From: Giovanni Russonello
Hi Nate, Peter, Greg and Jim,
It’s been a joy reading everyone’s posts so far. First off, I have to thank all of you, my “elders” in this jazz writing game, for all the inspiration that your work has provided me over the years. It’s a thrill to be hashing this stuff out with you folks.
I’ve been thinking lately about how jazz has a way of conveniently marking itself off by decades. How considerate it was of Coleman Hawkins, say, to record his bebop-auguring “Body and Soul” right as the 1930s were giving way to the ’40s. Or of all those luminaries who happened to wait until 1959 to give jazz a full-body makeover. Or of Miles Davis to release Bitches Brew in 1970, guaranteeing that the next decade would be given over to jazz-rock fusion. Then there was Wynton Marsalis, in early 1982, issuing his debut album and ushering in a decade of phoenix-like bop playing. You get the point.
To me, 2012 was that kind of year. A lot of forces converged to renegotiate jazz’s place in American culture. I think the 2010s will go down as the time when open-armed symbiosis with all sorts of art — mostly other music, but not exclusively — became the governing paradigm. Musicians are crossing boundaries at a fast clip, yet almost always avoiding the mainstream. That can be both a good and bad thing.
Nate, in your wrap-up last year, you noted the “stealth jazz influence” in a lot of the creative pop music that’s been coming out recently. I think you were right on in saying that this has the markings of jazz education’s influence all over it. There’s something else at play now, too: Spotify memberships became a commonplace this year. So we have to reckon with the impact of an unprecedented global aqueduct of musical dispersion; it can seem like everyone is listening to everything.
Most young jazz performers are reaffirming the postmodern definition of jazz that’s now more or less indisputable, as far as I’m concerned: Jazz is whatever jazz musicians play. But that hasn’t totally changed what it means to be a jazz musician; you have to know the tradition. The music’s finest fruit will always come from those who understand West African-born rhythm from the inside out, and who understand jazz as expressing some sort of insurgent ideal. (That’s part of why the #BAM discussion, which spilled over into 2012, was very much worth having, even if tempers on both sides — and a blackout from major media — prevented it from blooming.)
This was the year when we got a full picture of how well jazz’s foundations can undergird eclectic ventures. To some degree, that’s what was happening on this year’s two most talked-about records made by jazz musicians: the Robert Glasper Experiment’s Black Radio and Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society. The common word in those titles is a tip-off; I’d argue that the records will end up having a more important effect on the future of commercial music — principally hip-hop and R&B — than on that of jazz. But it was still good to see some prominent jazz musicians draw attention for their interest in other “great American art forms.” Plus, it points to another upside to all this cross-pollination. A friend of mine said she came across Black Radio online, when clicking through Erykah Badu’s catalog. From there, Spotify’s “related artists” feature guided her to a Christian Scott (aTunde Adjuah?) record. Who knows where that will lead her.
But when I look back on this year’s harvest, I’m convinced that albums like Rafiq Bhatia’s Yes It Will (which snuck onto my top 10 list),or ERIMAJ’s Conflict of a Man, or even Karriem Riggins’ Alone Together actually tell us more about the direction jazz is going. These discs, all debuts by musicians under 40, don’t force any dualistic conceit about fusing two genres; listening to them can feel like drinking up an ocean of influences.
The goal of Bhatia, Riggins and Jamire Williams of ERIMAJ is fundamentally the same as any classic jazz player’s: to throw light on the ironies of struggle, the productive partnership of pain and joy. Sometimes it can just be easier to evoke those contradictions when your music encompasses John Coltrane, Soft Machine, Sunn O))), Flying Lotus. (I’m thinking especially of Bhatia here. Both in concert and on record, I am thrilled by how his music can be so simultaneously summit-seeking and fastidious.)
If this is where we’re headed, it makes sense that Jason Moran seems to be the hottest name on the lips of jazz fans these days. After Dr. Billy Taylor died, Moran took over as artistic advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center here in D.C. This past October marked the beginning of his first season as a jazz curator, and its scope has been something to celebrate. So far, he’s held an election night jam session with bluegrass musicians and opera singers sharing the stage with his own sextet; converted an area of the stately center into a dark-lit dance hall for a Medeski, Martin & Wood show; and presented a “KC Jazz Club” concert by Christie Dashiell, a young, adventurous singer from D.C. who’s relatively unknown on the national stage.
