John Litweiler

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Hamid Drake, Joshua Abrams, Jeff Albert (JL photo)

Kalaparush Maurice McIntyre 6-26-10 (JL photo)

Edward "Kidd" Jordan. Photo by JL

Mwata Bowden. Photo by JL

Jazz in the 21st Century

Here's an article about jazz in the current century, published in 2008 on the SIMA web site. SIMA is the Sydney Improvised Music Association, which presents jazz events in Sydney, Australia.


Reasons for Hope: 21st Century Jazz
author: John Litweiler

Art forms have natural life spans. Epic poetry, Gothic cathedrals, commedia dell’arte plays, rondeaus and virelais, Persian miniatures are no longer written, built, acted, composed, or painted, except by revivalists – they belong to the civilizations they came from. More recently, from its beginnings about 100 years ago, as one of the many American folk or popular arts, to its early maturity as a fine art and for at least 60 years, the extraordinary feature about jazz was its enormous vitality. New idioms, new creative disciplines, new visions not only kept emerging, they seemed to multiply in each decade.

During all those years musicians from every era of jazz were actively playing in public and making records. Here in Chicago I wonder if today’s young folks have any idea what pleasure it was to have a grand choice of music to hear, live, each week, played by musicians from each idiom’s first generations – early jazz, swing, bop, hard bop, cool, little bands, big bands, solo pianists, and singers, and eventually free jazz and fusion, too.

The deaths of Louis Armstrong (1971) and Kid Ory (1973) climaxed the vanishing of jazz’s earliest generations. Most of the remaining Swing Era elders disappeared in the 1980s. By now, from the bop decades only Sonny Rollins and a few others in each major city are still active, along with a few brave iconoclasts like Bernie McGann and Lee Konitz. So our senior jazz artists are mainly from the first free-jazz generations who raised hell: Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, the New York Art Quartet, the early AACM and their London peers, Alex Schlippenbach, Giorgio Gaslini, and all their remaining old friends.

Meanwhile, the popularity bubble burst at the start of the 1960s. Jazz’s audiences started to drift away. In just a few years all the Gene Ammons, Horace Silver, and Jimmy Smith 45s on big-city jukeboxes were replaced by Motowns. As for the great social movements of the time, the triumphant civil rights movement and the defeated anti-war movement, it was the likes of Mahalia Jackson, James Brown, and folk and rock singers who provided the music, not jazz artists. Even so, wonderful, original new jazz musicians kept appearing. Many of them performed in schools, churches, art galleries, lofts more often than in nightclubs, but they played.

While the jazz marketplace was dwindling, jazz education was expanding like the universe after the big bang. Not only did jazz musicians pour forth from high schools in little, lonely towns on the North American prairies and plains. More jazz musicians studied Advanced Stan Kenton Licks and Coltrane Sheets Of Sound 100 through 401 and then graduated with doctorate degrees in jazz from colleges and universities around the world. From the mountains and meadows of Uzbekistan, Uruguay, Romania, young Bill Evanses and Oscar Petersons and Wayne Shorters keep coming.

Where do they play? True, the number of jazz festivals keeps increasing, too. That’s another phenomenon that not just American, it’s international. Here in Chicago, at our annual free, city-sponsored, end-of-summer, three-day jazz festival, the total crowds invariably exceed 200,000 despite fierce competition from other, nearby jazz fests the same weekend. But when the festivals are over, reality returns to jazz artists for the rest of the year: Intermittent gigs playing fewer nights in fewer clubs, and most musicians play in some self-produced or pass-the-hat settings just to stay active. In fact, almost all the jazz musicians I know here have day jobs. Moreover, presently there’s not one nightclub in Chicago that regularly books nationally touring jazz acts. And this city is one of the two leading jazz centers in the U.S. The situation is far more difficult for jazz musicians and audiences in Los Angeles and in smaller cities.

