From: Nate Chinen
Dear Aaron, Angelika, Joe, and Kelvin,
What was jazz in 2011? A righteous cause? A rigid custom? An inexact science? An irrelevant marker? How about a brave frigate in a roiling sea? Or a gray lump of clay, endless in its reshaping? Or a rotting plantation “haunted by its own hungry ghosts”?
One thing I can say with certainty is that jazz, or whatever you choose to call it, was something to fuss over. Blame Twitter, blame the Republican primary, but this was a year of meta-argument and counterargument, leaving many of us with, as they say, all this stuff twirling around in our heads. This was true even beyond our own scrappy guild, which busied itself with questions of qualification and inclusion (and, while we’re at it, unqualifiable exclusion).
No, the debate(s) reached much further this year, piquing the interest of those who would identify themselves as casual jazz fans, or maybe not even go that far. Given the usual in-house caviling about jazz’s dwindling support network, you might reasonably ask whether this uptick in public disputation — about the meaning of jazz, the meaning of “jazz,” and the issue of who gets to play and/or cover it — reflects some sort of inverse correlation. In other words: jazz today has fewer patrons but more partisans. Its base is constricting and getting meaner, as with polar bears on the melting floes, or diehard fans of Glee.
And yet the Year in Jazz was effectively book-ended by two significant broader-culture moments, the first of which we fondly recall with the image at the top of this post. As you all remember, Esperanza Spalding shocked Bieber Nation (and the rest of us) by winning Best New Artist at the Grammys. In the moments before her coup was announced, watching the telecast with my laptop open, unwisely T.U.I., I registered the stark implausibility of a win. Some hours later, chastened, working with the mirthless benefit of hindsight and sobriety, I registered the plain rationality of said win. What changed during that sleepless interval was merely my perspective, along with Spalding’s Q rating. What about the visibility of jazz, on a national platform? Eh.
Jazz in our present age is desperate for saviors, and Esperanza’s breakthrough stirred hearts and hopes. (How else to account for the fact that she just became the first-ever female Jazz Artist of the Year in the DownBeat Readers Poll? Jason, any insights? Angelika, any thoughts?) But this ambassadorship is complicated slightly by her music — especially on Radio Music Society, due out in March — and more than slightly by her pronouncements on the subject. I recently reread her New Yorker profile from March of last year, and came across a scene in which she name-checks Alex Ross’s invaluable 20th-century classical survey, The Rest is Noise. See here:
In particular, she was galvanized by something that Richard Wagner wrote in a letter to Franz Liszt. She dug out the Kindle that she’d been given for Christmas and read aloud: “‘I have felt the pulse of modern art and know that it will die! This knowledge, however, fills me not with despondency but with joy.’ She read on to the end of the passage: ‘We shall live only in the present, in the here and now and create works for the present age alone.’
“I relate that to how I feel about jazz music,” she said. “Music is intended to be for people. And circumstances and people change with the decades, and that’s O.K. And I think that’s what Wagner was saying, too. It was, like, ‘Let it go, let it breathe, let it move, you know? We’re trying to make music for the people.’”
Here’s where we come to the heart of the matter. So much of our recent discussion and debate was fed by a mounting anxiety — heh, I almost called it “panic” — over the art form’s alleged senescence.
Yet it’s telling, somehow, that Spalding’s interpretation of the Wagner note translates “die” into “breathe.” Isn’t this what jazz musicians do — what they’ve always done? An antiquarian repertory is routinely revivified in their enterprising hands. Under the best of circumstances, an established set of practices forms the basis for startling innovation. Jazz feeds on tradition, and ultimately, to some degree, on itself. Which might seem to justify any number of cautionary screeds.
I haven’t yet mentioned Nicholas Payton outright in this post, though he’s obviously been lurking in the shadows. No one in our world was a bigger provocateur in 2011, with the heat sharply intensifying in the last month. Whether making his original argument, combating general dissenters or taking umbrage at specific ones, he’s been ruthless about his assertion that “jazz,” as most of us understand it, embodies a kind of systemic oppression. I’m not going to get into a granular analysis or rebuttal here — others have done it, exhaustively, and we only have so much time — but I do want to point out that even at his most incendiary, Payton seeks to ground himself in the lineage of what he calls (reasonably, if impracticably) Black American Music. “What do Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Gary Bartz and myself share in common?” he asks. Another way to put it: ain’t no Bitches without Bitches Brew.
Am I alone in feeling that Payton’s main point is a weaponized version of Spalding’s? He seeks communion with the ancestry of his art form, while rejecting both the premise of due tribute and the burden of received wisdom (not to mention acceptable behavior). Spalding doesn’t distance herself nearly as much from “jazz,” but she does take pains to emphasize the fluidity of her relationship to it, and the breadth of her nonjazz interests. This is not unusual in 2011.
Which brings us to the cheers-and-jeers portion of this exchange. The year-end lists are starting to burble up to the surface — my favorite so far this one, by Seth Colter Walls — and I can’t wait to hear what you all found most impressive on record and in real time this year. (Also: most frustrating, most disappointing, most unexpected. Feel free to bring your own modifier.) My own Top 10 albums/songs will go up later this week, so I’ll save that for a later post. It’s a general-interest list, slightly different than the one that I sent in to JazzTimes and the Rhapsody poll, but if we’ve learned anything of late, it’s that genre isn’t a walled garden anyway, so much as an open field. (Joe, I suspect you have something add on that point.)
Earlier I alluded to two larger-culture events that bracketed the year, Spalding’s win representing the first. The second, with all due respect to Paul Motian, can best be summed up with this image:
I’d leave it there, on a note of inarguable splendor, but that wouldn’t much suit the tenor of this post, would it? So instead, allow me to tie up some strands with a resonant quote — from you-know-who, about you-know-who, with a hard jab at you-know-what:
From Riches to Rags to Riches....
She was a Pop artist when she received the Best New Artist award and a Jazz artist when she was playing bass and they started talking over her.
Esperanza’s one hell of a musician, fuck Jazz!
- Nicholas Payton
Which is not to imply that Mr. Payton gets the last word here. Aaron, you got next. Feel free to come out swinging.