BBC Radio 4 recently broadcast a programme called “Jazz is Dead”. Presenter Paul Morley interviewed performers and “passionate punters” in examining the proposition and in his introduction questioned whether, if not dead, jazz is now merely part of the “heritage industry”.
My slant in this analysis of the programme might be obvious but I hope it will quickly become apparent that if biased I am constructively biased. Also, you will have to forgive me for interspersing Paul Morley’s thesis with my own words. I will come back to this in my conclusions.
“Jazz has lost its cool!”
Morley infers from the outset that nowadays people have no clear answer to what jazz is. He questions listeners as to when they last heard a jazz album, adding that jazz charts today are topped by Michael Bublé and that “for younger audiences jazz has lost its cool”.
The fact that jazz is a unique cultural achievement of African Americans has been lost to the modern world, including New Orleans. Born of an age of segregation and second class citizenship, by the 1970s it seemed to be less relevant, somewhat old fashioned.
Morley met a string of performers, critics and fans “to test the contention that jazz is dead – a victim of it’s own history”. Each had their own perspective and definition of jazz. One conclusion reached was that “in America jazz is cultural but in Europe it’s an art form” – whatever that means!
Another contention was that there have been so many changes since the early 20th Century, with progression upon progression, that nowadays jazz is considered as “done and dusted, tamed, refined – it’s pioneering days over”.
But this is such a limited vision of jazz that I value far more highly Jimmy La Rocca’s description of jazz’s evolution which he shared in an interview with my good friend, band leader Jeff Matthews: “It was conceived in New Orleans, was given birth to in Chicago and grew up in New York”.
“The true spirit of jazz has been lost!”
But then the programme reached a turning point and headed off in a different direction. This began with the crucial interjection that “The emotional impact counts first. Unless jazz gets back to that we’ll lose our audience.”
The theme continued that, put another way, jazz has become too “intellectual, mathematical – an equation”. And the true spirit of jazz has been lost!
“What hopes then of attracting back to jazz a younger generation with a nihilist view of life increasingly turned off by commercialised, valueless music?”
Morley emphasised that from its beginning jazz championed improvisation. But a consequence of this is that jazz today has taken improvisation so far that it is a long, long way from New Orleans and the heart of African American history. It no longer sounds like the jazz of the golden era spanning the 1920s through to the 1960s.
“Improvisation has become the culprit!”
Improvisation has stretched to such limits that so called jazz can no longer be recognised as jazz! It has gone beyond the pale! Far too far removed from it’s great originators – Louis Armstrong, George Lewis, Bunk Johnson, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and and Ken Colyer to name but a few – for it to be called jazz.
Morley went so far as to contend that modern day jazz has moved way beyond many of the boxes that need to be ticked for it to be called jazz. Except for improvisation. Yet improvisation has been taken far too far and has become the culprit. ”Tradition is far more important than ‘originality’ to those striving to maintain the origins of jazz.”
“Jazz is haunting the world!”
In his conclusions, Paul Morley said he “would like to believe jazz can still speak to young people and that there are still pockets of that but it’s getting harder all the time.”
He continued “The reason for that is that they believe jazz is made by old people for old people. And a lot of the time that’s the case. We need to get back to grass roots, to audience development, more females and the Afro-Carribian community. If jazz is dead, then it’s haunting the world. Its dead only to those who can’t feel.”
Back in the 1930s jazz took control in the middle of chaos and uncertainty. We now live in another era of recession and uncertainty verging on chaos. Time for a return to the roots of jazz, for a resurgence of real jazz? Of a return to the music of Armstrong, Ellington, Monk and Colyer. For a return to nowadays much maligned Traditional Jazz!
Music posing as jazz
Getting right down to basics, the proof of the pudding is in the eating so I’ll conclude with a very simple grass roots scenario. At a recent Traditional Jazz Festival the girls serving behind the bar were asked if they liked jazz. “No!” came the stark answer. They were asked if they liked the music the bands were playing at the festival. They replied they did. It was music they could dance to. This, they were told was jazz, original, traditional jazz. So what they disliked had to be music posing as jazz, improvised beyond recognition into its modern formats.
I find it gruelling that despite, perhaps unwittingly, coming down firmly on the side of “original’ jazz, which can only mean traditional jazz, this BBC “Jazz is Dead” programme featured just snatches modern jazz at the very extremes of improvisation. The greats of the past were mentioned but their music was not featured. Young jazz musicians were lauded, but of the modern ilk, with no mention of our young traditional jazz stars.
That’s the problem with the BBC. Whatever theTV programme or radio broadcast, they set the agenda. And if traditional jazz doesn’t fit in with their agenda, then so be it. With apologies of course to Alyn Shipton who broadcasts a regular and very balanced jazz slot on Radio 3 at 5.00pm each Saturday.
Only in its roots will jazz rediscover a younger generation of fans
My conclusion is that in the BBC’s eyes and even of their contrivance, traditional jazz is on its way out if not already dead. Yet across the length and breadth of Britain and much of Western Europe, traditional jazz still attracts audiences at festivals and in clubs, theatres and pubs. Perhaps the core of musicians and fans do fit Morley’s description “jazz is made by old people for old people”. Yet only in its very roots will jazz discover it’s revival and rediscover a younger generation of fans. And even then, only if broadcasters and promoters recognise the gold mine they are missing out on.
I intend to expand on this theme in forthcoming blogs and widen the debate on what it will take for a truly spectacular jazz revival. An instance would be for bands like The Rich Bennett Band or rising stars like Amy Roberts, Dorine de Wit, Julyan Aldridge, Adrian Cox and Jamie Brownfield to appear live on BBC TV with Jools Holland.*
Meantime, readers comments and observations will be very welcome.
Peter M Butler
Founder of Jazz&Jazz
* With apologies for the omission of other spectacular younger musicians.
At the time of writing this post, BBC 4′s “Jazz is Dead” programme was available for a limited period only at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01phg6m
(Photos © Peter M Butler, Jazz&Jazz)