Why do jazz artists put up with it? Why do they endure the necessary, extensive training and discipline, then accept the sacrifices of a creative life? The truth is, nowadays more than ever, it seems, a great many promising ones abandon fine art. They’d rather raise their families and live normal lives in adequate homes, eat regular meals, and have decent medical care. Rather like Muhal Richard Abrams has said, I too would not necessarily criticize a musician for abandoning creative music.
In the 21st century there’s also the replacement factor to consider. Within the last 16 months we’ve lost at least 50 significant musicians — among them the fine trad trombonist Deryck Bentley, Andrew Hill, Leroy Jenkins, Teo Macero, Frank Morgan, Max Roach, Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Rutherford, and Dakota Staton. Have 50 new musicians of similar value emerged in the same period?

Against this background, Peter Jordan in Sydney is concerned with the future of the music we love, and he asks three very good questions:

1. What’s the relationship between jazz and free improvisation? Is jazz tied to it?
2. Is jazz a largely a heritage music as is being claimed, including many in the free improvisation scene?
3. Has jazz come to the end of its development?

1. The relation between jazz and its most extreme extension sounds most obvious in musicians whose free improvisations use jazz phrasing. Of course, as Derek Bailey indicated long ago, free improvisers have come from all over – classical, rock, African, Asian, Latin-American musics, as well as from trad, swing, bop-era, and free jazz. In his wonderful new AACM history A Power Stronger Than Itself George Lewis proposes applying the one-drop-of-blood test: If there’s the faintest connection between a free improvisation and the jazz tradition, it’s jazz. I think whenever free improvisation is successful, the music’s vitality, the personal characters of the artists’ sounds, and the artists’ crucial needs to express themselves in utterly personal ways, as soloists and interacting with other artists, are elements at the heart of the jazz tradition. However different they sound, Jelly Roll Morton’s shapely stomps, Charlie Parker’s broken melodies, Ross Bolleter’s ruined pianos, Roscoe Mitchell’s obsessive quests, and Sainkho Namtchylak’s howls have similar spiritual sources within the artists.

2. The most popular kinds of jazz today are still, first, vocalists, then bop revivals that trudge in the footsteps of ex-Jazz Messengers, especially Wynton Marsalis, and third, fusions with a world of pop and traditional musics. This very night in virtually every town around the world there are folks, usually gray-haired, onstage singing in Frank Sinatra and Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald styles. As for bop in all its manifestations, from its bebop beginnings through hard bop, cool, and modes, today its instrumentalists far and away outnumber musicians who are playing free jazz and free improvisation.

Moreover, some of our “outside” players are playing in styles that originated decades ago. By now John Coltrane may be less directly influential among them than Albert Ayler. It surely takes familiarity to distinguish Ayler’s saxophone heirs from each other in a blindfold test. Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker, whose distinctive styles appeared in the 1960s and ‘70s, are two other big influences on saxophonists. Plenty of pianists still play Cecil Taylorish tone clusters and ultrafast tempos and guitarists still make Derek Baileyish free associations. Trouble is, the styles of the original influences simply overwhelm the personalities of too many influencees. Often the likes of David Murray, Archie Shepp, and Ken Vandermark, for three examples, even think of themselves as revivalists. It’s no wonder that some older free-jazz fans think post-Ornette music is also becoming heritage music.

In a more subtle sense, jazz-rock, jazz-Latin, jazz-India, and other fusions are also to a large extent heritage musics. Today’s fusion emerged near the end of the 30-year bop heritage, in bop’s decadent, modal stages. The most rewarding aspects of fusions are usually their jazz elements. Trouble is, those jazz elements, especially jazz’s post-Charlie Parker rhythmic variety, are typically subdued by the insistent patterns of rock and traditional musics from around the world. That’s why so many fusions are first, meetings of styles and only secondarily, if that, joinings of sensibilities. When the jazz element is reduced to plain style, fusion is a heritage music too. Here in America the end of fusion is the smooth jazz of fashionable stores and hotels, those cooing soprano saxophones that instill a vague sense of hollow despair in the hearts of listeners.

The old distinction still applies, the distinction between capital-F freedom – the free-jazz and free-improvisation methods, or idioms – and small-f freedom, the artist’s genuine freedom to say what cannot be said in any other way. Are fusion and bop living musics? They can be. The test of vitality is, can individuals best communicate within these idioms?

