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The Shape of Jazz and What's to Come
Will jazz live on into the twenty-first century? Tom Piazza and Eric Nisenson discuss the current state -- and future -- of one of America's most celebrated art forms

December 4, 1997

A debate over the state of jazz -- considered by some to be twentieth-century America's most profound artistic innovation -- is raging. Is jazz experiencing a renaissance thanks to the efforts of the current generation of "young lions"? Or are these musicians simply riffing on ideas that are now decades old? Is jazz alive or dead? Can it survive in a culture increasingly saturated with mass media and corporate consumerism?

Blues Up and Down: Jazz In Our Time These are some of the questions that come up in new books on jazz by Tom Piazza and Eric Nisenson. In Blues Up and Down: Jazz In Our Time -- a collection of profiles, essays, and reviews written during the past fifteen years -- Piazza explores the meaning of the current jazz revival that began in the early 1980s, producing, in Piazza's opinion, the most exciting music in the past thirty years of jazz. Piazza contends that by rethinking the conceptions of "progress" and "innovation" born out of the fusion jazz of the late 1960s and 1970s, the new generation of jazz musicians has returned to the music's core values of craft, tradition, and community. Piazza takes issue with jazz critics who deride the new generation as "neoconservatives" and who base their opinions on the notion, as Piazza puts it, that "art is, or should be, the primal expression of the artist's immediate feelings, the less mediated by intellect or tradition the better."
Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Books & Authors:

A Life (More or Less) Revolutionary (November 20, 1997)
In his new biography of Che Guevara, Jorge Castañeda makes the case that Che is culturally -- but not politically -- significant.

Drawing Without a License (November 6, 1997)
His sharp-witted illustrations, instantly recognizable, have appeared in many of America's best-known magazines. Now, in a new book, Edward Sorel looks back over thirty years of "unauthorized portraits."

For more, see the complete Books & Authors Index

Blue: The Murder of Jazz Eric Nisenson sees the contemporary jazz scene in an entirely different light. In Blue: The Murder of Jazz, Nisenson argues that jazz has grown increasingly stagnant since the early 1980s, owing to a myopic adherence to tradition over innovation. Nisenson places much of the blame for this on Wynton Marsalis, writing, "There is a strong didactic nature to virtually everything Marsalis does; his love of and commitment to the supposed jazz tradition is not unlike a fundamentalist's view of the Gospels. The whole problem with this concept of the jazz 'tradition' is that the truth is, the only real tradition in jazz has been no tradition at all." By tracing the history of jazz and pointing out where the current generation of musicians falls short in comparison to their great predecessors, Nisenson raises doubts about whether jazz will even survive into the twenty-first century.

Piazza is the author of The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz (1995), for which he won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award. His writing about American music has appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Atlantic Monthly, The Oxford American, and elsewhere. Also a fiction writer, Piazza lives in New Orleans and is at work on a novel; his short-story collection, Blues and Trouble (1996), won a James Michener award. Eric Nisenson is the author of 'Round About Midnight: A Portrait of Miles Davis (1982) and Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest (1993). He lives in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Piazza and Nisenson recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Ryan Nally.

From the archives:

  • Jazz in the '90s: Bebop and Beyond?
    An Atlantic Unbound interview with Francis Davis, the author of Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996), who talks about jazz in the '90s -- its influences, rising stars, and prospects for the future.

  • "Like Young," by Francis Davis (July, 1996)
    Jazz has been attracting its first young audience in decades -- but are they hearing a music without a future?
  • As you listen to live jazz performances and new recordings today, what are you hearing?

    Tom Piazza: I hear a real variety of approaches to jazz these days. There also seems to be a major emphasis on musicianship across the board, whether it be acoustic, straight-ahead playing, or playing that draws on more eclectic musical traditions. There's been a great deal of debate lately about what jazz means, and about what it entails to play the music; that debate has found its way into many musicians' conception of what they're doing. Overall, I think all the variety is quite healthy.

    Eric Nisenson: I agree that there are a lot of different things happening. Jazz is becoming more of an international music. We are starting to hear a lot of blending with world music -- and, after all, jazz is a music of fusion to begin with. As for what I listen to -- a lot of reissues, although, of course, there are some great veteran musicians out there who are still playing: Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, James Moody, and the members of the Modern Jazz Quartet, for example.

    And you, Tom?

    TP: The trumpeter Nicholas Payton is a fantastic player; I always listen to what he's doing with great attention. Ornette Coleman's recent recording, Colors, with pianist Joachim Kühn knocked me out, as did Horace Silver's new record, A Prescription for the Blues. Artis Wodehouse's remastering of Jelly Roll Morton's Piano Rolls is thrilling. Across the board there's stuff worthy of mention that we could spend all day talking about.

