Point of Departure: Is jazz dead?

Point of Departure: Is jazz dead?
One thing writers never tire of is pronouncing this or that thing dead: the short story, the miniskirt, rock and roll, and on and on. Most of the time, it's little more than a handy hook for getting into an article (see what I did there?).

But in fairness, some of these things--many things, in fact--are dead. Classical music, in the sense of being a genre that contributes to a living, breathing understanding of the contemporary world, is dead. There is certainly much to recommend in 20th century art music, and surely composers will continue to create brilliant new music that comes out of the classical tradition, but the music they produce will fundamentally diverge from the idea of what classical music is. This is because it will always and forever be defined by composers who died well over 200 years ago.

An argument can be made, as well, for the demise of the blues. As an indigenous American music arrising from a distinct ethnic group and region, it's certainly deader than dead. Right now, it's largely perpetuated by middle-aged white guys in bowling shirts with either flames, dice, or guitars embroidered on them. Even recent revitalizations of the form by acts like The Black Keys and The White Stripes are notable for how each of those bands eventually felt they had to go beyond the traditional bounds of the blues genre to grow artistically.

Which brings us to jazz. Like blues, it's one of America's true contributions to world culture and, also like blues, it once enjoyed mainstream popularity but has since receded into a niche. Sure, maybe everyone has one jazz album (Kind of Blue, right? I knew it) but the number of people with more than a dozen is small, and is probably shrinking.

So is jazz dead? To figure this out, maybe it's helpful here to think of a genre as an ecosystem, a field, in both a theoretical and real world sense, where things happen. A field in the real world has conditions that dictate what can grow and flourish there, and genres have conventions and traditions that more or less dictate what they can and cannot be include. If you want to try something different, that's cool, but be prepared to change fields if it can't flourish in the one you've chosen.

Jazz, for instance, has traditionally put a premium on chops and feel, on improvisations created organically and delivered live. And for all of the experimentation that's been done with instrumentation by musicians from Ellington to Mingus to Hancock and beyond, the instrumentation in jazz has revolved around drums, stand-up bass, piano, saxophones and brass. It's also (at least in some circles) one of the most Puritan genres ever, with nearly every new idea from Miles Davis' early fusion experiments to Anthony Braxton's music being disowned by some as not really jazz.

But drummer Brian Blade has, over the last decade, made some of the most forward looking music that at least begins in a jazz place by incorporating instruments like pedal steel guitar and working with guitarists like Wolfgang Muthspiel who make use of loops and samples. The Bad Plus have played with notions about what constitutes a jazz standard and, naturally, paid for it with some scoffing by snooty jazzheads.

So in some sense, jazz musicians, from the James Buckley Trio here in the Twin Cities to pianist Brad Mehldau recording Radiohead songs, have found the traditional outlines of jazz exhausted, if not dead. So maybe jazz is just dead tired, and maybe a healthy respect for its traditions, leavened with an iconoclastic approach to its strictures, is just what it needs to be reinvigorated. It is, after all, almost impossible to sit in the Clown Lounge on a Monday night listening to whatever motley group of jazz musicians have assembled for the weekly Jazz Implosion and not feel jazz isn't ready to be given up for dead just yet.

Steve McPherson will be looking at improvised and experimental music in the Twin Cities and beyond every Wednesday. Tune in again next week for another installment.

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