It takes a while for fundamental changes in the music to seep up into major performing arts institutions, so when you see the Kennedy Center already opening its arms to Moran’s experimental approach, you can almost watch the Young Lions vanishing from the rearview. (I wrote a piece for CapitalBop comparing his vision to that of Jazz at Lincoln Center; it might have felt like a potshot, if the differences weren’t so stark.)
In a JazzTimes profile of Moran earlier this year, I thought about why he seems ready to bear the music’s standard in an age of artistic crossbreeding. A big part of it is his embrace not just of varied musical influences, but of multimedia; at the recent Whitney installation that you mentioned, Nate, Moran and his wife — the opera singer Alicia Hall Moran — incorporated music, video, performance art and much else. That’s status quo for them, and for a growing number of jazz players.
The price of such wide-ranging artistic exploration is, of course, that you separate yourself from the mainstream. But a place on the fringe doesn’t connote stagnation. I think it works the other way — freeing you from certain commercial considerations and making room for straight-up expression. For once, I feel like jazz is learning to accept those advantages. The “jazz is dead” conversation now feels like a crude joke that’s been told too many times: The punch line doesn’t have any bite left. Even the awkwardness of the suggestion is gone. Jazz isn't dead, it's just spreading its wings. Nate, to respond to your question, people now seem at peace with the idea that the jazz tradition is itself a constant innovation.
I don’t mean to suggest that jazz lives in some distant, utopian world where all mercantile worries vanish. I don’t want to paint the internet as an absolute plus, either. A struggle for donations and the technology-triggered decline of radio have quietly eviscerated jazz on the airwaves in Boston, Los Angeles and D.C. Radio is a force that brings us together, gives people a touchstone, invites listeners to hear things they wouldn’t otherwise. For those reasons, the medium is a boon to any marginalized music (or strain of thought), and it's jarring to watch it disappear.
Still, the web has also empowered folks to think and work outside the box in helping the music thrive. You guys are right that the attrition of venues is a serious problem, including in D.C., where U Street (Black Broadway, as it’s long been known) is down to just two bona fide jazz clubs. To help make up for that, and build an audience for future clubs, CapitalBop puts on DIY shows at non-traditional venues, and we get the word out through our web presence. We’re far from the only ones. House Party Starting in Chicago, Search & Restore in New York, and a handful of similar organizations across the country are filling a need vacated by disappearing clubs, while showing how the web can help corral young listeners who are oblivious — but open — to contemporary jazz. (Just before the Undead Music Festival’s nationwide Night of the Living DIY in June, I wrote something for A Blog Supreme about the importance of DIY jazz organizations.)
And as long as we’re talking venues: Greg and Nate, I’m definitely concerned about the downfall of St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem, and the future of Lenox Lounge. But as you observed, Greg, there are still a handful of spots there. And what matters most to me is that the neighborhood is again a hotbed where a bumper crop of young stars lives, works and practices together.
I was in the pianist Gerald Clayton’s kitchen a while back, talking to him for a JazzTimes story on the Harlem scene, when he got to raving about his roommate, the drummer Justin Brown. He was talking about the endless wealth of music that’s liable to gust out of Brown’s computer speakers on a given day: singer-songwriter stuff, Indian classical, gospel — the gamut. The best part is that when the urge strikes them, Clayton and Brown get to call any of the dozens of young, professional musicians living in their neighborhood and convene a living-room jam session. I’m eager to see how the partnerships between these Harlem players — Clayton, Brown, Moran, Jamire Williams, Ben Williams, Fabian Almazan, Taylor Eigsti, Kendrick Scott and plenty more — help them churn something new and intimate out of their vast collective ken.
All this talk of the future reminds me that I need to pause for a moment, as you guys have, to recognize the great ones we lost this year: Dave Brubeck, David S. Ware, Pete La Roca Sims, Pete Cosey, Ted Curson, Shimrit Shoshan, Austin Peralta and so many others. I only had the chance to experience the first two of those names live (Brubeck with his quartet, and Ware in a heart-stirring solo soprano saxophone show), but every artist on that list calls up a distinct and enthralling sound in my brain. Which reminds me why we fight for this music: It shows us how to communicate, cooperate, construct, without ever compromising the essence of what gives us freedom.
Until the next Time Out,