Is jazz America’s classical music? Three pieces re-edited September 2011
How long, Oh Lord, how long? June 2009
‘How long, oh Lord, how long must we non-Americans keep hearing this same old s**t about ‘If it’s not American culture, is it still worth calling “jazz”?’? One could cite Dave Holland, Joe Zawinul, Django Reinhardt etc, but the argument is much bigger than that. We in Europe, and others around the world are producing music that reflects our own individuality while respecting the traditions of the music – and, if I may be immodest, sometimes receiving favourable comparisons to some of jazz’s greats such as Mingus and Ellington. They reflected ‘American culture’ and we’ve taken that and added some of ourselves to the mix, and in the process produced music which is unheard, unrecognized and, in comments like the quote above, insulted. I don’t want to start any new jazz wars, just trying to get some recognition that good jazz now exists everywhere and that banging on about how American it has to be misses out a great deal of great music. Now remind me, where was Marian McPartland from?
That comment was posted by me on the jazz blog at NPR, where, incidentally, British-born Marian McPartland has had a regular programme for many years. The original comment, ‘If it’s not American culture, is it still worth calling “jazz”?’, came at the end of an item discussing a web piece about a new CD by Gianluigi Trovesi which ‘draws primarily from the history of Italian music, from the Renaissance to contemporary free improvisation’ – which follows up the point I made in Saeta’s influence about how many Italian jazz musicians have used other influences.
But as my comment said, how long do we have to go on discussing whether jazz has to have its American ancestry showing like a bottle-blonde’s dark roots? Which, as I fully realise, is getting perilously close to implying racism. Which, not incidentally, is the point at which I ask if there is a word missing in the question? Should it read ‘If it’s not black American culture, is it still worth calling jazz?’ Which is, again not coincidentally, very close to Branford Marsalis’ remark that ‘only those who have internalised the culture and way of life of African Americans can become jazz musicians. A prerequisite for this is to live in the US.’
Isn’t it long past time to stop this BS about whether jazz needs to be black American, or just American? I spend a chapter on this in the jazz composer, called ‘It ain’t who you are (it’s the way that you do it)’. The chapter is dedicated to Jan Garbarek, as successful a non-American jazz musician as there has ever been. I’m not his greatest fan, but listening recently to his Officium – the ECM album where he improvises over the Hilliard Quartet singing Gregorian chant – I realised how beautiful the music is, and how it is, by my definition, jazz. In that statement I have the support of Bill Evans whose presence in Miles’ band, we must remember, was greeted with shock by black audiences, but was said by the other musicians to be because Miles wanted him there. Evans said, ‘Jazz is not a what, it is a how. If it were a what, it would be static, never growing. The how is that the music comes from the moment, it is spontaneous, it exists in the time it is created. And anyone who makes music according to this method conveys to me an element that makes his music jazz.’
Patrick Jarenwattananon, the moderator of the NPR blog, added this comment in reply to mine: ‘Just to clarify, I call what both Trovesi and what you make “jazz”! I think that much of what’s going on across the pond from where I am is awesome. But there is that ongoing debate: in Europe/the world’s reinvention of this reputedly American thing, has it become something else altogether? (That something else being equally valid, or even potentially more appealing.) Or is that not useful to ask?
It may be useful to ask, but I think the answer lies in what one calls jazz. If, like Wynton Marsalis, when asked whether he liked European jazz, you answer ‘If it’s swinging and has some blues in it, I love it,’ then you’ve defined what jazz means to you. If I were to point out that in defining jazz this way he is missing a lot of good music then that starts to define what jazz means to me. But it’s not how you define jazz that’s the problem. It’s that some definitions, like Wynton’s, aim to exclude what many musicians devote their lives to, producing music which can be, as Patrick implies, equally valid, equally appealing.
Did I say that?
Originally posted in June 2009 after the jazz.com site re-ran the article above.
