Jazz in the '90s: Bebop and Beyond?

Books & Authors -- July 1996


Bebop and Beyond?

Bebop and Nothingness

Francis Davis, who has been writing on jazz for The Atlantic Monthly since 1984, looks around at the much-touted jazz revival of the 1990s, with its crop of fresh young faces, and wonders what went wrong. Is it just him, or is there really not as much to celebrate as "trend" pieces in national publications, proclaiming a "New Jazz Age," would have us believe? "If Time and the New York Times say that jazz is experiencing a renaissance," he writes in the introduction to (Schirmer Books, 1996), his latest collection of essays, "it is. That's how it works. So why am I yearning for the Dark Ages?" Davis says he bears today's talented young jazz musicians no malice. It's just that they're not the real story. "The real story," he feels, "is the commodification of youth." Having followed jazz and the jazz business for the past thirty years, first as a listener and then as a critic, Davis sees that the target audience for young players such as Joshua Redman, James Carter, and Nicholas Payton, is people in their forties and older "who've stuck with jazz through the decades even though they haven't much liked anything they've heard since around 1965, when Miles [Davis] still had his band with Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter], and before [John] Coltrane went too far out."

It isn't just the generation gap between today's most popular jazz musicians and their audience that bothers Davis; it's what they're playing. That is, it's what the major labels and the established venues are selling as authentic jazz: a sound self-consciously rooted in "tradition" but narrowly fixated on the period between the mid-1940s -- when bebop arrived with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell -- and the mid- to late-1960s, when bop's successors gave way to free jazz, funk, and fusion. Davis sees a jazz establishment, made up of compliant critics, powerful record labels, and even more powerful personalities, upholding "the neocon myth that jazz evolved from bebop to aberrant fusion to bop again, with thirty-plus years of free and its offshoots not even counting as jazz." Add to that the misperception "that nothing much was happening in jazz until the arrival of these neophobic youth." There's more to the jazz tradition than bebop and its followers, Davis reminds us. And there's more going on in jazz today than what is being heard on major labels and in mainstream clubs. Much of Davis's new book deals with musicians on what he calls "the well-populated fringes" -- those who do not fit the mold, whether they tend toward the avant-garde or toward traditional styles other than bebop.

In "Like Young," a new piece in the July issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Davis surveys the contemporary jazz scene and addresses these issues head on, contemplating what he fears is an uncertain future for a music that is stuck on the past and marketed toward an aging Baby Boomer audience. Both the article and Davis's new book open up controversial questions about the present state of jazz and its history. We recently interviewed Davis and asked him to elaborate on some of these ideas and to add some personal background to his discussion.

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Francis Davis

"If I go to a concert and I'm supposed to be reviewing it, and I'm taking notes, I sometimes wind up jotting down as much about the audience as I do about the performers," Francis Davis recently told The Atlantic in an online interview. "I'm interested in what music means to people: what does it signify to them?" A contributing editor to The Atlantic since 1992, Davis's interest in the social and intellectual significance of jazz, musical theater, pop, and blues has brought a unique depth to his career as a music critic and historian.

Davis's writing career began to take form in the scripts he wrote for a Philadelphia public-radio show (which he also produced and hosted) that specialized in playing out-of-print jazz. When his scripts evolved into more sophisticated jazz criticism, he started submitting them for publication and became a staff writer at a small New Jersey newspaper. Since his first article for The Atlantic, "The Loss of Count Basie" (August 1984), he has authored seven books: In the Moment (1986), Outcats (1990), The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People From Charley Patton to Robert Cray (1995), Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996), Like Young (2001), Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (2004)

Davis writes for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Stereo Review. A 1994 Pew Fellow in the Arts, he teaches a course in jazz, blues, and folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.

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