For those of you who have read my posts before, you’ll know that I am unapologetically a jazz musician. It’s what I’ve played and studied since I was a youngling. Though lately, and I don’t think I’m alone, defining exactly what “jazz” is has become difficult. Is it a style with rules, or is it a music in which “there are no wrong notes” (as the common standby goes)? Is it fair to call jazz “America’s classical music”, or is it more of a music born out of the African diaspora, as prominent jazz critics like Stanley Crouch like to tout? It’s almost impossible for it to be both, though undoubtedly the African diaspora had a large role to play in American music coming into its own. Still, this has been something of a struggle lately as I gear up to put some music I’ve written onto tape, which is probably more inspired by bands like Blonde Redhead and modern gospel artists like J Moss than it is by the traditional music of Armstrong and Ellington. So, I’ll try to parse some of my views on the state of modern jazz below:
Let’s start with irony, ironically it’s often a great place to start. In certain NYC jazz circles, the word “jazz” has a negative connotation. I’ve given it a bit of thought, and I think I’ve come up with a reason why (for me, at least) it would have one. Most of the younger musicians my age trying to break into the scene nowadays came up through the traditional channels. We studied our instruments with teachers, played in school and church, learned according to the rules we were given. In music school we were fed the generally accepted jazz curriculum where be-bop is king, and Miles and Coltrane are gods. This is where we were told, “this is jazz, this is what you’re here to play”. Surely, there were teachers who were much more enlightened than this, but as a general rule, the hard asses among them felt a personal obligation to force the idea that jazz was the holy grail of music into our souls and make us penitent musicians.