Jazz: On the Cusp of a New Golden Age

Why jazz is hotter than it's been in decades.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Jazz fans are world class in many regards, but especially when it comes to fretting.

That’s not an insult; jazz lovers have good reason for concern. Despite the rise of programs like Jazz at Lincoln Center and organizations like SF Jazz and the Thelonious Monk Institute, jazz is starved for institutional support. Sales of jazz recordings are also down, making up a meager two percent of all record sales worldwide. And the International Association of Jazz Educators—the largest network of jazz educators in the world, whose annual convention has provided an important forum for jazz educators and musicians to connect— just filed for bankruptcy.

Yet it would be a shame if the reflexive—albeit well founded—ossified pessimism of the jazz community overshadowed a much more interesting development: For all the dour facts, we could be on the cusp of a golden age for jazz.the music.

Surprised? Well, golden ages aren’t what they used to be.

I’ve been in and around jazz media for 28 years, and I’m hearing more interesting and exciting new recordings and concerts today than ever before. What’s more, there’s every reason to believe that this burst of excellence is no fluke.

The number of recordings I’ve received so far this year that deserve “record of the year” consideration is daunting, and it’s only May. Tyshawn Sorey’s “That/Not”(Firehouse) and Brian Blade’s “Seasons of Change”(Verve) have found contrasting ways to redefine the role of drums in small ensemble jazz. Trumpeter John McNeil and saxophonist Bill McHenryhave taken austere ’50s “cool school” repertoire and added spunk and elegance on their “Rediscovery” (Sunnyside). Pianist Vijay Iyerhas two exceptional new releases. “Tragicomic” (Sunnyside) features the extraordinary saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappaand “Door” (Pi) with his group Fieldwork, which features Sorey. On her new disc, The Chicago Project (Central Control), saxophonist Matana Robertscaptures the unique flavor of the South Side. Herbie Hancock’s guitarist, Lionel Loueke, released “Karibu” (Blue Note), which highlights his gentle fusion of West African rhythms and jazz.

And that honor roll merely lists music that is already out. In the coming weeks, violinist Jenny Scheinmanwill release her extraordinary large group endeavor, “Crossing the Field” (Koch). Argentine pianist Guillermo Kleinhas an all star 11-piece band called Los Gauchos, and it creates music that is a fusion of contemporary classical, raucous jazz and Argentine folk melodies; its latest, “Los Filtros,” is due out June 10. Then later this year Moran has a project dedicated to Monk, and pianist/vocalist Patricia Barberwill release her collection of Cole Porter songs. Edward Ratliffwill release the latest collection of his compelling work, which blends tango, soulful jazz and Asian film soundtrack music.

And that forecast is just of music that I know. Every month, I receive two or three releases from groups I’ve never heard of. I play them, fully expecting to dismiss the music as generic or unambitious, yet five minutes later I’m reading the band’s MySpace page.

That’s the thing for jazz and for all niche genres: People who want to hear it have to work at it. Even if you listen to a good jazz radio station, the history of recorded jazz will always outweigh the new stuff. People who want to hear what’s happening now will have to rely on networks of artists like the Brooklyn Jazz Underground or the Texas-based ECFA to keep abreast of gigs. Finding the MySpace page of performers you like, then visiting their performer “friends” is also a good approach. It’s how I keep track of unsigned artists like vocalist Gretchen Parlato.