In the space of this short blog, I want to make a few points. One, I love jazz. Two, I worry a lot that jazz has declined. Three, I think it’s no good at all for our culture that jazz has declined so precipitously. And, finally, I think jazz’s decline has had, for reasons I will describe, worrisome racial consequences for both whites and blacks.
But I do want to look at some points made in this last blog because they express the basis for both my love of jazz and my alarm at its decline.
Jazz is distinctly an American music genre, though its deeper roots go back further and elsewhere. While it evolved principally in African American communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it shares key elements with European and other American music and performance traditions. This is due to its remarkable blend of improvisation, syncopation, and swing with harmony, pop, and the brass band tradition.
As the Slate blog notes, jazz became notable for its virtually unique combination of creative expression, formal innovation, complex musical structure, and improvisational heroics.
Its spread largely from New Orleans to the nation was explosive in the early part of the 20th century. We were in the Jazz Age by the 20s and 30s. Remarkable musicians emerged, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Jelly Roll Morton. Fine white musicians, such as Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, joined the scene as jazz entered the swing era in the 30s. However it happened precisely, there is no doubt in my mind that this mixing of black and white musicians as well as the popularity of the music across racial lines contributed to the relaxation of the social barriers that contributed to segregation and helped set the stage for the civil rights movement.
Jazz’s popularity remained strong in the 40s and 50s, though the shift from danceable music to bebop was both exciting and perhaps threatening to its broad-based popularity. For me, it was remarkable. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others came on the scene, lifting jazz to the highest peaks among all the music genres throughout history.
It was inevitable that jazz would move to a freer form in the late 50s and 60s. This is the period when I became attuned and excited. John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and others became musical heroes to me.
According to most historians, it was during the 60s and 70s that the decline accelerated. And, while I won’t explore the causes in detail, I do want to share a common hypothesis, and it’s this: the high art of jazz couldn’t compete among the masses with its much easier competitors: the ever-flexible world of pop, rock, hip hop merging with pop, and all of their descendants in subsequent decades.
I am not saying that people shouldn’t respond to music in ways that touch them. Further, I’m a realist who understands that times change, as do styles and fads. Surely, Terry Teachout is right: jazz musicians will need to try to find a way to re-build an audience, if jazz has any hope of reviving.
Yet, the social critic in me still must raise my voice in protest. I know this may sound effete, snobbish, and wrong to some, but my fundamental question is this: what does it say about a culture that prefers cheap pop, rap, and degraded rock to high jazz? Not much good, in my opinion, for reasons that are clear in my earlier discussion of the power and value of jazz.
Here’s another crucial point that I think Wynton Marsalis keeps trying to make. It is both amazing and historic that in the great flowering of jazz it was the black experience that emerged as the one that was truly on a par with the very best of traditions in all of music history.
That we no longer can look to the likes of John Coltrane for the intellectual, spiritual, and deep emotional power of their musical experience is a horrible loss in ways that are impossible fully to calculate. And it should not go without mention that these great artists whom we no longer have as sources of such inspiration were almost all African American.