Soul on Ice
"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.
There's also a colonialism lurking beneath this progressive veneer. Nicholson's favorite younger musicians--with the exceptions of avant-garde pianist Matthew Shipp and eclectic clarinetist Don Byron--tend to be white and European, while his neocon enemies, notably Wynton Marsalis, are black men in impeccably tailored suits. Nicholson quotes a range of jazz critics and his appointed European jazz saviors--he places a particular premium on Jan Garbarek's "Nordic tone," a revolution he likens to the films of Ingmar Bergman--but neither Marsalis nor any of his musical and critical partisans are given a fair chance to respond to the charges made against him, despite the book's two chapters about him. The book has a couple of quotations from Marsalis about his playing and his nonlinear sense of jazz history, but these statements are batted away like so many straw men. It is unclear whether these conversations with Marsalis took place before, during or after Nicholson had developed his rhetorical strategy, but a more substantial response from Marsalis would have only strengthened Nicholson's argument.
"Wynton Marsalis's legacy for an idealized representation of jazz from its golden years is simply a means of asserting black cultural identity within the predominantly white cultural mainstream of the United States," Nicholson claims. Has there ever been anything "simple" about asserting black cultural identity against a white mainstream? And is Nicholson himself contributing to a version of that white cultural mainstream, even if it is that rather marginalized mainstream of jazz critics? Marsalis's merits as a composer--Pulitzer Prize and all--can be debated, but Nicholson's one-sided screed hardly provides a forum in which such a debate can take place. Besides, anyone attending recent Jazz at Lincoln Center fundraisers would be puzzled by Nicholson's portrait of Marsalis as a hidebound ideologue who rejects all forms of postwar popular culture. While raising money for his orchestra's lavish new Columbus Circle quarters over the past few years, Marsalis and members of his orchestra performed with Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, producing collaborations without compromise or condescension. It was a long way from the Bad Plus's gimmickry. In fact, Marsalis's insistence on laying down the iron law of swing with rock and r&b icons added a rich tension to their performances. This more eclectic side of Marsalis--even if it emerged merely in the service of getting his concert hall built--would also provide a nuance to Nicholson's invective, and nuance is one thing this book is conspicuously lacking. Is jazz as we know it dead? The reply growled by trumpeter Lester Bowie in his 1968 composition "Jazz Death" still resounds today: "Well, that all depends on what you know."