The Future of Jazz
Yuval Taylor editor, from correspondence of Will Friedwald, Ted Gioia, Jim Macnie, Peter Margasak, Stuart Nicholson, Ben Ratliff, John F. Szwed, Greg Tate, Peter Watrous, K. Leander Williams
The Future of Jazz
A Cappella Books, 2002
ISBN: 1556524463

by Sunsh Stein

copyright © 2002 Sunsh Stein
first published in Jazz Notes

That criticism is as much about the critic comes through loud and clear in The Future of Jazz. This book displays the minds, quirks, and strong opinions of ten men who write about jazz and were chosen to voice their musings on the future of this music we love.

Ten men. No women. My significant other (male) looked at the book and said, "Where are the women?" Well, Yuval Taylor, the editor and organizer of the book, addresses this egregious error in his introduction, and after reading his explanation on how no women met his criteria, we still didn't understand. Surely if Mr. Taylor really wanted the healthy addition of a woman's voice in this group, he could have located one. Even the Supreme Court has women. But as it stands we have a book that could be subtitled Ten Guys Sitting Around Shooting the Shit.

Attitude? Yes. I had it as I began to read. But it faded by the second page, and although I grew weary of these guys toward the end, much of what I read was engrossing, some made me laugh out loud, some of it required hip boots to get through, some was quite insightful. Here's the deal. Each of the ten guys, Will Friedwald, Ted Gioia, Jim Macnie, Peter Margasak, Stuart Nicholson, Ben Ratliff, John Szwed, Greg Tate, Peter Watrous, and K. Leander Williams, was given a different topic. Said critic then wrote an essay ostensibly exploring the future of jazz through that topic. The other nine men responded to this essay and to each others' comments on it as well. This was all done by email creating the opportunity to respond immediately and giving the illusion of a dialogue. They debate, they pat each other on the back, they agree to disagree, they trash Wynton, they stick up for him. They provide good quotes of their own and offer pertinent ones from others.

The ten chapters cover mainstream jazz, race, jazz-rock, improvisation and composition, repertory, business, vocals, the world, free jazz and the avant-garde, institutions and media. Each chapter touches all the topics, however, as the writers intertwine them in their essays and responses. Some themes appear again and again: New innovative change must occur for jazz to survive. Music being made in Europe is fresh and will lead jazz into the future. The role of race is an ongoing disputable issue. Music schools turn out cookie-cutter musicians with excellent technical skills but no individuality.

"Games and Thought and Grace," the discussion on mainstream jazz led by Peter Watrous, opens the book. He suggests that jazz by its very nature is not mainstream, "One hears the echoes of the willful disruption and disregard for authority that has always characterized one side of American life." His gem of an observation, "God is in the details," succinctly describes what makes a jazz player stand out among others who have the same foundation and level of quality, regardless of style. The writers argue about what and who is mainstream, Coltrane being one example.

I liked "The Song of the Body Electric" on jazz-rock, perhaps because I grew up on rock yet mostly can't tolerate its use in jazz. Although there's more loathing and liking expressed for jazz-rock than tying it to the future, each writer expresses his opinion most persuasively, making me want to revisit recordings and players that I blew off years ago. The group collectively credits Miles with starting the style and strongly disagrees as to whether the impetus to create and play jazz-rock is artistic or financial. Will Friedwald creates an amusing scenario with Miles, Clive Davis, and Hawaiian music to illustrate his point.

"Canon Fodder" hotly debates jazz repertory. Rep is old, it's tired -- put it aside already, it can't move the music forward. It's our history, we can't throw it away. Old rendered in a new way becomes something new. Examples: Old and tired is recreating someone's work exactly as written like the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra playing Ellington. Valuable are groups like the Herbie Nichols Project who celebrate forebears, where "it's not so much preservation as it is about discovery," says Peter Margasak. Europe is touted big time as the place where the old is out and new music is being made, unlike here in the stagnant old U.S.A.

In "Out of Time," the discussion of free jazz and the avant-garde, the one thing most writers agree on is its subtle integration -- so many players have borrowed from this movement to enhance their playing. Beyond that, they disagree about the racial element at the music's inception and now, whether the music is artistic, political, or both, and whether it's good listening. John Szwed raises pointed questions for those who "dismiss the music without serious consideration of its assumptions and aspirations."

Ben Ratliff starts his essay on race in "Black and White and Turning Gray" by stating, "There is no American popular music so well miscegenated as jazz, but I think we can still talk, in a very limited sense, and if we're careful, about black and white elements in it." From there all bets are off. Like many of the other chapters this one covers a great deal of historical ground before venturing into the future, pushing a lot of hot buttons along the way. Is jazz a black thing? How has that affected its status in our culture? Where and how do racial politics connect to it? Is the contribution of white musicians valuable? What does it mean that many young blacks aren't interested in jazz? Does anything matter but the music?

Composition is highly overrated and it doesn't really work in the long form in jazz is the main message I took away from "Collective Play," the chapter on improvisation and composition. John Szwed's opening essay details these two elements and their distinctions while the other writers volley back and forth about their relevance to jazz and how they affect jazz's legitimacy in the music world. Watrous sums it up. "Really, who cares? . . . Some things work and some things don't, and whether they are improvised or composed is irrelevant to their function."

The opinions in the vocal chapter, "Original Recipe vs. Extra Crispy," range from the opening voice of vocal maven Friedwald to Greg Tate, who says, "I largely feel about jazz vocalists the way I feel about jazz guitarists: at best they're impressive but dispensable parts of my jazz experience."This chapter rehashes points already made using different names as examples. There is considerable disagreement on who's good and/or innovative and who isn't, and agreement that current popularity is tied to recording companies and marketing. And here too, it is suggested that Europe will save the day.

By the time I read the world music chapter, "Home Away from Home," it felt redundant because not much new is said. Again, most of the points made had already been hammered home in previous chapters. The consensus is that jazz must continue to adopt elements of music from around the world for its survival.

The business of jazz, "Low-Budget Careers," suggests that the economic future for musicians is in e-commerce. It trashes big record companies and discusses who recently has "made it" and how.

The last chapter, "The Ghost in the Machine," on jazz institutions, infrastructure, and media, tells us that jazz institutions are bad, jazz institutions are good. They churn out musicians who are competent but constrained. Marketing thrives but the music doesn't. More club performances are needed. Stuart Nicholson thinks that institutions have contributed to making jazz ". . . into a touchstone of craft rather than creativity . . . a celebration of American cultural achievement rather than a steadily evolving, developing, growing art form."

The books ends with the Conclusion, "A Prognosticatory Cadavre Equis, Complete with Elegy." Choosing a year from 2002 to 2042 each writer sums up where he'd like jazz to be in the future or where he thinks it will be, with Greg Tate having the last word under R.I.P. Nothing like ending on an optimistic note.


C o m m e n t s

Greg Tate's comment about jazz vocalists 1 of 1
lotti jump August 30, 07

To Greg Tate - I guess Billie Holiday is a "dispensable part" of your jazz experience. Nitwit.

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