SCENA Jazz

Friday, October 30, 2009

Two perspectives on Jazz: Four views

by Marc Chénard

Since its inception a little over a century ago, jazz has been the object of much close scrutiny. When considering its rapid evolution, it is hard not to be amazed by the several transformations it has undergone. So much so, that it was never an eady task to define the music with any accuracy, a chore rendered impossible nowadays in our global village.

Yet, this has not prevented people from trying. In the myriad of books and articles written on the music, learned historians, journalists, music fans and even musicians themselves have offered their own takes on this issue. Through all of these, it seems more than obvious that one person's jazz is not necessarily someone else's.

But of the numerous 'definitions' of the music out there, two are particularly striking in that they offer radically different takes, each of these seemingly opposed to the other.

1-Jazz as the classical music of America. (Marshall Stearns)
2 Jazz as the sound of surprise. (Whitney Balliett)

The first of these definitions, it should be noted, was recently the object of another toundtable style article in the September 2009 issue of Downbeat, Dan Ouellette poses the question to three people as to whether this designation 'classical' should be abandoned altogether. Herwith is the opening statement of his column:

"According to the National Endowment of the Arts Study 'Arts Participation 2008; Highlights from a National Survey', audiences for jazz have been seriously dwindling. The study linked jazz with classical music as performing arts whose attendance has declined the most. Given the alarming stats, should jazz be tagged "America's classical music" because of an audience perception problem?" Downbeat, Sept 2009 p. 15.

While this question is of potential interest for discussion, this is offered as a complement of information to the issue raised here (and for those interested, search for the article in question, surely worth the read). Three musicians, one of whom is also a jazz educator and teacher, and one journalist/jazz historian were sollicted to give their views on both of the definitions, and to pronounce themselves on which of these they thought was more relevant, or satisfactory.

There are indeed several ways of dealing with the question, one being a more detached (or objective) way (based on observing the art form as it now stands); conversely, there is a more subjective approach where the participant can take a more personal stand, as informed by his or her own personal experience with the music. Thus: Has jazz attained a 'classical' status after a little more than a century of existence? Or: can it still surprise the listener in light of its extraordinarly quick evolution over this time period? These were but some possible avenues that were suggested to the particpants.

Coat Cooke, Vancouver
Saxophonist and artistic director of the New Orchestra Workshop (a.k.a. NOW Orchestra)

To me, I really have problems with both of these definitions, and for different reasons. Regarding Whitney Balliett's definition, I have always liked that definition on some levels. One part of the music I like is when there is that sense of excitment, or when your on the edge of the unknown, if you wish. However, that definition is also so vague and addresses the music in almost a naive way. Not only that, but I find it to be almost pejorative in the sense that this naiveté denigrates the music in a lot of ways, as it is reducing it almost to an umpulse, when in fact it is much more complex than that. That is but one aspect of a greater whole, because it extends far beyond that into a variety of cultural, sociological and historicals considerations. So reducing the music to 'the sound of surprise' is just an oversimplification of things, and even belittles it for the sake of a catch phrase. It's never easy to describe anything for that matter, and you should always wonder what the purpose of it is, or why you're doing it in the first place. All that to say that boiling all of this down to that is just not adequate. But as mentioned previously, it's a definition of one aspect of the music I happen to like, which is fine, but to have it as an overall descriptor is really treading on dangerous ground.

And I have the same feeling on the other statenent, too. When you look at the dictionnary definition of 'classical', it says that it's something considered to be 'serious'. But what then are the implications of that word? When looking at it from a Western perspective, there's an air of importance given to that term. True, there's no denying jazz is an important music and one that has reached a high level of development here in its birthplace. Now I was discussing this topic with a freind of mine, and I came to the point of saying that 'classical music' is something that can be readily defined, in the sense of being written down and reproduceable anywhere in the world, and at any point in time. In jazz, that is not the case, which, by the way, is a strange word in and of itself. Yet, when you look at the jazz of the pre-bop era, a lot of it was played by big bands (Ellington, Basie, Lunceford…) where it was very much written down, but with the jazz component in the solo improvisations (which, incidentally, was once the case in early 'classical' music as well, a practice gradually renoved from it so as to not be part of its description anymore). From be-bop on, however, it became a more strongly indivisualized music. In today's schools, they teach you to play like, say, Cannonball Adderely, when in fact it has nothing to do with individual expression at all. So jazz is not 'classical' in the sense of being codified, which doesn't mean it shouldn't be taken seriously.

