters of musical sound, translating what they and audiences hear to words, the reality of musicians’ frequent and long-standing cross-genre collaborations demonstrates the difference between what musicians play and what critics write.
No, jazz musicians’ collaborations with non-jazz musicians are nothing new. Although critics have historically acted as the interpreters of musical sound, translating what they and audiences hear to words, the reality of musicians’ frequent and long-standing cross-genre collaborations demonstrates the difference between what musicians play and what critics write. In fact, the diversity of jazz musicians’ performances challenge any clear definition of jazz. What seems to be new is that critics no longer view these collaborations as the death of jazz; rather, they seem to now demonstrate the vitality of jazz.
Jazz musicians understand the exclusionary nature of definitions of jazz, and have often stated a desire for audiences to call their music something else: Duke Ellington called his music “Negro Music”; Miles Davis explained that he played “black” music, or that his music should just be called “music”; Jimmy Heath called his “African American classical music”; Charlie Parker asked that his music not be called bebop, but to simply be called “music.” Charles Mingus explained that “To me, the word ‘jazz’ means nigger, discrimination, second-class citizenship, the whole back-of-the-bus bit.” Contemporary musicians also chafe at the label “jazz”: Esperanza Spalding has said, “I don’t care if I’m considered a jazz or pop musician,” while bassist Linda Oh calls her music “creative improvised music that has its roots in black American music,” and Nicholas Payton calls his music “Black American music.”
The diversity of jazz musicians’ performances and definitions of jazz necessitate a new approach in defining musical genres—starting with determinations of jazz’s death or vitality. In a society that privileges written definitions (i.e. critics’ reviews and genre distinctions from record labels) over aural demonstrations (i.e. musicians’ performances and recordings), critics, historians, and scholars have maintained control over the defining terms of jazz for most of its century-long existence. If we—critics, historians, scholars, and audiences—were to instead listen to musicians (both the music they perform and the words they speak) we could perhaps cease the endless hand-wringing of jazz’s impending doom, and instead celebrate its diverse forms.