I wonder why jazz is so obsessed with its past. Perhaps it's because jazz's legends were complex figures, their music awe-inspiring but often, as with Charlie Parker, accompanied by distasteful personalities. Then what of Beethoven, Keith Richards or Chuck Berry, Biggie? Perhaps it's the genre's novelty - slightly more than a century (if Jelly Roll Morton is to be believed) isn't long for an art form to a stable footing, after all. Whoops, there's rock again. Even hip hop, whose first major single dropped in the late 1980s and is surely an American music through and through - an African-American one, too - is, although divided in sound, cockily surefooted in all its incarnations.
It seems to me that a measure of an art form's stability is its ability to borrow from others. Classical music has seen a blending of the traditional with several ideas of the "new," from folk music to electronica. Hip hop has seen a widespread influence of jazz and R&B since the deaths of Tupac and Biggie and the end of its first period. Even country made it through Kenny Chesney and the introduction of insipid pop into venerable country and western.
Jazz, though. This is our borrowing moment. If you're here on Nextbop, you know all the names - I usually make the rounds once a month or so anyway - Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding are the easy ones, but there are many more. Head over to The Revivalist and read up on a few if you're not familiar.
One of the most pervasive ideas running through this moment, the moment where jazz slowly becomes something very different than it was before, is that something essential to the genre is being lost. This is not a surprising idea, or a novel one. But it is ironic that a genre so focused on the past can lose sight of the fact that this has happened before. First came Louis Armstrong. Then came George Gershwin. Then Benny Goodman. Then Charlie Parker. Then Miles, then Coltrane, then Coleman, then Ayler, then… And on and on. Are all these musicians cold cases? Closed books? Far from it. Are they widely accepted as being essential chapters in the history of the music? I would say they are.
We in the jazz community also seem blind to the fact that these transformations happen, inevitably, in all art. "Nude Descending A Staircase" becomes Bob Dylan playing electric, becomes Breathless, becomes Warhol's soup cans, becomes Blondie, becomes Bonnie & Clyde. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, the phoenix will always die and rise again.
To me, it seems silly to spend so much time writing pieces like the one I'm writing right now. And yet we keep writing, while we never seem to actually read them. Part of it is, I'm sure, the natural human desire to dominate the conversation - the same desire that makes televangelists, or presidents, or Oprah. It's what drove Nicholas Payton to publish a series of poorly researched and inflammatory blog posts many months ago, and it's what drove folks like Jon Wertheim to rebut them, and it's what drives us all to still talk about them now.
Why can Payton call his own music BAM? Why does it have to be all music that was once called "jazz"? Why can't Robert Glasper apply his revised idea of what jazz sounds like to his own albums, not everyone's? Well, for one thing, we keep asking them to.
It's a common refrain from the Paytons in jazz that "Duke Ellington/Miles Davis/(insert famous name here) didn't call their music jazz." That's undeniable. But they didn't institute a genre-wide substitute for the term, either (although Duke tried, then gave it up) - perhaps because if you don't allow the concept of "jazz," then you don't allow the concept of "genre," either.
More power to that. I think that's the way to go. Why do we insist on quantifying something we all admit is unquantifiable? You can't have your cake and eat it too; if the cake is baked a generous amount of "genres don't exist", it can't be one itself. Sorry.
So let's throw it all out. The dictionary defines "music" as "the art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion." Works for me. Robert Glasper? Music. Nic Payton? Music. Beethoven, Sly Stone, Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Paul Whiteman? Music. If we throw out one, we throw out all. I’ll include Warhol and Michelangelo for good measure - oh, and Bonnie & Clyde.
It's my guess that all of the artists I named above would have applied, or do apply, some form of that dictionary definition of "music" to what they created (the definition of the word “art” is remarkably similar to that for “music”). And the beauty of a subjective art form - and, spoiler alert, all art forms are subjective - is that they only take one person to be a valuable outlet.
So, to paraphrase Francis Fukuyama, I declare this The End Of Genre. Jazz is dead. Long live the music!
Besides this virtual crate-digging for Nextbop, John Weatherman is currently chronicling all 51 of his first jazz record at his blog, The Head In. He lives in Brunswick, Maine.