By Wil Forbis
I've been a long time fan of jazz music, going back to my teenage discovery of my mother's jazz LP collection. At that point, my familiarity with music in general was limited and I was struck by jazz—struck by its textures, its heaviness and its vitality. And I was struck by how it was music entirely focused in on itself. Jazz musicians weren't creating music in the interest of being cool or representing a moment of fashion (a "crime" I think we can agree most rock and pop musicians are guilty of) but were creating music for its own sake. As someone who'd never been cool but had always maintained an inflated sense of my own importance, I connected with jazz in a way that was unique among the genres of music I'd heard.
But I'm the first to admit that jazz is dead. As a modern music form it has little to offer other than call waiting ditties and offering weary professional musicians that chance to blow through "All the Things You Are" for the 5000th time at weddings and bar mitzvahs. Some may take offense to this and argue that jazz is simply "on the wane" or "enjoyed by a dedicated coterie of fans" but that's just arguing over how rotten the corpse is. Jazz has ceased to be meaningful. Why?
In my view, Jazz lost its vitality. Of course, this begs the question, what is vital music? I'm tempted to twist the old adage about porn and say, "you know it when you hear it," but there's more to it than that. Vital music is music that could have only been produced in its era. More than merely being a product of its times, it's music that helps define the times*. And vital music points to the music of the future. Think of Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced. It couldn't have come out in 1957, and it couldn't have come out in 1977. (It did, however, come out 1967.) Think of Purple Rain, Appetite for Destruction and Nevermind. The same rules apply. And there are innumerable musicians from the heyday of jazz—from Miles to Monk, from Bird to Brubeck—who released vital music.
* It's worthwhile to distinguish between music that is vital and music that is merely contemporary. You can take a style from the past and make it contemporary by just merging in some sounds of the current era. Take a Bach fugue, add in a hip-hop beat and... voilà—suddenly it's contemporary. But hardly vital.
So what happened? I put the blame primarily on jazz musicians. Not the musicians who were creating jazz when it was at its creative peak, but those who came after. (To put a timeframe on it, let's say from the mid '70s onward.) They stopped developing the style. Melodic ideas that seemed fresh and exciting in their heyday (think of the melody to Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" or Monk's "Well You Needn't") calcified into clichés. The musical structure—what had originally been so flexible and malleable— hardened into rigid forms. Professional players—the guys playing jazz clubs, wedding gigs etc.—became content merely reiterating the classic sound and, in some cases, even dumbing it down for their audience. (Listen to any "contemporary" jazz radio station for proof of this.) Jazz academics enforced allegiance to a moribund style. And as each new generation came along, they heard jazz as a music enslaved to the past, a music that didn't reflect their energy and ideas.
Could such a decline happen to genres like folk, country or rock—genres more topical to this publication? To some degree, it already has. In my book, rock has been among the living dead for at least 15 years or so. With folk or country, it's a bit trickier. Their very appeal is based on being traditional or perhaps more so, offering a sense of timelessness, a sense of remaining the same while the world changes. And neither genre ever professed to be as experimental or challenging as jazz. Nonetheless, I do get the impression that folk, country and even Americana reflexively leap too far backwards when faced with any instance of modernity. (I'm thinking of the lukewarm reaction to the ambient influences of Lucinda Williams "West" album for starters.)
No doubt you've read through this, agree with me unequivocally, and feel now is the time to serve a notice to musicians. A notice that any time they perform music without an eye towards its vitality, towards its future, they are participating in the murder of a musical style, just as if they were repeatedly stabbing a knife into the chest of a prostitute who reminded them of their mother. As caretakers of music, they bear a heavy burden. But it's not exclusively theirs. Promoters/brokers/record company yahoos should bring to the public music that is taking chances, not playing it safe. And audiences also have their responsibility. A responsibility to challenge musicians on stage to take risks and keep it exciting. And a responsibility to challenge themselves. More than a half-century ago, the definitive American composer, Aaron Copland prodded audiences to "Take seriously your responsibility as a listener... [because] to listen intently, to listen consciously, to listen with one's whole intelligence is the least we can do in the furtherance of an art that is one of the glories of mankind."
The care and feeding of a music genre rests with all of us.