“Is Jazz Dead?” asks Stuart Nicholson in a provocative book title. Anyone following jazz journalism for the past decade would be familiar with its alleged assassins. The remaining four major American labels have eviscerated their jazz rosters. Norah Jones–with her mix of country mannerisms and pop accessibility–keeps Blue Note afloat while lauded musicians cling to their contracts for dear life. “Neoconservatives” run Jazz at Lincoln Center while the avant-garde languishes. Legends are dying while young lions fail to live up to early promise. Conservatories–a booming, multimillion-dollar educational industry, Nicholson laments–are stultifying the young and suppressing innovation. And even though that Ken Burns PBS documentary aired nearly five years ago and tried to spread the word, it too is somehow to blame for jazz’s misfortunes. Armstrong, Ellington and Basie managed to thrive during the Depression and segregation, but label conglomerates, MTV, file-sharing and institutional repertory have been hazardous to the music’s health on its native grounds. Nicholson, an English jazz critic for the UK magazine Jazzwise, paints a grim picture indeed, but he has a solution: relocate to Europe. The Europeans support the arts, he tells us, are hip to the latest experimental styles and even have Norwegians who play better Ellington revivals than anyone in the dreary United States.
For the jazz musicians and jazz journalists struggling for mainstream attention, the sky could appear to be falling, but judging from the deluge of recent books, the music’s shelf life is just beginning. Jazz, more than any other musical genre, currently dominates academic presses; compared with pondering the use of the grace note in Haydn, chasing the path of Django Reinhardt or a riverboat band might even seem sexy. Hip-hop is so recent, rock and roll so flaky and ubiquitous. Scholarly presses are more willing to admit jazz’s importance today than they were when the music was at its most vital stages of development. For years Oxford’s Sheldon Meyer was the only university press editor willing to risk a jazz book, and even then most of the ones he edited were collections of newspaper and magazine columns by journalists with no academic credentials; now, even as these presses are tightening their belts and streamlining their lists, they are devoting more pages to the music than ever. “There are days when I think we are in the Golden Age of my obsessions,” wrote John Szwed in Crossovers, one of the many recent university press books on jazz. “The scholarship and popular writing on the contribution of African Americans is now so extensive that you could spend a lifetime reading, looking, and listening, and still never catch up.” It would take a while to catch up on jazz books published in the past year alone. In addition to collections of previously published writings by Szwed, Gary Giddins and Dan Morgenstern, more specialized studies abound: biographies and cultural histories, investigations global and local, musicological and historical, journalistic and scholarly. Is jazz dead? As Louis Armstrong is said to have replied when asked to define jazz, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
Ripeness is all, in Nicholson’s book. For his research, he leans heavily on jazz criticism from the past decade and interviews with the musicians he deems to be sufficiently forward-looking, while the villains of the book get only glib dismissals without a chance for retort. Nicholson does not detect jazz’s pulse through virtuosity but instead listens for obvious journalistic hooks. The Bad Plus’s intricate jazz trio covers of Black Sabbath and Gloria Gaynor make easy copy for reviewers, but are they making music of value or merely technically adept kitsch? It doesn’t matter to Nicholson: They’re making it new. According to this line of reasoning, only musicians who are utilizing the latest technology or counterintuitive pop songs, or who are otherwise attracting the attention of English newspaper editors, are keeping the music alive. Nicholson laments the crossover vocalists, jazz educators and repertory revivalists before deciding that Europe is the environment most congenial to the jazz beat he covers. He has a nose for news, but where is that device Hemingway recommended to younger writers: the bullshit detector? Nicholson swoons over Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen, describing him as “an exceptionally lucid soloist” with “a sure sense of melodic structure and lyrical imagination.” That may be, but Gustavsen’s performance at New York’s Merkin Concert Hall last spring was an exceptional snooze, an elegant but desiccated retread of territory covered better by Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. Nicholson has nevertheless found his Great Nordic Hope.