3. So many of jazz’s possibilities have always been undeveloped, or underdeveloped. Virtually every important jazz artist of the past left ideas that beg to be expanded upon. James P. Johnson’s 1927 rhapsody, his concertos, and his opera were almost never performed in his lifetime and apparently had no influence at all. One of Jelly Roll Morton’s last works, Ganjam, is startling – it sounds like a highly personal response to Ellington works like Reminiscing in Tempo. An advantage of today’s proliferation of jazz scholarship is the discovery or rediscovery of these old pieces. Johnson’s Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody and Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha have been performed in recent years and Ganjam, which was discovered in a New Orleans archive, was at last recorded, by Randy Sandke on his Outside In CD, in 2005.

Was the traditional-jazz revival, beginning in the 1940s, really a dead end? Some of David Dallwitz’s iconoclastic compositions, especially his wedding of jazz and poetry in Ern Malley Jazz Suite, as played by his excellent 1975 Adelaide band, are absolutely a revelation (Swaggie should immediately reissue the Malley Suite on CD). By now the number of trad-revival specialists is dwindling, true. But for instance the recurring energy of some younger New Orleans musicians, such as clarinetist Dr. Michael White’s band, and the sheer personality of some revivalists, especially Paris’s Le Petit Jazzband are, if not developments, at least evidence of lingering trad-jazz vitality.

The bop era developed many of the possibilities of the swing era in the sense that Charlie Parker was a development of Lester Young, for instance, or Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano were developments of Art Tatum. Larry Kart’s 1985 essay The Death of Jazz? in his book Jazz in Search of Itself is a requiem for bop-era revivalism. It’s interesting that some who attacked Kart in 1985, most famously Gary Giddins, have now abandoned jazz, while Kart continues to discover and encourage talented young artists. Nowadays amidst the widely hyped revivalist young lions, the Marsalises, Hargrove, Blanchard, Marcus Roberts, and so on, some rewarding music has come out of older traditions. Often it’s by comparatively obscure musicians – note the recent series of albums by the late pianist Frank Hewitt. And the struggles of, for instance, Mark Turner, Wallace Roney, and the Bad Plus to communicate their changing, challenging ideas are steps forward in “inside” jazz.

Tantalizingly, critic Max Harrison once suggested that Ellington might have more completely fulfilled his talent if he’d abandoned his orchestra, in the late 1930s, to instead compose more formally and harmonically liberated works. Wynton Marsalis’s largest works are an extravagant extension of this notion. He’s quite an imaginative arranger with plenty of vari-colored instrumental combinations in a monumental work like All Rise (1999), for big jazz band joined by symphony orchestra and chorus. In fact, Marsalis’s virtuosity as an orchestrator almost manages to obscure All Rise’s lack of lyricism or linear development, and these weaknesses run through much of his work as composer and improviser. His flamboyance is the exact opposite of John Coltrane’s austerity and passion, yet Marsalis arranged A Love Supreme, of all things, for big band. It proved to be quite an exhausting reduction. Despite his weird choices so far he may yet score some valuable music.

In the 1970s and ‘80s more liberated composers created ambitious works that were at least as varied and colorful as the improvisers of the 1960s. In America there were Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, and their AACM friends from Chicago; the composers of the Jazz Composers Orchestra in New York; Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Julius Hemphill, Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America, early Carla Bley, and others who composed for or led “outside” big bands or arkestras. In Europe Alex Schlippenbach, Barry Guy, Chris McGregor, Willem Breuker, Pierre Dorge, and Misha Mengelberg were among the progressive bandleaders. Other composers realized large ambitions with somewhat smaller ensembles, such as Edward Wilkerson’s Eight Bold Souls and John Carter’s gatherings in his huge Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music. Carter’s work was an epic, a five-album musical history and interpretation of the black experience in America, with smaller groups of players, singers, and narrators than Marsalis’s All Rise but with more melody and better improvisers.

