Is jazz dead? Hardly, says critic Gary Giddins, who believes we’re seeing “some kind of renaissance.”
Gary Giddins: Well, nobody knows where jazz is going, because nobody has ever known where jazz was going. I mean, you couldn't possibly predict the Swing Era from the '20's or bebop from the Swing Era or Avant-garde from Bebop, or Fusion, or on and on and on. So, we don't really know where it's going.
But I would say this. I don't think we're going to be seeing those kinds of distinct and discrete movements like Swing, Bop, and Fusion. I think now, it's a question of individuals—one thing that is important to remember is that in the early years of jazz, a lot of major musicians, like Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman, had college educations and degrees and all of that.
But a lot of the great figures, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, did not. I mean, Armstrong didn't even go through high school. Hundreds, if not thousands, of major figures learned on the bandstand, that was their apprenticeship.
Today, the apprenticeship of musicians is in the college orchestra. I mean, you're just not going to meet a musician who hasn't got a least a BA and probably an MA, and hasn’t been to a music school and hasn't had “Giant Steps” and a homework assignment. So, it's very different.
So, because they have this historical perspective, they aren't necessarily just coming out of whatever their generation is into, and also because they are growing up and they don't have the same prejudices against pop music that certain generations had, they can use that.
So, today's musicians, who maybe grew up with hip-hop, may use hip-hop beats in a way that if you're not looking for them, then you won't even hear it. But it's there, it's informing the way they think of rhythm.
And they may use things that they picked up from Ellington or Dizzy Gillespie that isn't particularly obvious, it's not a homage, it's not a matter of playing “Conna Homa” or “Sophisticated Lady,” it's just voicings or it's some idea that they picked up.
So all of this becomes part of the brew, and what we're really looking for in the future of jazz is the individual who is saying something that expresses him or herself. That's what I look for. I look for some spark of originality or individuality that sets this musician apart from the pack. The general level of musicianship in jazz is probably higher now than it's ever been.
I can't get very excited about a musician who can do Art Tatum because I've got the Art Tatum records. I want to hear him take that and do something that hasn't been done. And there's enough of that going around that keeps the music very exciting. There's so many great young players coming out. I think we're in some kind of renaissance, especially in the rhythm section. I mean the musicians on drums and bass and guitar are really trying to figure out different ways to bring a rhythm section together.
So, the crossover is a constant thing. One of the things we do in the book [“Jazz”], which I think is fairly novel, I don't think anyone's done it before, but we have two chapters on fusion instead of one. Everybody when they talk about fusion, they are usually talking about the jazz/rock thing that happens in the late '60's and '70's when Miles Davis recorded “Bitches Brew” and you know, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin and all these guys came along and had fusion bands using elements of rock.
But we make an argument that fusion has always been part of jazz and that you can actually create a sort of fusion history of jazz if you go back even into the '30's, where did Louie Jordan, the Father of Rhythm and Blues, come out of? The Chick Web Orchestra. Where did the Salsa Movement come out of? Macheto and Mari Obasu[ph] who played with Dizzy Gillespie, who played with all the Big Bands.
There's always been—you know, Jelly Roll Morton said, "You can't make jazz without using certain elements of Latin music." So, there's always been this, let me say it this way, I'll quote Dexter Gordon's famous line, he said, "Jazz is an octopus. It will take whatever it can use and it will work with it."
So, I think that distinctions aren't as clear as we'd like to think. Jason Rand, who is the subject of the last chapter in our book because we decided to use—instead of trying to cover the whole scene, we'd decided to use a representative Jazz musician at the age of 30, which he was at the time we wrote it. And the two tracks we analyzed by him, one is his version of a 1930 James P. Johnson stride piece called “You've Got to be Modernistic,” which he takes completely into the realm of thoroughly modern semi-avant-garde jazz, and the other is Afrika Bambaataa's “Planet Rock,” which he does the same.
Now, anybody who knows the James P. number will recognize it and anybody who knows the Bambaataa number will recognize it, but they will also see that he has done something completely different. And it's not a question of doing something clever, or cute. This is what he grew up with; it's his right to use it. We're going to see a lot more of that.
Recorded on November 13, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen