What ‘nothing happened in a quiet year for jazz’ really means is that quite a lot of random activity took place but none of it connected in quite the same unifying happenstance narrative as it has ignited in certain years.
Think about the Kind of Blue/Shape of Jazz to Come/Time Out/Mingus Ah Um year of 1959, say. That was a huge year for US globally-significant jazz. Or, for that matter, reflect on 1968, the Brötz in his shattering pomp. A year characterised by mass protest in Europe and the US.
There were, of course, plenty of very worthwhile albums and gigs in 2016. Yet it was hardly a vintage year. Still, there was significant movement in the infrastructure of a music constantly in transition. A lot more online migration for instance; as well as a maturing and pragmatic interest in apps; a changing of the guard at BBC R3’s Monday flagship jazz show on air; more valuable academic debate; and positive professional organisations such as the Jazz Promotion Network gaining ground little by little just some of the headlines.
More broadly and reading between the lines we this year do not seem as hung up on where jazz is coming from which is healthy but interested more in where it is going. More of a preoccupation thanks partly because the Internet is ubiquitously mapping the present tense so much more intuitively and gives us a pretty good media version of where jazz is at anywhere on the planet just about in real time. The point in claiming this is that nationality or a quantifiable set of cultural signifiers do not define excellence per se. We can see that more easily now than pre-web, it was never so clear before given our very patchy knowledge about jazz in other parts of the world. And that is even bearing in mind a pride within many jazz advocates in the achievements and accomplishments of a local scene and a concomitant urge no matter how subconsciously to lend support to it. Jazz as a global music has also grown hugely since the 1990s when the web first entered our lives especially in tertiary education and internationally. Take a look at the work of the EJN and Jazz Ahead to see just how international it has become in terms of promotion and sales in Europe alone during the last decade.
Global jazz itself, beyond the cycle of the publicity wheel, revolves around a small number of figures, often late middle aged and elderly icons, keeping on keeping on to still inspire the young guns to shine as brightly, their suitcases, boarding passes and instruments in hand: no musical passports, just open hearts and minds, required. SG
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Ugetsu snuck in among a number of stone cold classics from the likes of Mingus and Kenny Burrell in 1963, another, half decent year. Looking forward instead? Yes. Well, alright, OK, you win
Everyone wants to say ‘forward’ to the direct question in the headline; but did events prove worthy of such a wish?
Only the ‘retrovivalists’ – those who obsessively mine the past to direct their version of the present – prefer back and leave it largely to the third category the fearful and uninspired for jazz to stand still.
Signs that jazz, if it is even possible to speak of it as a single entity, is going forward usually depend on which retro trend is deemed current or failing that sufficiently ‘on message’ for cultural reasons to negate a current malaise.
The ultimate end-of-an-era moment more than a half a century on from a pivotal time in the development of a new jazz idiom was that 2015 saw the passing of Ornette Coleman who really did predict the future for the music because of or in spite of (take your pick) The Shape of Jazz To Come. Free-jazz, with only Cecil Taylor the last of the first pioneers still with us, is now as much a vivid historical memory as events even further back in jazz history such as the Harlem renaissance act as a reminder of past glories.
In terms of going forward I’m not sure if Kamasi Washington is the future of jazz but he is clearly a titanic new force on the tenor saxophone, possibly the greatest new saxophonist to emerge from the US scene since the first stirrings of David Murray. It didn’t hurt at all that Washington reached hip-hop fans on the back of his involvement on the album To Pimp a Butterfly. And it’s clear that the last jazz musician to reach hip-hop fans in the same way was Robert Glasper in his case via J Dilla and the Mos Def fanbase; in Washington’s case helped by the huge appetite for the music and message of Kendrick Lamar.
In terms of retrovival Buddy Rich’s legacy wasn’t enhanced by the movie Whiplash; and in some ways the issuing of the master takes of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme even bearing in mind a few five star reviews that missed the significant argument that A Love Supreme is a perfection in itself not at all bettered by issuing extra takes warts and all that actually reduce rather than improve (at best provide ‘raw data’ only) that classic album’s reputation.
As for the Miles Davis industry the bootleg series has now reached the point when even long time fans have stopped caring about the endless amount of ‘new’ material out there. Reissue fatigue has set in leaving Milesologists to look instead to film or other art forms to continue the story in new ways that live recordings cannot convey. Whether Don Cheadle’s biopic, which received mixed and poor reviews, provides that service isn’t clear at all at this stage as the film hasn’t been widely released beyond the festival circuit in the States. Perhaps a theatre drama (definitely not a jukebox musical!) will instead emerge that might have as much validity in the future.
One thing that was clear in 2015 was that the grip corporate labels and publicists, even well run indie labels and any kind of PR firms, have had on jazz sales and marketing over many years, is lessening that bit more because of social media and DIY gonzo publicity by artists and advocates. That’s a good thing for the under resourced self-employed bandleader out there and also for the established artist in hock to huge overheads demanded by the business to move a stalled career into gear again. It’s clearly better, for too many reasons to list but chiefly artistic control, that musicians opt to run their own jazz labels and do their own promotion given how small the returns are as costs continue to rise. Live performance is what counts: get the gigs first, book a studio down the line. Everything can then follow on.
The future as always is an unknown and this isn’t the place to make predictions for 2016. But one thing is easy: jazz will never stand still. If it does it dies and that’s not going to happen optimists will argue. Forward is still an aspiration and a direction worth pursuing.
One of the most sensitive questions to ask a musician isn’t always personal stuff.
Instead it tends to be “who is your biggest influence?” You might not want to put it quite like that or you might get a bit of a look. You can tease it out usually or just guess laying out a few hints here and there and then the interviewee will either light up in recognition or make you feel as if you are the most ill-informed person in the world ever for having the temerity to think, let alone, suggest that.
It is, in a way, another highly personal question as great music is about individuality, having your own sound, saying something that’s yours and no one else’s. But usually, despite this, the most aware (and more self-effacing?) musicians will, if they know they won’t be misinterpreted, happily talk about their heroes and those who have influenced them even if the process might take a few years until their careers have caught fire and they have nothing to lose.
I’m not saying that people should analyse their own styles because that’s not needed but put it this way if someone knows every solo Charlie Parker ever made or every fill Elvin Jones created or knows the weight and decay of every time Charlie Haden put finger to string then analysis is replaced by deep knowledge that needs to find self-expression.
Somebody who is a perfect stylist and they’re still relatively early into their career may at some stage change to throw everything aside and somehow use what style they have meticulously absorbed as a way into their own thing.
They might just as easily, however, reach some sort of fork in the road, just be happy with their lot as a stylist, and go still deeper into that style choosing to play in the same vein all their lives.
Names aren’t needed but there are a huge number of jazz players out there in this latter distinction and they remain great players and engender tremendous loyalty. Going to their gigs you know exactly what you’re going to hear stylistically and sometimes you might even dig out their heroes’ music beforehand and listen to it to get in the mood.
The fascinating end result is what the disciple produces may well allow new insights on the original inspiration itself and fills in the missing bits never created in the first place or takes what has been created a big step further, dancing to the music of time. SG