Music: Obscure notes on the undeath of jazz


The little bio on this blog claims I write occasionally about jazz. This is very close to never true any more. I have almost stopped attending live jazz concerts over the past decade. Most of the music I listen to these days is classical, and while I do still listen to jazz, very little of it is recently recorded. After covering the Montreal International Jazz Festival 17 years in a row, I paused for logistical reasons in 2006 (I was writing a book) and have essentially never bothered to return. This is not because I’m angry at that festival for programming music that isn’t jazz; it’s that I was starting to feel that too many of the jazz musicians were wasting audiences’ time.

It’s hard to explain why that’s so. I don’t blame bad faith; I know too many earnest jazz musicians for that. I’ve wondered whether I should write down my thoughts on today’s jazz, but didn’t want to bother a general audience. So when Dan Wells (no relation), the editor of the literary journal Canadian Notes and Queries, asked me to write an article for their special music issue, I was happy for the chance. CNQ is famously ornery. I’m proud that the article I’ve meant to write for some time appears in their latest issue.

But for whatever reason, there’s no link to that article on the main CNQ page. It’s on the website but kind of tucked away. Here’s my article, A New Tradition: On the Afterlife of Jazz.  An excerpt:

Almost no educated lay listener can name even a half-dozen jazz musicians active today. Most of the names they would mention – singers like Diana Krall, Nikki Yanofsky, Michael Bublé, even instrumentalists like the pop-jazz trumpet player Chris Botti – would not normally be mentioned in positive terms by most jazz fans. The names fans do get excited about – the trumpeter Dave Douglas, the saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Chris Potter, the guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel – could not mean less to a general audience. And frankly they’re not missing much.

Well, that’s harsh. All the musicians I just named are clever improvisers. They keep finding inventive little things to do. This season electric keyboards are big. Last year, or perhaps it was the year before, it was turntable DJs in otherwise straight-ahead acoustic bands. For several years before that, pianists were banished in favour of guitars as the main chording instrument in a band. The constants have been odd time signatures and long, intricate vamps. It’s a little dry, but they all seem to be concentrating mightily while they play. Everyone’s playing is so clean and tidy you could eat off it. And if a half hour later you’re hungry again, because by God you will be, there’s always more of the exact same on offer.

In a tiny little corner of the culture, these are fighting words. I know most readers will be less interested, and to some extent that’s what this article is trying to explain to the few who still are.


Music: Obscure notes on the undeath of jazz

  1. How much of this is Sturgeon’s Law in action, though?

    • Just to be geeky, isn’t that Sturgeon’s Revelation?

      • Yes, but I decided to err on the side of the most common name.

  2. That Mr. Wells! he used to be really nice and let us play jazz on his lawn, but now he just yells for us to get off it!


    • I remember him once writing about crossing the river to Detroit to buy jazz albums as a teen, which cast a tinge of sadness on his essay for me.

  3. While listening to yet another self absorbed CBC Radio monologue about a decade ago the presenter mentioned her boyfriend was a jazz fan, which meant he was white, intellectual and had thinning hair. Just ’bout drove off the road laughing. Thanks for the notice, I’ll give the article a read.

  4. A very nice piece Paul. Counter-hegemonic music only works when it has a foil. Jazz “mattered” for more reasons than being a “wry comment” on society, I’d argue It challenged multiple aspects of social hegemony (think race dynamics, the power to define what proper music was, and even its context of slightly-to-very unseemly venues). When by the 1990s, jazz almost completely became its own foil, it lost its essence. You could almost write the same obit for blues, rock and roll, and various waves of protest folk music. Or maybe it has more to do with ITunes and smoking bans in bars…

  5. Always nice to read writing about jazz … even if there doesn’t
    seem to be much to say these days. But you never know when
    there might be.
    Meanwhile I’ll crank up the volume on some howl-at-the-moon
    Mingus and think pleasant thoughts.

  6. ” It’s a little dry, but they all seem to be concentrating mightily while they play. Everyone’s playing is so clean and tidy you could eat off it. And if a half hour later you’re hungry again, because by God you will be, there’s always more of the exact same on offer.”

    Sounds more like classical to me. Take any seasonal program from the TSO, NAC or OSM and you can pretty much guarantee a preponderance of 17th to 19th century composers with the odd dash of early 20th century.

    At least Rosenwinkel, Meldhau, Glasper , Iyer et al. are putting out fresh music and trying different approaches.

    Shall we get off your lawn now?

  7. It seems tightly correlated to the rise of Jamie Aebersold and his “New Approach to Jazz Improvization.” Musicians have codified and formulated an approach to playing solos. The worst hacks essentially cut & paste licks into a solo based on whatever scales fit the particular progression they’re playing. As you say, it’s all very clean and tight, but it lacks that essential spark that makes it truly compelling. That’s probably why the most interesting jazz still seems to be created by septuagenarians like Wayne Shorter.

    • “That’s probably why the most interesting jazz still seems to be created by septuagenarians like Wayne Shorter.”

      I can believe that. I saw 71-year-old Milford Graves a couple of months ago, and live he blew me away in a way I’d never experienced before, regardless of the type of music.

  8. Thank you, Paul. I feel like an old curmudgeon as I listen to the current `jazz greats’ and wonder what I’m not getting? Besides bored.

    Maybe the reason today’s jazz is so blah is idol worship. How many times do you hear a really new and interesting piece? How many times do you hear some too-young person singing a Bessie Smith for example and think `you, child, have no idea’. What jazz lacks, perhaps, is authenticity and daring. When jazz was new, it was also `outside’. Today’s is so far `inside’ because, maybe, the crew who do it are afraid of starving. The customer always being right. Remember Pogo.

  9. Jazz is freedom, when freedom does not exist. Freedom is slowly disappearing. Jazz will return.

    There is a lack of sufficient oppression, and/or memory of it, for there to be great jazz.

  10. I wonder if you aren’t being a tad too gloomy? ( haven’t read the main article yet so forgive my presumption)
    Is it a fact that jazz is universally in a funk? What’s happening in Brazil or maybe Turkmenistan! ? I really don’t know jazz but I do know we’re a little self absorbed in N America at times.

  11. Jazz will be relevant again when it remembers how to make people dance.
    I know some great local groups people from all sorts of backgrounds love and know and go see. They’re loved because they’re fun and alive and they get people moving. …Sort of like the old glory days if you think about it.