I recently had the pleasure of hearing Jazz Is Dead at the Newport Jazz Festival. Led by bassist Ali Shaheed Muhammed (A Tribe Called Quest) and songwriter/producer Adrian Younge, the band was formed to draw inspiration from big names such as Gary Bartz, Henry Franklin, Doug Carn, Roy Ayers, Jean Carne, Lonnie Liston Smith and others in creating new compositions and arrangements of their work. The irony behind the name and philosophy of this group is that jazz is certainly not dead!
The Newport Jazz Festival, founded in 1954 by jazz philanthropist Elaine Lorillard and artistic director George Wein, is one of the oldest jazz festivals in the world. His scenes have been honored by many, from John Coltrane to the Allman Brothers. Since 2016, Philadelphia bass luminary Christian McBride has been the artistic director of the festival.
Anyone who has recently attended Newport or any other major jazz festival, such as the North Sea or the Montreal Jazz Fest, would probably agree that rumors of jazz’s untimely demise are greatly exaggerated. But the music changes. If that sounds contradictory, it’s simply because the very nature of jazz – or “creative music”, as I prefer to call it – is change. Some of this music’s greatest exponents – Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Nina Simone – have been responsible for some of its most significant changes. They not only changed the music from what it was when they arrived, but, as in the case of Coltrane, Miles and others, they also completely changed their own sounds every few years, to the point of be unrecognizable to their previous fans.
Much of the meat is not in what is written or said, but in what is experienced. You have to put the next generation in front of the real veterans and the real players as much as possible.
The big shift in jazz is a global shift in culture that affects how this music is learned, enjoyed, and passed on. For the vast majority of its existence, jazz has been a community music originating primarily from African Americans. It was music at the heart of black culture, which influenced art, writing, philosophy, fashion, clubs, dance, etc. for decades. And like many black musical traditions, jazz persisted as an oral tradition, where the next generation learned from the last in close proximity and then, in turn, taught the next generation in the same way. That’s not to say that some black jazz musicians haven’t had a formal education. But even in these cases, the real jazz education took place through mentorship outside of the classroom. Young musicians often got their start listening to the recordings of the masters, following them to clubs, and finally spending years playing in their bands before having the opportunity to lead their own, where the cycle has start again.
In the case of musicians such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, their bands were the universities. They were all part of a thread that ran from Louis Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis, from Elvin Jones to Marcus Gilmore, or from Jimmy Smith to Joey DeFrancesco. But that thread has been frayed as mentoring has been replaced by formal education.
University education, with its strict methodology, standardized curricula, statistics, rules, admission requirements, privileges, certification and, of course, associated tuition fees, has literally changed the face jazz, as did the gentrification of Harlem, Philadelphia and Chicago. now pushes people out of their own communities. Young children growing up in historically black neighborhoods in the United States today, for the most part, feel very little connection to jazz and may never experience it live or even hold a musical instrument! So maybe more jazz education from elementary to high school would be a good thing.
But at the level of higher education, what can be done? Formal education has its place and excels when the goal is to disseminate standardized information to a large group of people at once. In the case of creative music, where the goal is to express oneself in a unique and recognizable way that is imbued with one’s personality, the mentoring approach once typical of the jazz community is essential. Much of the meat is not in what is written or said, but in what is experienced. You have to put the next generation in front of the real veterans and the real players as much as possible. Let the younger generation see the elders play, tell stories, interact…and maybe some of the younger musicians can even sit down. Promote the development of real relationships and exchanges.
The jazz community has sadly lost many very important musicians, most recently guitarist Monnette Sudler and organist Joey DeFrancesco. But the legacy of these players lives on through those they mentored, like a torch carried. In the post-lockdown era, the scene might not be the most vibrant, but it’s coming back and there are a lot of players doing some really cool stuff. jazz is not dead.
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