Every one of these composers and bandleaders was an original and different from every other. Especially since there had been no major innovators among free-jazz improvisers since the late 1960s, it raised the question of whether the final part of Martin Williams’ dialectic was soon going to be fulfilled. The late critic Williams maintained in every jazz era, first, great improvisers created idioms, then great composers and organizers created forms that climaxed each idiom’s development. So early jazz climaxed in Jelly Roll Morton’s 1926-27 Red Hot Peppers; Armstrong and swing were fulfilled by Duke Ellington’s early 1940s masterpieces; Charlie Parker’s innovations had their highest development in the composed and improvised unities of Thelonious Monk. Nearly half a century ago Williams asked, who would fulfill Ornette Coleman?

It now seems as if there are several Ellingtons to Coleman’s Armstrong. Yet despite the appearance of some talented composers and ensembles since 1990, the quantity of activity in this realm has been disappointing. Governments’ support for the arts has dwindled. A large work like the Sandy Evans (Australian)-Yusef Komunyakaa (American) Testimony, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation project, seems like a genuine miracle. Testimony is an epic: Charlie Parker’s story told and sung by those who knew him in poet Komunyakaa’s 14 colorful double sonnets, set to composer-woodwind player Evans’ music. The rhythmic agility of Evans’ snaky melodies is most ingenious, set to the long lines of the poems. While most of the big-band and small-combo pieces here are in her personal, updated-bop idiom, she includes subtly dramatic sections of harmonic and rhythmic extremes, too. There was fine playing and singing by Australian artists in the 1999 ABC radio debut, and although Parker’s life was tragic, his art, as Testimony testifies, was a triumph.

There are essays about Komunyakaa’s Testimony poems, and Evans’ settings deserve similarly extended attention. Like too many other fine works by Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins, Wadada Leo Smith, and who knows how many others, this one has never been available on CD. The expense of making albums of these large-scale compositions is usually just too much for the small labels, mostly musician-owned or mom-and-pop outfits, that are the lifeline of today’s jazz recording business.

Repertory ensembles, with governments’ or foundations’ support, need to commission and/​or rescue, then perform and record big works. Two North American ensembles that do commission works, by other composers as well as by members, are the ROVA Saxophone Quartet and the Vancouver NOW Orchestra. Some beginnings here in Chicago are the AACM Great Black Music Ensemble, which plays both compositions and long improvisations; Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra, which has played works by leader-cornetist Rob Mazurek and by Bill Dixon; and three more conventional but, I’m pleased to see, well-subsidized large ensembles. In Europe it’s heartening to find the Italian Instabile Orchestra playing pieces by Breuker and Cecil Taylor as well as by Giorgio Gaslini and other member musicians.

In fact, the Instabile Orchestra and the John Pochee-led Ten Part Invention, with their crowds of fine improvisers and composers, and Satoko Fujii’s big bands are three happy developments since 1990. Fujii is a fine pianist and composer who forms big bands wherever she goes in Japan and America. Her big works unfold gradually with dynamic, tempo, and color changes; her ensembles often sound massive, even when playing behind delicate, Japanese folk-like themes; she likes the interplay of simultaneous horn improvisers and she likes intense, everybody-hollering climaxes. And by contrast, there’s the sweet twining of clarinets in Jog Wheel by her Orchestra West in Double Take. That same two-CD set has an appealing combination of lyricism and free-jazz aggression in her Orchestra East improvisers, most rewardingly of all in electrifying trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, Fujii’s husband and, I think, an equally masterful composer-arranger. The big bands are by no means the last word on Fujii and Tamura, for like virtually all of the other musicians in this discussion, they usually play in small-group settings.

There is so much left to be developed within the jazz tradition. And I do mean organic developments, not fusions. For example, virtually all of the various explorations of Sun Ra’s Arkestras are incomplete, unfulfilled. The implications of his percussion- and modes-based works, his unusual (for jazz) instruments, his conductions, his synthesizer and organ extravaganzas, his exotic shows with poetry and singers and dancers, even the heavy-bottom sound and bumpy rhythms of his early, bop-era big band, and certainly his grand, show-biz presentations are all directions that can be developed. Marshall Allen’s Arkestra revival of Ra compositions, during the 1990s, was a good start, while Chicago trumpeter-instrument inventor-amateur astronomer Phil Cohran has for years been working on Ra’s 1950s ideas, especially Ra’s links of jazz to other black music traditions.

