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The Shape of Jazz to Come?

In the past two weeks i’ve seen three of the most amazing shows all under the umbrella term ‘jazz’. The first was the Maria Schneider Orchestra – an ensemble in the historically traditional ‘big band’ instrumentation playing music informed by Gil Evans, world music rhythms, and rarely but occasionally swinging. The result is something that shakes me to the core, and has a sum-is-greater-than-the-parts force but still allows individual soloists to be featured extensively.

The second was the Search and Restore Benefit concert, a round robin of duets by 23 musicians from across the spectrum of music that some people call jazz. Each duet was completely different, and completely alive and in the moment. It was the essence of pure improvisation and interaction. Some swinging, others not. You can read a great review of it here.

The third was a septet led by Wynton Marsalis playing swing arrangements of Christmas tunes. It was incredible – joyous, and completely swinging – something that really does give you a feeling like nothing else can. It was at the Brooks Brothers store on Madison Ave. and the audience was a mix of people of all ages and backgrounds, jazz lovers and not.

All three of these shows left me feeling high for days after, and really excited about music in general. Then the other day my friend showed me a thread on facebook that got pretty heated discussing whether or not swing is ‘the heartbeat of jazz’. It was at times funny, at times heated, but mostly just left me feeling cold and depressed afterward. There was nothing further from my mind than to mark my own territory in this back and forth debate, which both sides seemed to agree was “healthy”, but after further reflection and advice from my roommate, I decided to write this post.

I understand why people get so upset about this topic, even resorting to personal attacks on people they haven’t even met. When you work your entire life on a craft that is severely under-appreciated (at least considering the ratio of hours you put in against appreciation return) you’re bound to be protective of whatever ideals you’ve forged to support yourself. I say this because I think every musician I’ve ever known has had some periods of self doubt. During these times, we all ask ourselves questions like ‘Why am I putting in so much time on something that seems so futile?’ The answers we find for these questions over the years become our sort of personal code of ethics. Some people lean especially towards the history of the music, while others on the philosophy of creating something uniquely personal.

I guess the reason reading a discussion like this makes me so sick is because disputing these ethics is like two people arguing that their religious faith is more valid. Everyone who has an opinion, no matter how insightful or time-tested, has arrived at that opinion amidst a long personal battle – it should be protected like a sanctuary. Its purpose should be to protect one against their own self-doubt, not as self-righteous arguments to try to knock down other individuals who have arrived at a different conclusion.

I really can also see why both sides are drawn into these arguments. Traditionalists feel threatened by new generations who in their opinion don’t give full credit to the history, and they feel like they’re being outmoded or at least outnumbered. Modernists can’t help but feel powerless against Jazz at Lincoln Center and its mission, which seems to them very narrow. Personally I see no need to take a side, and I feel very strongly that I haven’t lived long enough (and don’t think I ever will) to give an opinion one way or the other. I’m even hesitant in writing this, as neutral as it may be. I feel extremely fortunate that I don’t feel strongly on one side or the other of this debate, because I think what it boils down to is that I’m able to enjoy more music because of it. I try to maintain the philosophy (if I have any) that it’s better to like things than to not like them. I completely understand – and participate – in being critical against music or any art form, but how can I fault someone for enjoying something? Why would I want to dispute whatever it is that causes them to enjoy it? The only answers I can think of are those which make myself feel more secure, but really benefit no one else.

There is one more aspect of this which I can’t really dispute – those who feel the need to protect the word jazz in order to protect the history of it. They don’t want to see their heros and their rich history be diluted by things that are happening today. I don’t have an answer for them, only that history fighting against mass cultural trends in music hasn’t changed anything yet (See: Bob Dylan)

So maybe its time that the discussion of ‘what is jazz’ be placed in with topics of politics and religion – you can discuss it all you want, but in the end you’re probably just going to hurt more people than you help. If you’re prepared for that, then fine, just leave me out of it.

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