Jazz: On the Cusp of a New Golden Age

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

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In a musical landscape in which hundreds of records are released each month, it’s a statistical probability that there will be a two or three month period with ten or twelve extraordinary discs, but this run of excellence is more than a statistical blip. It is a product of structural change in the jazz world.

When I first began writing about jazz in 1984, the music was in the early stages of finding a home in halls of academia. Fans worried that the new academic grounding would make for stodgy music. But, instead, by creating a steady stream of work in colleges, universities and conservatories, a career track for jazz musicians has emerged that isn’t dependent entirely on anxiety, poverty-inducing fickle musical trends, and the declining prospects of finding gigs.

A new and enthusiastic audience for jazz is also sprouting up. Several times in the last few years, I’ve tooled off to a leading venue in New York like Jazz Gallery, Smalls, Barbes or Zebulon and found myself getting one of the last spaces of standing room amid a crowd full of twentysomethings there to hear a player they went to school with or heard play with a friend of theirs or some other sort of word-of-mouth association. The young crowd wasn’t there just to hang out; I have overheard several serious discussions about jazz that I was tempted to jump in on. I attend a mix of pop music and jazz performances each month, and it has become more common for me, at 48, to be the oldest person at a jazz gig than at a pop one.

For this new audience, the jazz wars are over. The epic cold war brought forth by Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew—the seminal recording that marked the trumpeter’s foray into rock and funk rhythms and textures—left purists feeling betrayed. But his move also triggered a generation of fusionists, some of whom created exciting electric music like James Blood Ulmer’s early recordings and groups like Weather Reportand Mahavishnu Orchestra.

I am not one to sugarcoat. Davis’ music also led, if indirectly, to the pallid instrumental pop of Kenny G. And the growth of a smooth jazz radio format led jazz purists to keep their hackles up and ultimately judge music by its fealty to tradition as well as excellence.

The resulting impulse by purists to shut jazz off from pop, though, produced two desultory outcomes. The interpretations of popular songs that elevated them into a musical lingua franca stopped, and, from that, discussion and interpretation of jazz solos became, all too often, more about technique than emotion.

The resurgence of the pop music repertoire in the jazz lexicon began roughly 15 years ago when Cassandra Wilson, a singer known for her facility with standards and an appetite for experimentation, released Blue Light ‘Til Dawn, a collection of Woodstock-era pop songs, blues standards and originals done in an original amalgam of Delta blues, jazz precision and pop sensibility. Her music recalled sultry afternoons spent sitting on a porch with a sweet iced tea; it was that Southern, and yet that accessible. In the years that followed Wilson’s release, Olu Dara, another Mississippian, created his own Delta fusion. Pianist Brad Mehldaulooked to the rock songs he adored and began doing compelling covers of Radiohead (on his recent superb recording, the pianist applied his formidable style of Oasis and Soundgarden). Other leading keyboardists like Jason Moran, Rachel Zand Larry Goldingstook to Bjork. The Marcin Wasilewski Triojust did a star turn on Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls.” As evidence of the new embrace of popular music, Herbie Hancock, who has a long history of successful pop interpretations, took on Joni Mitchell’s repertoire to make “River: The Joni Letters”and won a top Grammy for his efforts. Even Wynton Marsalis, once the leading jazz purist, is about to release a pop-oriented recording of duets with Willie Nelson.

Jazz musicians are, once more, embracing and interpreting more popular repertoire, and the emotion has returned to the solos. Suddenly, it’s no longer garish to pursue more than academic excellence with virtuosity.

The avenues for finding new music are increasing. Web sites like www.allaboutjazz.comare indispensable, as are custom Internet radio services like www.pandora.com, which allows listeners to stream music from particular artists and investigate new ones in similar styles. A friend of mine filled up a small iPod from a single evening of exploration at that site.

When you use “golden age” and “jazz” in the same breath, people think of either gilded ballrooms full of jitterbugging dancersand roaring big bands or small, sleek clubs filled with adoring fans and small combos. The new golden age reflects the new scaled-down economy of the music industry in general. The new clubs are a tad scruffier, and their audiences are more bohemian (perhaps as a reflection of the national economy, most young adults lack the means to go to a high-end jazz club where admission is $30, drinks are $10 and even a burger will set you back $15).