Jazz and such
BRAIN TUBA: Jazz and such
The New York Times made an interesting assessment of jazz over the weekend of January 6th. In an article titled ‘Alive and Well. In The Classroom, Anyway,’ Nate Chinen concluded that, ‘However counterintuitive it sounds, local action may be the best hope for the revitalization of the music’s audience. Thanks to… educational programs, jazz now exists in college towns and isolated high schools where no club scene has ever thrived. The implosion of the monolithic music industry has little effect on that network. In that sense, jazz has a shot at becoming a folk music again.’
It’s certainly a romantic notion: that academia might not actually strangle the life out of jazz, but simply preserve it until its next rebirth. But what does that really mean? In the best of all worlds, it means that jazz (or the semi-officially decreed Ken Burns/Wynton Marsalis canon of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, etc.) succeeds and becomes the basis for a common musical vocabulary. What that would result in, though, likely wouldn’t be jazz, not in any recognizable way. It would, perhaps, be to jazz what Esperanto is to English.
One place to look for a precedent would be the nascent folk scare of the early ’60s. On one hand, it brought dozens, if not hundreds, of forgotten musicians back into the limelight as a generation of (mostly white) high school and college kids discovered and appropriated Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Howlin’ Wolf, and countless others. But the music that those kids made — in Greenwich Village, Boston, and everywhere — really kinda sucked. Even the pretty-cool-in-their-time Weavers, starring legit New Left hero and banjoist Pete Seeger, sound (these days) so lily white as to border on corny. Ditto Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and most others including, at times, even Bob Dylan.
What the Folk Revival did do, however, was provide a common ground for the swelling of rock and roll. Plenty of fun as they may’ve been, Mother’s McCree Uptown Jug Champions never had any heft ‘til their folkie musicians internalized the imagery, melodic turns, and modes of improv, plugged their asses in, and became the Grateful Dead. Across the board, from acoustic acolytes like the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn to electric slingers like Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, musicians transformed from being derivative nobodies to evolutionary templates.
When jazz students start bands, the results aren’t necessarily too fascinating, at least at first. The jamband scene of the mid-to-late ’90s, for example, saw plenty of groups of prodigiously talented musicians come and go. There was nothing wrong with the heavily schooled music of the Miracle Orchestra or ulu or Uncle Sammy, or any number of other acts, but there wasn’t much enthralling about it, either. This isn’t jazz’s fault, either. It’s probably just hard to make a new path in a place where so many have trampled.
In some ways, expecting students of jazz to revitalize the genre is like expecting English majors studying Shakespeare to revivify the sonnet. Ain’t gonna happen. But, if the teachers do their jobs right, the students might well do other interesting stuff with the English language. In that regard, as counterintuitive as it might sound, the goal of teaching kids jazz shouldn’t be with the expectation that they will comprise the next generation of jazz musicians. Jazz is just one type of music, and learning to play it is just one way to learn how to play music. After that, a musician is on his own. No direction home. Or something.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com.