    At the outset of Blue: The Murder of Jazz, Eric asserts that the only real "tradition" in jazz has been no tradition at all -- or rather, the tradition of individual expression and constant change and growth. But Tom argues in Blues Up and Down that the trick in jazz is to live with an understanding of tradition that can give meaning to the present without overdetermining one's actions. How did the two of you arrive at such conceptions of jazz?

    EN: Tom assumes that critics like me don't believe in tradition and that we don't believe musicians should have to learn how to play their instruments well. In fact I praise Wynton Marsalis in my book for getting musicians interested in earlier forms of jazz. Generations of jazz musicians are usually interested only in the preceding generation but don't look all the way back. For instance, it's shocking to know that Coltrane didn't know anything about Sidney Bechet -- one of the truly great early jazz musicians -- until he became interested in the soprano saxophone in 1960. I believe that musicians must be grounded in tradition. Marsalis has been instrumental in indoctrinating young jazz musicians with this attitude.
    Related link:

  • John Coltrane -- A Love Supreme
    An impassioned and intelligent tribute to "the essence of Trane."
  • Jazz is so hard to define. One reason is that it reflects the American character so well -- but how do you define being American? Is it being white? No. Black? No. And because jazz is still evolving and changing, creating a definition that embraces jazz in all of its aspects is really impossible. Jazz is like a great musical mansion, with all its myriad rooms and its expansive ability to embrace such a wide range of sensibilities, and a mansion still under construction, not a one-room hut.

    TP: I think that understanding tradition is a prerequisite to individual expression and to constant change and growth. The ability to live with an understanding of tradition that can give meaning to the present is necessary not just in jazz but in all the arts, as it is in life. The alternative is to pretend that one can live free of any influence. Many reviewers imply that an artist should have such freedom even though they know it's impossible.

    I've spent more time in the past few years writing fiction than I have writing about jazz, so my experience as a fiction writer colors my way of seeing this. When you read Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Ralph Ellison, or Don DeLillo, you don't copy them but rather absorb what they had to say. Hopefully, you evolve something of your own from that.

    In his 1996 Atlantic article, "Like Young," Francis Davis made the point that there have always been young jazz musicians, but that only lately has anyone made a fuss just about their being young instead of about the changes they're bringing about. Why the intense fascination with young jazz musicians these days?

    EN: They are a clear-cut generation, backed by powerful forces in the recording business and the cultural establishment. It's unfortunate in a lot of ways. Many of these young jazz musicians -- Wynton Marsalis, for example -- have great talent, but too early on they've been told that they're great. They've never had a chance for any seasoning. Things that used to be a part of the jazz scene that would help season them -- big bands, jazz greats who served as mentors, jam sessions -- are for the most part gone. Wynton Marsalis is a hell of a musician, but he has much to learn about arranging and composing -- as his empty, pompous, and clichéd Blood on the Fields goes to show.

    Tom? Are Marsalis's lengthier pieces "empty, pompous, and clichéd"?

    TP: Of course not, although some of them I like better than others. One of the things that would be helpful in talking about jazz would be for people to take a little more time to indicate whether they're talking about what they like as opposed to what is good. Anybody is entitled to like or not like something, but when Eric says that Wynton Marsalis needs to learn a lot more about arranging and composing, that is simply a subjective feeling masquerading as an objective judgment. If we're going to talk objectively about whether Wynton Marsalis knows enough about arranging and composing, we'd want to talk to people who really know something about it, such as Gunther Schuller or Loren Schoenberg.

    Getting back to the original question, I think much of the fascination with youth is market driven. In the climate that we're in there's so much information competing for people's attention in the media that nothing sticks in people's minds without some kind of hook. Also, when the current generation of young jazz musicians first came along, it was an unusual phenomenon -- nothing like that had happened in a long time, maybe ever. I don't think at this point that the focus is so much on the youth of jazz musicians but rather that they're playing something that people want to hear. Finally, the people who spend money on recordings tend to be younger people, who naturally tend to be more attracted to something that looks new.

    What do you make of those who insist upon the centrality of the role of African-Americans in the jazz experience?

    TP: To say that only African-Americans can play jazz is ludicrous. But that's a different issue than the centrality of the role of African-American-based musical elements in jazz. There's no way around that, just as there's no way around the centrality of European-based elements in jazz. I say in my book that there's no real escape from the notion that both African-based musical elements and European-based musical elements need to be present for music to be strong as jazz. What Eric said before about the nature of the word "American" and how hard it is to define was correct. We wouldn't be having this conversation if it were easy to define these words. To me jazz music represents a constant dialogue. You cannot have it without African-based rhythmic elements, blues, certain kinds of timbral manipulations, and various call-and-response elements that derive directly from African-American church music -- just as European harmony and instruments have always been an integral part of the music. I have to say, though, that it has been African-Americans who have led the way in that mixing of elements. That's not the same thing as saying that they are the only ones who can play the music. The hour is long since past when anyone could argue that white people can't play jazz.

    EN: But Albert Murray stated outright in Stomping the Blues that white people can't play authentic jazz because they don't play with the right "accents." He also argues that no one should "intrude" the name Bix Beiderbecke when discussing the great blues trumpet players. Well, among the people who intruded the name Beiderbecke were Louis Armstrong, Rex Stewart, and Lester Young -- three of the greatest jazz musicians. As far as this argument that jazz has to have call-and-response goes, that technique can be found in early European church music. For another thing, I don't hear any blues in Art Tatum piano solos. Does that mean Art Tatum is not a jazz pianist? Saying that there's a certain African-American way of playing is blatantly racist. I'm not implying that Tom is saying that, but when people do say that, it's stereotyping black people. This goes back to when critics like Rudi Blesh and Mezz Mezzrow from the 1930s and 1940s believed that there's only one way to play early jazz: the supposedly "black" way. The idea that a blues sensibility must be present in the creation of supposedly "authentic" jazz is absurd and profoundly racist.

    In the eyes of many, Wynton Marsalis and the writers Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch have almost single-handedly brought jazz back from the grave, most notably through their contributions to Jazz at Lincoln Center. Where would jazz be today without these three figures?
    Related link:

  • Jazz at Lincoln Center
    This site provides schedules for the "Jazz for Young People" program, the Wynton Marsalis-led Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and a host of other special programs that the center puts on.
  • EN: Basically Marsalis, Murray, and Crouch are very conservative people who try to make jazz safe for a middle-class bourgeois audience. But jazz has always been a music that was relevant to its time, a music that reflected the artist's place in the moment. It's not like that anymore because of adherence to the strictures of a very limited and limiting concept of tradition. If anything, innovation is discouraged because if you accept such narrow strictures, then true innovation -- building on the true expansive tradition -- is simply not possible. Marsalis's conception of jazz is similar to his conception of classical music: you must learn the tradition and play within that very narrow context. When Miles Davis saw young guys playing bebop in the early 1980s, he used to say, "Why are they doing that? We did that in 1954. Didn't we do it right the first time?" Many other musicians feel the same way in the sense that jazz used to be a visionary art, but it's not anymore.
    Related link:

  • Miles Ahead
    A source for information about Miles Davis and his discography.
  • TP: It's hard to imagine what things would be like if Marsalis, Crouch, and Murray hadn't come along. Jazz had gotten to be very stagnant in the late 1970s; musicians had truly lost the vision of what jazz meant in the general context of the society and the culture as a whole. The emphasis that most musicians were putting on their efforts was in the development of an individual solo style. But there was a paradox involved in that effort, because what was really needed at that time was a reimagining of a new group style and a reimagining of jazz's place in the culture as a whole. For better or for worse, that's something that Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch had very strong opinions about, and Marsalis learned a lot from these two.

    To reply to some of what Eric was saying previously: As satisfying as it is to have a vigorous dialogue about jazz, I just wish there were fewer meaningless words uttered about what has been going on. There has been so much mudslinging directed at Marsalis, at the so-called "young lions" (a term I hate), at Jazz at Lincoln Center, at Crouch -- words like "neoconservative," "reactionary," "middle class." Many jazz reviewers reflexively use words like "new" and "innovative" over and over as if they know what they're saying, but they don't. The word "new" is most often the property of salesman and advertising people. It has nothing to do with musicians.

    Toward the end of Blue: The Murder of Jazz, after bemoaning America's isolating TV and Internet culture, Eric writes, "Maybe we have become so disconnected from each other that jazz, which is dependent on the interplay of audience and musician, can no longer be created in the way it has been in the past." How will jazz evolve in the twenty-first century, if at all?

    EN: It won't sound like the jazz of the past, of course, because jazz musicians are going to have to adapt to what's happening in our society. They can't pretend that it's still 1957 when it's 2017. Jazz has always surprised me and I hope it keeps on doing that.

    TP: Maybe I have a distorted view of things living in New Orleans, but down here jazz is an extremely vital force in the community. There are a lot of very young people playing it -- not always at a very high level, but they are playing it -- and there are a number of elder-statesmen musicians who are playing also. And everybody in between is out there, too, mixing in clubs or playing in the street. The culture down here is an example of whatever the opposite of "disconnected" is. In the future jazz musicians will still get together the same way they always have: they'll get together in a room and play and learn from one another and trade knowledge. Jazz is, among other things, a way of reaffirming that you don't have to have prepackaged forms of entertainment in life. And one more thing: if Eric ever wants to get out of Poughkeepsie and come on down to New Orleans, I'd love to show him around.

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    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.