Reno De Stefano, Ph.D.
Jazz guitarist/composer (Professor of Jazz Studies/Université de Montréal)

Let's start by saying that a precise definition of jazz is always problematic because it is a constantly evolving art form. What may appear to be a concise and clear definition for a particular style or period may be inadequate and totally inappropriate for another. One only need to listen to Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers ("Indestructible") from 1964 and to Cecil Taylor's "Unit Structures" from 1966 to realize that a definition of jazz would have to be quite general, all-encompassing and flexible to provide room for these two diametrically-opposed jazz aesthetics which co-existed side by side. Examples such as this one abound in the jazz tradition.

Marshall Stearns tries to illuminate his readers by positing that jazz has achieved the status of classical music as a distinctive and unique musical art form. It is true that jazz developed as an indigenous American art form, the culmination of a long process of maturation just as in classical music. Hence, jazz is to America what classical music is to Europe. The history of jazz (and classical music) is characterized by continuous stylistic change because it is in the nature of an art form to grow and develop. In the jazz discourse and its literature we discover that jazz is elevated above other indigenous forms ("America's classical music"), and we find this idea of an evolutionary progression reaching back to the beginning of the century. In his survey a History of Jazz in America, Barry Ulanov supports this view and explains that the history of jazz is a "curiously even one, chaotic at any instant, but always moving ahead in what is, for an art form, almost a straight line." Classical music as we know it, has gone through a similar type of development.

The contributions of master soloists such as Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and others have brought about major changes in the jazz language at different times throughout its complex history. It is clear then, that it becomes increasingly difficult to provide an adequate, all-encompassing definition of a musical language that is constantly going through rapid changes in vocabulary and sound.

There is no doubt that the jazz language and its sound have changed dramatically in its brief hundred-year history. So much so, that even swing players when first confronted with bebop thought it sounded Chinese to their ears. Every decade or so, master improvisers and composers have introduced innovations and distinctive "new sounds" to the idiom. Consequently, we can understand and appreciate Whitney Balliett's attempt to define jazz "as the sound of surprise." This sonoric individualism- the unfettered expression of the individual- is probably the most radical and most important aspect of jazz which differentiates it so dramatically from most other forms of music-making. In his book Musings, Gunther Schuller remarks that the "sounds of jazz, as musicians simply call it, are its most obviously distinguishing and memorable surface features." Even the purely rhythmic distinctions between and among players are much less pronounced than the timbral and sonority aspects. These have always been and still are today amongst the young generation of players, highly personal and specific.

In the future jazz will most probably continue to evolve and borrow from other musical styles and traditions. Any attempt to provide an accurate definition will become increasingly more difficult as jazz moves away from its indigenous African-American roots. However, as an art form jazz has already been consecrated, earning its status as America's classical music, never ceasing to surprise us with its sounds !

Christine Jensen
Saxophonist, composer, band leader (Montreal)

I have had time to question how to place jazz in the now. With the current recession barking at my heels that need to be oiled by funding from a vast array of sources, along with European travels through many jazz clubs, concert halls along with giving many masterclasses, I have come to realize that jazz is competing with a lot more music than it used to, as all genres continue to diversify. There is also the need to build a new, young audience as the older one is mostly attached to music from the past (eg. pre-1960 jazz). Traveling with Nordic Connect we have noticed a general disconnect in establishing an audience in jazz, as well as in selling our music on CD especially. I feel a steady decline in live audience participation, thus the decline in jazz audience population, although there are some bright spots. This has mightily affected record
sales, further diminishing the artist's budget in promotion. Talk about a cog in the wheel!

