Jazz Now, Jazz Then…Can’t We All Just Get Along?

by Jason on October 8, 2009 · 5 comments

in Music, Thoughts

young_potterIf you follow the Jazz Blogosphere at all you are probably aware of Jazz Now, Patrick Jarenwattananon’s initiative to introduce young non-jazz fans to jazz at NPR’s A Blog Supreme. Patrick asked seven young jazz bloggers to submit their picks for the 5 albums they’d use to accomplish this seemingly herculean feat. In addition to the seven panelists, many other bloggers weighed in with their picks, and the final list is an impressive collection of some of the best jazz that has been released in the last decade. And I’d agree that many of these albums can be used as great gateway albums for the jazz newbie (see my list here).

This was a worthwhile exercise and I think much good can and will come out of it. But one byproduct of this exercise is that it has brought up more discussion of what has been called the “Jazz Wars” (read about that here and here and here).


Darcy James Argue, in one of the links above, distills the “Jazz Wars” down to this dichotomy:

One side—the traditionalist faction—was spearheaded by Wynton Marsalis and his consiglieri, writer, and critic Stanley Crouch—both tireless defenders of the essential virtues of swing, blues, and standards, both deeply suspicious of outside influences, especially those they saw as coming from popular culture or “modern European concert music.” The other side, a ragtag coalition of those left excluded by this narrow view, lacked a unifying figurehead of comparable stature and influence, but they are perhaps best described as “those who don’t think Miles Davis was a sellout for going electric, and who don’t think Cecil Taylor’s whole style is merely derivative of the European avant-garde.”

As Argue points out, there were indeed some musicians who got caught up in this schism, but many others saw it as a meaningless and irrelevant conversation.

But the conversation reared its ugly head once again in a guest-post called The Jazz Problem by Aaron Johnson on David Valdez’s blog Casa Valdez. Johnson is a student at the Manhattan School of Music, a most venerable jazz institution. In his piece, Johnson decries what he sees as the emphasis in New York on music that is “excessively modern without any validation or sense of lineage or…[a] sad, lukewarm pastiche of the music of years past”. He goes on to list 10 criteria that are somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but that point to his perception of the NYC jazz scene as been run by a bunch of hipster-doofuses hell-bent on ruining the tradition.

And once again the jazz scene is sliced in two. One side is cast as moldy-oldies who only want a retread of the past, and the other side as radicals who only want to get as far away from the tradition as possible.


In my experience as a working jazz musician, this dichotomy, while making for great drama, is mostly false. Sure, there are those who still want to fight for one side or the other, but the vast majority of jazz musicians I run into are more worried about expressing what is true to them than on what side of this dubious coin they may fall. Indeed, working musicians Lucas Gillian (also of Accujazz Radio), Kelly Fenton and Kris Tiner all chimed in to echo my sentiment that there’s no need for this kind of false dichotomy in the jazz world.

Why does it need to be an either/or? The best music is that which is of it’s day but also informed by the past. Isn’t that how music (not just jazz) has progressed? When we make it an either/or proposition all we are doing is limiting ourselves. There is room for music that is deeply rooted in and respectful of the tradition, music that is breaking new ground and exploring new territories, and music that is both of these things simultaneously. Not only is there room, but there is a audience. And who are we to deny any audience their likes and dislikes? Or any artist, for that matter? Shouldn’t we be able to embrace our brothers and sisters trying to make a go of it, no matter what informs their music?

With Jazz Now in mind, Peter Hum over at Jazzblog.ca cautioned against the dichotomy in a recent post:

[N]ow’s the time to state that I hope this encouraging rush to proclaim great and inviting jazz CDs of the last 10 years won’t somehow devalue the music that came before, or musicans today whose playing is, to be as concise as possible, resolutely traditional and above all about swinging and bopping. I’m a little wary that this wave of enthusiasm for newer jazz might suggest to some that older music has somehow been superseded. This position would just be the latest iteration of an esthetic argument that’s been kicked around for decades by jazz buffs who view “tradition” and “innovation” as oppositional and then plump for the later. I don’t subscribe to that line of thinking.

Amen, Peter!


The more interesting discussion that is beginning to surface is one that deals with what it is exactly that makes music of any ilk “good music”. Hum asks this of musicians regularly in his recurring blog segment called Take Five. An answer that has come up on more than one occasion was articulated by guitarist Anthony Wilson is a recent Tweet:

i think it’s as simple as when music is honest, authentic, and wonderful, style is absolutely meaningless

Amen, Anthony!


Rather than create divides where none exist, we should celebrate the diversity that makes jazz music so wonderful. There are musicians and audiences out there for all facets of jazz music. In the face of the Teachout Debacle we should embrace any music that is bringing fans to jazz as long as it is “honest, authentic and wonderful,” as Wilson so succinctly put it.

So whatever music moves you to create, whatever corner of the jazz world turns you on, that’s where you should live. Don’t worry about what other people say is “valid”, just be true to yourself and make the most honest music you can. Put your soul into your music and know that there is an audience out there who will appreciate it. Or as Kelly Fenton writes in her comment on Johnson’s post, “Find your passion, be it 1930s or 2009 jazz, cultivate it, perfect it, and relish in it.”

Amen, Kelly!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Lucas Gillan October 8, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Great post, Jason! Thanks for taking the time to contribute to the conversation in such a substantial way. To further prove that I’m no post-modern hipster doofus, click on the link to my website in the body of your post; you’ll be greeted by a pretty straight-ahead Organ Trio version of “My Shining Hour.” Yes, I like Vijay Iyer AND Jimmy Smith. Nothing wrong with that.

Sunna Gunnlaugs October 8, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Usually when it is honest it is wonderful regardless of style. Great post!

Patrick McLaughlin October 8, 2009 at 5:11 pm

Thanks for compiling all of this, Jason.

This isn’t just an issue in Jazz, but all music niches. Rock split to hard rock, alternative, classic rock, progressive rock, etc.

People try to steer wide and clear of thing that others have already done and go against the system to achieve something new. Classical music’s life is full of those stories; John Cage’s 4’33” is a prime example of this.

I think it’s a growing pain for any evolving music genre, some just face it harder than others. The more invested the musicians are in the genre, the harder the pain is going to be.

I completely agree with you though and think that at the end of the day we should accept our differences and be happy that music is being made.

Greg Bell October 8, 2009 at 5:34 pm

Amen! Why engage in a circular shooting party that puts people in boxes. We have enough of that in other areas of our lives…. Why in our music?

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