Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Writing about jazz in the post-modern gig era

How should music reference works deal with jazz in the era of multi-genre freelancing? Back in November 1983, when I asked Stanley Sadie, series editor for Grove Dictionaries of Music, if he’d ever thought of having a New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, jazz seemed to be a reasonably coherent genre with a connected succession of styles. Maybe I was just being young, naive, ignorant. Or maybe the notion of jazz as something coherent hadn’t yet started to completely unravel, even though all sorts of challenges were nipping at it, especially as the fusions emerged (jazz-rock, jazz-funk, and so forth).

Stylistically, there seemed to be a strong continuity and overlap in the changes taking place over time: New Orleans jazz and Dixieland jazz emerging from blues and ragtime; a transition to virtuosic improvising soloists playing in swing and, later, bebop styles; most of these same musicians becoming involved in big-bands, when jazz temporarily became America’s popular music; a growing boredom with bebop, leading to explorations of alternatives in modal jazz and avant garde jazz; and then fusion, the melding of techniques of jazz improvisation with rock or soul rhythms. This was the conventional narrative. At the time, it made sense to regard jazz as a discreetly approachable scholarly entity.

A decade later it was becoming clear that these labels, while remaining very useful for describing longstanding jazz careers, were losing their usefulness for understanding what was going on within new developments in jazz. More than anything, I remember thinking, when Bill Frisell’s country music Nashville CD was named Down Beat magazine’s jazz album of the year, “Okay. That’s it. I give up.”

As the century ended, I noted that it was getting harder and harder to write a jazz reference biography that did not devolve into a boring shopping list: he or she performed with A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and recorded with T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z. The reason were obvious. We were approaching a half century from the time when live jazz flourished in nightclubs. People were going to clubs for rock and roll, rock, soul, disco, hip-hop. Jazz clubs hadn’t disappeared, but they were greatly diminished in quantity and importance, and no longer supported careers. As stressful and demeaning as extended nightclub residencies had been (low money, long hours, miserable racist experiences, and celebrations of addiction, not to mention the out-of-tune pianos), these residencies had nonetheless offered stability, an opportunity for a jazz group to develop and refine a personalized repertory, and consequently a reasonable signpost upon which we reference writers could hang a career. Now, as the century ended, even the greatest jazz musicians were cobbling together careers, traveling incessantly from festival to brief club date to university workshop.

Image Credit: John Zorn at the 2014 Newport Jazz Festival, August 1, 2014. digboston, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

All this continues in the 21st century. Of course it’s not just jazz. When my wife and I heard Yefim Bronfman at Tanglewood in the summer of 2018, we were wondering how old he was. I looked on his website and happened to notice that Tanglewood was not in his biography for the concert season 2018-2019. How could that be? What was he doing that was so important that Tanglewood didn’t even deserve a mention? Clicking on the “Schedule” tab, I discovered that during this year he was giving 110 concerts in 70 different venues, worldwide. Tanglewood, eh? It didn’t matter. Life as a concert soloist was an ever-expanding list.

But for jazz, the problem intensifies, because in addition to the endless freelancing, many musicians are enjoying a post-modern approach to creation. Jazz is no longer conceived of as a coherent genre, and it has increasingly come to be understood as a process, a method of performance practice that might operate upon all kinds of music, whether popular, ethnic, classical, whatever.

I wouldn’t throw away notions of genre and style. Labels are useful for identifying sound types. If I say “bebop” or “big-band swing,” most of you will have some idea of the nature of those sounds. But jazz, as a methodology, a performance practice, has developed far beyond notions of genre and style. In the late 1990s, we were already struggling with this. Saxophonist John Zorn and his colleagues in the Manhattan Knitting Factory circle were putting out a bunch of CDs on the Tzadik label that had, we thought, more to do with Jewish music than with jazz. Pianist Uri Caine was improvising on the music of Gustav Mahler. Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi was melding a John Coltrane-influenced tenor sax style together with South African township music. In universities and conservatories, super-talented aspiring young musicians were more likely to be involved in exploring “contemporary improvisation” (which may or may not involve jazz styles or practices) than in a specific jazz improvisation course.

Smooth jazz exploded in popularity. To my ear, it could much more accurately (if more awkwardly) have been called instrumental rhythm-and-blues, or instrumental soul (i.e., R&B/soul without singing/lyrics). But smooth jazz was a sexy label, great for commodifying the music; it was a reasonably coherent stylistic label, and I didn’t really mind if someone wanted to regard it as belonging to the genre Jazz. In a different vein, during these years I was asked to write previews of the Dubai Jazz Festival for the Dubai edition of London’s Time Out magazine, only to discover that all but one of the performers played music that I would never call jazz. It was a blues, funk, and pop festival. The word “jazz,” commodified, had lost all relationship to genre and style.

Today there’s way more diversification than ever before, in applying notions of jazz to music. Frisell’s Nashville was the harbinger, or maybe the tipping point. What it represents has become the norm. Should there be a third edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz? Probably not. Jazz coverage, such as it is, now belongs in a general dictionary of music and musicians. Current-day jazz careers have fragmented into a disconnected succession of gigs and recordings (a shopping list), and anyway, most professionals are involved in multi-genre explorations of worldwide music that shouldn’t be confined to a jazz box.

Featured Image credit: “Jazz club sign, Fisciano, Italy” by Pietro Battistoni. CC0 via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *