Award winning stars Amy Roberts and Adrian Cox

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!

“Some Like it Hot” – proof positive that traditional jazz bands are alive and kicking up a storm in New Orleans.

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.

The Dynamic Bennett Brothers – demonstrating that traditional jazz is far from dead!

“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.”

Traditional jazz thrives in Brittany’s schools, thanks to Trevor Stent and his Anglo French Band, “Good Time Jazz”.

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.

New Orleans Heat’s Gwyn Lewis, the Welsh Viking in the mood! Music to dance to!

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.

Dorine De Wit, Jazz Starlet on Banjo and Vocals with The Rich Bennett Band

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.*

Julyan Aldridge (Baby Jools) starring with Max Collie’s Rhythm Aces in 2010. Baby Jools is now Rich Bennetts’ drummer. The average age of The Rich Bennett Band is just 33.

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

Tiger Rag CD, dynamic trad by The Rich Bennett Band.



(Photos © Peter M Butler, Jazz&Jazz)


Please follow and like us:


  1. Jeff Matthews says:

    Good article Peter. Thank you. Jimmy La Rocca’s comments sought to encompass the evolutionary path which jazz has taken. The foundations were in New Orleans. A mixing pot where talents and cultures brewed this music. Truly amazing. I don’t think most Americans realise what a gift, indeed possibly the greatest musical gift they have given to the world. Not even in New Orleans where some forces seem to want to destroy this heritage. Traditional jazz is the foundation. It is not old nor has it been surpassed. Like a building, bebop grew from the foundational roots of jazz and Swing and then took off in a different direction. Charlie Parker said his music was rootless. It had no foundation in jazz. Dizzy Gillespie said it did have jazz roots. Goodman said the new jazz had largely lost the attention of people because it was now not such a socially based music – you couldn’t dance to it. Kenny Ball in a recent BBC interview declared he listened to more ‘modern’ jazz and loved the technical facility of Parker and Dizzy, but it didn’t leave him feeling happy or indeed uplifted. I paraphrase his comments. And that is indeed the central nugget in this music. It makes people tap their feet and feel happy. All musicians playing these tunes have experienced this. This is why this music will survive. All jazz is valid and creative, but often has different effects on its audience. This New Orleans or traditional or ‘retro’ jazz music will survive in a healthier state if we can promote it better, ensure it is respected and treat it with care and love. The music is ageless as should be the musicians and audiences involved in it. It is not ‘old’ jazz and we should, in my opinion, not use the term as it can be implied in a derogatory way in this ageist society. It is as current as the latest jazz on a cd issued by some musician who has re-arranged the 12 notes of the western scale and called his/her version contemporary jazz. It is definitely not old music for the aged. It is music for everyone. Therefore, can we put our combined minds and expertise together in this forum to come up with ways to ensure it is not sidelined by the music press and airwaves and is carefully promoted at a local level so an audience of fans can once more be grown. I would certainly be interested to hear the comments from the younger musicians who have embarked on a musical career in this music. After all, the future is theirs.

  2. Philip Cakebread says:

    This dead Jazz keeps popping up in the background. My wife watches a TV programme called “Under the Hammer” which tries to play apposite snatches of music for the properties displayed. It’s surprising how often there’s a drift of Goodman, Fats Waller or even Lyttelton through the lounge doorway!
    Regards, glad to have found your site via Fred Burnett.

  3. Nita Hemeter says:

    Great article Peter. Jazz is very much alive in New Orleans with many young people playing the music in bands all over the city. If you are in New Orleans check out Frenchmen Street where many Trad bands perform. The Little Gem Salon just opened and Buffas Sunday Jazz Brunch attracts tourists and locals alike who fill the place up, many coming every Sunday to enjoy the music, food and fun.

  4. Or… Just look at the photos in this article. Maybe there’s your answer why “jazz is dead.”

  5. Kay Leppard says:

    Jeff Matthews makes a very good point that we should not use the term ‘old’ jazz. I feel just as strongly about the term ‘trad’ jazz which I always feel to be derogatory. The term is traditional jazz so please, please, everybody use it. I know I’m probably preaching to the converted here but let’s encourage everyone to use it and ‘correct’ those who don’t.

  6. richie burns says:

    Hi Peter good article. Just want to say I play in the Stars of British Jazz and we find in Europe we have younger people coming to our shows. Jazz is not dead it just needs more TV and Radio so younger people can see what it is all about.
    http://www.starsofbritishjazz.com Have alook at the web site let me know what you think. Richie.

  7. Peter Butler says:

    Thanks for that, Richie. Yes, great website. I must revisit it when current pressures ease up. How about adding a similar pertinent comment on my Jazzers Group and linking your site to that as well. You could comment on the Jazz is Dead post or on the item introducing Evan Christopher where debate is gathering steam. Also if any of the band are on facebook let me know and I’ll send friend requests and then invite them onto Jazzers, I don’t think Mike Cotton is – at least when I last spoke to him he wasn’t.
    Cheers, Peter

  8. Trevor Stent says:

    I enjoyed your blog on « Jazz is dead » very much. I listened to the programme (twice) but completely failed to “connect” with it. It was extremely difficult to find the point he was making amongst a lot of pretentious, pseudo socio-economic claptrap

Speak Your Mind