Defining jazz is a tricky thing for me. It has consistently evolved at a rapid rate due to a high influx of schooled musicians, as well as the addition of technology. So, defining it to me is more like defining improvised music as opposed to jazz (which contains such a broad spectrum of styles in it's own genre). I would not define jazz as America's Classical music for a variety of reasons. To attach "classical" is to attach a stigma of a style of music that has already been historically placed. The improvising musician puts the music in the now, which, to me, goes against the term "classical". I feel that jazz continually evolves through the musician searching out new structures that fuse composition and improvisation. I also believe the jazz artist is less inhibited once these two elements are fully explored , and I would only hope that Balliett's idea of the "sound of surprise" is the result. I think that Balliett's definition is most fitting, as ultimately the audience is introduced to something new each time they hear a jazz group that improvises. This is why jazz is jazz and why I think that it is an international or world music before it is America's classical music.

I find in my travels and in my teachings that the young jazz musician is more skilled than ever, and is at hard work attempting to find one's own voice rather than relying on the re-hashing of the American songbook with a limited vocabulary in improvisation (although the brightest stars are equally astute in paying homage to the songbook repertoire eg. Kurt Rosenwinkel). I believe that jazz should have the respect of the people and the state at the same height of classical music for this reason, but there are some serious obstacles. I feel that America* already has its own classical music whether it contains new compositions or it is the performance of standard repertoire. It is well structured on many levels as the composer is the ultimate storyteller. Classical music includes a high level of organization from the presenters in order for the ensemble or solo artist to take advantage of its audience. Jazz, on the other hand, can only be in a decline because of a lack of awareness and organization (festivals are still a beacon of light, but tend to limit jazz awareness by presenting their programs in a short amount of time). I have also noticed that the institutions that foster classical music have a tendency to repress the notion of artistry in jazz, and choose to further separate the genres, giving the classically trained musicians the advantage of pursuing a career that contains a lot more cultural support on many levels. To me jazz is jazz as long as it contains that element of surprise from the improvising musician. It is social music, and it bridges and draws from many genres, therefore giving even more meaning to it's own definition.

(*) When Stearns refers to America in his definition, I wonder if that includes Canada as well? Does he mean the United States, or the North American continent?

Mark Miller
Journalist and jazz historian. (Toronto)

Personally, I neither find "America's classical music" nor the "Jazz as the sound of surprise" to be entirely (or at all) satisfying as definitions. But if asked to choose between them — as indeed is the exercise here — I would prefer the latter, if only because it causes me less difficulty.

I have always resisted in principle, and resented in fact, any effort to quantify or qualify jazz in terms of classical music and thus implicitly establish a hierarchical relationship between the two fields in which one, classical music, becomes the standard to which the other, jazz, aspires. Jazz need not be quantified or qualified on any terms other than its own. (Unless, of course, it's for purposes of fundraising; how better to open the purse strings of public and private philanthropy than to claim equality with the music played by the symphony orchestras and opera companies that have traditionally received such support?) If the intent of calling jazz "America's classical music" is simply to suggest that Armstrong, Ellington and Parker (for example) are to America what Bach, Beethoven and Bartok (for example) are to Europe, in terms of their respective culture's highest musical achievements — well, that is perhaps innocent enough. But it is no more than a laurel; it is certainly not a definition. (And, as has been asked before in discussions of this sort, where does it leave Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell and Charles Ives?) Employed more formally, and for any purpose other than as a promotional catch-phrase, "America's classical music" fixes in place the aesthetics of jazz in ways contrary to what has historically been its inquiring spirit, as if its full measure has now been taken — a measure based on past events and evidently restricted, rather too jingoistically, to those events as they occurred in the contiguous 48 states. While this may be consistent with the comings and goings at Lincoln Center, it precludes the possibility that jazz might continue to evolve, a dangerous presumption to make of a music that has, in its 100-year history, done nothing but evolve — for better and, admittedly at times, for worse.

"Jazz as the sound of surprise" is a happier proposition, one no more adequate as a definition but one at least open rather than exclusionary in its implications. Although it is in fact just one of the many characteristics that might be ascribed to jazz, and although that characteristic is not unique to jazz, "the sound of surprise" places no limits on the music stylistically, culturally or geo-politically. Instead, it allows for — and even captures an essence of — the freedom that jazz has embraced and, if it's not held back by such sloganeering as "jazz is the classical music of America," will continue to embrace.

Note: Miller's newest publication, Herbie Nichols—A Jazzist's Life (Mercury Press) is to be realeased this month in Canada.

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