Like Young

Jazz has been attracting its first young audiences in decades -- but are they hearing a music without a future?

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YOUTH has become the most frequent topic of conversation in jazz. The talk concerns a crop of instrumentalists in their twenties and very early thirties, including the tenor saxophonists Joshua Redman and James Carter, the trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton, the pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Jacky Terrasson, and the bassist Christian McBride, who are supposedly luring audiences their own age and younger to jazz.

This accent on youth could be interpreted as an effort to shake the blues of just a few years ago, when all anybody in jazz seemed to talk about was death. Sarah Vaughan died early in 1990, followed in less than three years , Stan Getz, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. Along with grief, these deaths triggered panic that time might also be running out for jazz as a commercially viable form of music. Jazz was already short of marquee names when the nineties began; the loss of five more left what threatened to become a permanent void at the top of the bill.

Some New York­based critics blamed their city's club owners and the producers of the annual JVC Jazz Festival for having failed to groom successors to bebop's aging stars. JVC, in particular, was in danger of becoming an annual series of memorial concerts. Even so, the assumption that presenters of live music still turn the crank of the star-making machinery strikes me as naive.

Duke Ellington used to say that he was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1956. He meant reborn at that summer's Newport Jazz Festival, when an outbreak of dancing in the aisles during his band's performance of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" helped to land him on the cover of Time. Most of today's major festivals are in Europe, though, and there are far too many of them for any single one to matter in quite the same way that Newport used to.

An increasing number of festivals defray their costs by subletting their stages to record companies for "An Afternoon With Blue Note" or "An Evening With Columbia." In most cases the entire festival might as well be programmed by record companies, because only performers who have a major label's publicity campaign behind them draw big crowds today. Word of mouth about a newcomer or a resurgent veteran can still begin at an overseas festival, in a New York nightclub, or occasionally in a favorable notice by an influential critic. But only the major labels have the juice to amplify such word of mouth into what broadcasters and newspaper and magazine editors traditionally unreceptive to jazz might recognize as a buzz. Once a buzz gets started, the role of everyone who hopes to win bigger numbers for jazz--including compliant critics--becomes to keep it going.

THE loudest buzz right now is about the above-named younger musicians, who are credited with bringing jazz back to life or--what might amount to the same thing--putting more warm bodies into the seats. It should come as no surprise that the most talked-about of them happen to record for the large companies. Joshua Redman may prove to be the most talented in the group; at twenty-seven, he's already far and away the most successful, with sales of each of his first three Warner Bros. albums having topped 100,000. Last fall DKNY Menswear (the designer Donna Karan's line of casual wear for "the urban guy who lives for the risk") outfitted Redman and his sidemen for their fifty-city tour to promote Spirit of the Moment: Live at the Village Vanguard (Warner Bros. 9 45923-2), Redman's fourth release. This was hailed as a breakthrough: pop stars who go on the road to promote their new albums can usually count on corporate sponsorship to offset the costs of their tours, but jazz performers are rarely so blessed.

With corporate underwriting taking the place of federal arts funding, we may soon see a new form of Social Darwinism: survival of the cutest. In addition to being photogenic, Redman is good copy twice over--as a second-generation jazz musician (his father is the tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, formerly a sideman with Ornette Coleman and a member of Old and New Dreams), and even more so as a Harvard summa cum laude who passed up Yale Law School for a career in jazz.

You could call it the Wynton Marsalis factor. Every ten years or so, for a different set of reasons each time, cultural trendsetters rally behind one musician with whom they sense a bond and who then comes to symbolize jazz to the mass media. Before Marsalis it happened in turn to Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Keith Jarrett. Marsalis improbably combined youthful arrogance with an obeisance to tradition that bordered on ancestor worship; Columbia's success in marketing him persuaded the other majors that the trick to selling jazz was to play up its genealogy and long history of esoteric appeal even while attempting to demystify it by means of trim young figures in designer suits. Though unprecedented in recent memory, the election of a type of musician to carry the banner for jazz was probably inevitable, given the difficulty of finding another performer as charismatic as Marsalis and given the longstanding preference of magazine editors for pieces on jazz "trends," as opposed to on individual musicians.

At thirty-four, Marsalis is more visible than ever, what with his recent books and radio and television programs. But he doesn't sell as many albums as he used to, and tempting as it is to put the blame for this on a combination of overexposure and the ill will he has aroused as the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center (he has been accused of cronyism, ageism, reverse racism, and narrow-mindedness in closing the doors of that establishment to reputed avant-gardists), I think there's another explanation--one entirely to Marsalis's credit as an artist unwilling to let his audience tell him who he is.

Presented by

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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