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.
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).
But trust me, jazz is smokin' at a level not heard in a long time. Anyone who doesn't think so just isn't listening.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.