Here in Chicago the early AACM artists’ shared new freedom of movement – in form, sound, expression, dynamics, momentum, group interactions, composing – was largely abandoned by the AACM musicians who emerged after the mid-1970s. But in the 21st century a new generation of Chicagoans, mostly non-AACM, have been developing early-AACM freedoms along with their own senses of improvised form and lyricism. Some of these folks studied under Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton. As critic Larry Kart points out, a number of them have such high instincts for form and group interaction that they seem to compose as they improvise. Saxophonists Aram Shelton, Matana Roberts and Keefe Jackson, cornetists Josh Berman, trumpeters Jaimie Branch and Corey Wilkes, bassists Josh Abrams and Jason Ajemian, drummer Frank Rosaly are among the most accomplished to emerge so far from this young Chicago ferment. And new faces seem to appear just about every month.

In the ‘90s new energy-music saxophonists, full of post-Ayler, post-Coltrane screams and honks, were fashionable. These days many new folks tend more to lyricism – the lyricism of Ornette Coleman and even bop musicians, or in the case of Chicago’s Josh Berman, even early-jazz and swing players. Connie Crothers and some others from the Lennie Tristano circle are taking Tristano’s ideas of intense spontaneity and lyricism “outside.” That’s a promising move – remember the influence of Warne Marsh on Braxton and of Lee Konitz on early John Tchicai. Roscoe Mitchell’s and Cecil Taylor’s fierce intensity and Lester Bowie’s expressivity have long been influential – why haven’t Mitchell’s and Taylor’s and Bowie’s melodism been influential, too? For that matter, why hasn’t Steve Lacy’s subtle and shapely lyricism been more influential, and on other saxophonists besides sopranoists?

The dramas in Ran Blake’s piano miniatures, the larger formal dramas in Simon Nabatov’s pieces, and more overtly dramatic events such as the return of jazz-and-poetry, especially recent Amiri Baraka ventures, and multi-media works such as Matana Roberts’ musical stories are all recent developments of “outside” jazz’s dramatic possibilities. There are surely possibilities in the close, even obsessive thematic improvisations of Charles Tyler and Mwata Bowden, two very different developments of Coleman’s, and possibly also Coltrane’s, ideas of thematic improvisation. Immensely responsive, totally free drumming, as invented by the likes of Philip Wilson, Sunny Murray, and Milford Graves, is certainly needed. Computer improvisers proliferate like spring blooms these days, but the ones I’ve heard almost never proceed past amazement at the sounds they’re able to produce – where is another human dynamo like Sun Ra to develop these instruments? For that matter, where have freely improvising organists been hiding? Is there more to do with electro-harmolodic fusion music like Ornette’s Prime Time? And it’s good to see that totally improvised big-band conductions, like Sun Ra used to do, are done today by Butch Morris and the London Jazz Improvisers Orchestra and gangs of others.

These are some possible developments for jazz that come to one music-lover’s mind on a cool evening in Chicago. Jazz centers have dispersed – New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris ain’t what they used to be. On the other hand new jazz communities appear on the internet – do we have real-time groups of players, each musician in a different city, freely improvising now? So much jazz keeps popping up on the internet and on inexpensively produced CDs and DVDs these days that it’s impossible to keep up – that’s surely a good sign. As a generalization, the younger jazz artists are more serious, more inclined to subtle emotion and interplay, rather less vivid, and definitely less innovative than their ancestors, with less grand egos or eccentricities. The best of them give plenty of hope that jazz will continue to develop for at least a few more years.

Chicago-based writer John Litweiler is the author of Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life and The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958.

Selected Works

Nora Heatley's invention will save the human race -- why, then, was she murdered? Why is her husband Joe pursued by police, FBI, CIA, thugs, and crazies? A noir novel in broad daylight about an ancient conspiracy to manipulate mankind's destiny.
Black people rule America. Whites are the underprivileged minority, and--bad news!--Chicago is in an uproar over a stolen mojo.
When your darker side is the one thing you can't escape - where do you run? The brilliant novel by Michael O'Flaherty.

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