Notion of jazz golden age debatable
By Ron Wynn
Depending on whose perspective you choose, jazz these days is either red hot or nearly dead. Over the last year there have been articles claiming each was the case. The former was recently in the Guardian, and it even offered the notion that we’re in another “Golden Age.” Their evidence of that included the popularity of saxophonist Kamasi Washington, featured on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” the visibility of Robert Glasper through his work on the recent Miles Davis movie and soundtrack, plus his collaborations with urban musicians, and even a New Yorker feature on the superb pianist Vijay Iyer.
The latter was the subject of a rather depressing music business obit that ran in several major papers a few months ago. It said jazz sales had plummeted to their lowest levels ever, and proclaimed that from a sales standpoint jazz was selling in even lower quantities than classical. Of course that was later followed by a story depicting a week when classical sales were at their lowest since they began recording sales figures. Assuming both stories were accurate and commercial sales were your yardstick, then you would conclude that jazz indeed is dead, and sharing the same grave with classical.
Setting aside the fact there have been jazz is dead stories since the ’30s, the biggest problem with a lot of those who don’t regularly cover jazz (or any other type of roots music) is that their observations are based on perceptions gleamed from the wrong benchmarks. In other cases, they simply don’t understand the tricky nature of how jazz has been operating in America since at least the ’70s, if you don’t want to take it all the way back to the ’40s and the bop revolution that some say marked the beginning of jazz’s demise as a pop form. Whatever you choose, it doesn’t really make sense to try and evaluate jazz in terms of its relationship to pop music unless you also understand just how much the pop market has changed.
First jazz, blues, gospel and many other forms of roots music will always be part of the POPULAR music equation. The qualities that make jazz special are also inherent parts of what makes great art: Creative energy, the ability to improvise while still understanding structure and tradition, playing and stylistic personality, distinctive approach, all these are qualities that any great artist needs, and can be found in all areas of popular music.
Pop music on the other hand, and especially in the 21st century world of 20-30 song playlists and corporate radio, is much more about gimmicks, finding the groove or sound of the moment, identifying the trend and plugging into, and many other things that do still require many of the other qualities, but are much more rooted in the moment and designed to maximize something for a short period of time. That doesn’t make it evil, inferior or undesirable, but it does differentiate it from music that’s not necessarily seeking its minute in the 10-song sun.
The fact that David Bowie or Kendrick Lamar have used jazz musicians is wonderful, but the more significant thing in terms of the music is the fact that both of them know and respect the music. That’s always been the case, and always will be the case in terms of the truly hip and knowledgeable performers being aware of the history and traditions of many musical styles, even if they don’t specialize in them or even utilize them.
That Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Boz Scaggs, Paul McCartney, you name them are either making albums of standards is more a recognition that at their age they’ve got more in common with Sarah Vaughan or Frank Sinatra than Lil’ Wayne or whatever alternative rock act is currently topping the pop charts. Idiomatic collaborations and artistic mashups are interesting and intriguing, but they aren’t a signal that suddenly jazz acts are going to get airplay on corporate radio, or that urban stations are adding Glasper’s tracks to their rotation (they aren’t).
Jazz isn’t remotely dead, and there are tons of tremendous musicians out there making memorable and exciting music every day. What you don’t have in America today that you did have in the ’50s and ’60s is jazz being a vital part of the commercial scene or industry. There remain pockets of it, and the majors are keeping their hand in the music through reissues and selectively distributing sessions in partnership with musicians and/or smaller companies. But the days when Atlantic had John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, the Modern Jazz Quartet and numerous others cutting anywhere from 1-3 albums per year is over. Likewise, Columbia, Universal and others have a handful of jazz acts on the label, but it is the companies like Concord, Delmark, Highnote, PI and others who are really keeping the music alive on these shores.
In truth, jazz is neither dead nor in a golden age. Instead it remains a vital but often underchronicled part of the vast popular landscape, one that thanks to the Internet and satellite radio is gaining more visitors all the time. Only those who choose to restrict their listening to that closed loop known as commercial/corporate radio and records are being denied the chance to truly enjoy the actual golden age, the one where there’s more music being made available in every conceivable idiom known to humanity.