Jazz is America’ classical music? Graham Collier disagrees was the heading but rereading the article I can’t see how that was arrived at. I have never used the phrase ‘jazz is America’s classical music’ and while subscribing to it in a broad sense, I have always found it to be a sloppy phrase, reflecting an inferiority complex that attempts to compare jazz to ‘real music’. (For the record they’re different – as different perhaps as cricket and baseball!)
Taking the phrase at its face value there could be a definite case, but it opens a door which seems not to have occurred to jazz.com’s headline writer. If jazz is America’s classical music, then one could also state that symphonic music is Europe’s classical music (I admit it’s tautologous and I did think about saying ‘symphonic music is Europe’s jazz’ but it didn’t sound right. Now why is that I wonder? But I digress.)
If symphonic music is Europe’s classical music then any serious look at the subject must include Charles Ives, Elliott Carter and many others who took the European tradition and, coming from somewhere else, went somewhere else with their music. Which is the point I was making in the article – Europeans, and others around the world, have taken ‘America’s classical music’, and done their own thing with it. But, and this may be at the nub of the headline writer’s beef, this doesn’t seem to be allowed.
In making my case for non-American jazz to have its day I wrote ‘how long do we have to go on discussing whether jazz has to have its American ancestry showing like a bottle-blonde’s dark roots?’ and continued ‘Which, as I fully realise, is getting perilously close to implying racism.’ This charge was repeated in the second headline which read ‘Jazz’s American-driven perspective is “getting perilously close to implying racism”.’ A closer reading of the piece would refute this interpretation of what I actually wrote, but let’s take the headline at its face value and compare it with this remark from Branford Marsalis which I quoted in the article: ‘only those who have internalised the culture and way of life of African Americans can become jazz musicians. A prerequisite for this is to live in the US.’
This discussion will no doubt continue, but for now here’s a comment from Quincy Jones which one could say has some relevance to the points I’m making: ‘The Europeans at this point are ready to say, “Hey guys, we’ll just take jazz from here. You don’t know what the hell to do with it.” That’s the way Europeans feel now. And I remember when they were just drooling over Bird and Diz and everybody. And now they have some amazing musicians over there.’
Too much baggage?
A look at the America versus Europe problem from another angle.
‘In the search for the absolute and commitment to the new, it was advantageous not to be a European, not to be steeped in a tired culture.’
critic David Sylvester writing about the rise of abstract expressionism in America at a time when art was seen as European.
‘I believe that here in America, some of us [are] free from the weight of European culture.’
Barnett Newman quoted by Sylvester.
This point is nicely developed by Sylvester, who says that Newman was influenced by Europeans such as Matisse and Giacometti, but ‘it was they who had to deal with “the weight of European culture” and that it was because Newman was free of that weight that he could deal with Matisse and Giacometti and go on from there.’
In looking at what music is produced in the name of jazz, we can apply David Sylvester’s point that the descendants of the creators of an art form may be carrying too much baggage from the past. And that those coming to an art form from a different direction, may be able to dispense with all or most of that baggage, and, in so doing, shed new light on the subject.
The baggage carried by American jazz has been dealt with by Miles and Ornette. As Kirk Varnedoe said about Jackson Pollock and Picasso, ‘each, in different ways and degrees altered the international languages of modern art’. They challenged the view that bebop was the language of jazz, all that could be used, all that should be taught. Much American jazz missed this epiphany and continued – and continues – to create music that could perhaps best be described as ‘hard bop moderne’.
American musicians generally are aware of the great weight of jazz history behind them, and feel that they need to deal with it, to get it out of their system or, often, pun intended, to include it in their system.
It is, I believe, no coincidence that many non-American players, Garbarek for one, have taken much greater advantage of the newly exposed potential of jazz, than many Americans have. As pianist Bobo Stenson, a fellow Scandinavian, said, ‘the American jazz tradition is not so rigid for us as it is for American musicians … and we can be freer in our approach.’
An extract from the jazz composer, moving music off the paper