Copyright © James Hale 2007
I’d like to open with four short excerpts that introduce the Canadian perspective in answering the question, Who is today’s jazz musician?
In order, that was D.D. Jackson playing a piece dedicated to Vladimir Horowtiz, Andy Milne playing Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” Marilyn Lerner performing a traditional Romanian song, and John Stetch doing his song “Carpathian Blues.”
It’s worth noting that each of these Canadian pianists usually works solidly within the quote/unquote jazz tradition, and they’ve all worked on the New York jazz scene.
But they also bring their various backgrounds and influences to their work - and those backgrounds and influences are not necessarily bebop or the blues.
Jackson was well on his way to a career as a concert pianist when he took a sharp turn and began studying with Jaki Byard and Don Pullen.
Milne grew up in an adoptive white family near Toronto and fell in love with folk music before studying jazz and becoming a member of the M-BASE Collective.
Lerner frequently explores her Jewish roots, although she also works with Cuban musicians.
John Stetch grew up performing in a folk-dancing group in Manitoba and often celebrates his Ukranian heritage in his music.
Are they jazz musicians? I would challenge you to say otherwise.
So … who is today’s jazz musician?
I spent the last week or so gathering information and anecdotes to write Joe Zawinul’s obituary for <i>DownBeat</i>, and the more I considered his career and his music, the more I realized that Zawinul could stand as a prototype of today’s jazz musician.
Like Zawinul, the jazz musician of the 21st century might have conservatory training.
He might come from an ethnic background not traditionally associated with jazz. Joe was proud of his Gypsy, Hungarian, Slavic and Turkish ancestry. He might take some other paths before coming to New York, and only arrive here in his late 20s.
He might favour composing for others, rather than taking the traditional front-and-centre solo spot.
He might prefer working as part of a collective, rather than being a traditional leader.
And, he might have a strong streak of entrepreneurial spirit that leads him to find alternative means of distribution and promotion.
Joe Zawinul was all of those things - and I see some combination of those characteristics reflected in leading young players like John Hollenbeck, Vijay Iyer, Susie Ibarra, Ingrid Jensen, Dafnis Prieto, or the man we heard off the top … D.D. Jackson.
I see a lot of young musicians pursuing other intellectual interests before turning to improvised music. One night at the Knitting Factory last winter I counted three PhDs on the stage: Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Manhanthappa and Francois Moutin.
I’m currently writing liner notes for a young Japanese-American pianist who is doing post-doctoral work at the National Drug Institute in Washington.
I’ve encountered so many others that I’ve started compiling a list.
Once was the time that a Denny Zeitlin - someone who had a post-graduate degree in something other than music before beginning a professional music career - was a rare bird.
Even those who follow only music from a young age require a variety of skills.
As jazz enters its second century, its creators are being forced by economic imperatives to multi-task as much as any other young professional in their 20s and 30s.
That might be one reason for all those would-be jazz artists pursuing higher education as a fallback… it certainly has everything to do with the number of Web-savvy, MySpace- and Facebook-inhabiting musicians who know as much about marketing as the average corporate PR flak.
Returning again to my Canadian perspective, I see turntablists who sample Quebecois folk music in a jazz milieu … guitarist Gordon Grdina who doubles on oud yet records with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian… baritone saxophonist David Mott who runs a university jazz program yet composes contemporary classical music … and of course festivals in Vancouver, Guelph and Victoriaville that present a wide range of musique actuelle alongside blues-based jazz.
In summary, if one thing characterizes the contemporary jazz musician, it is curiosity.
Even in the new millennium, some things never change.