Branford Marsalis still cuts a large figure on the international jazz scene, and his presence at the Love Supreme festival last year certainly added some gravitas to the line-up. So it’s interesting to read an article from him published in the Seattle Weekly under the banner “The Problem With Jazz”. It’s a succinct piece full of interesting points and you can read it yourselves here:
It’s been something of a commonplace that there’s been ‘a problem with jazz’ almost since it’s inception – for about the first fifty years of its existence it was accused of being too populist, and for the subsequent fifty years it’s usually been accused of being too elitist.
The essence of Branford’s argument is that jazz has lost its audience as its lost its grip on the elements that make music broadly appealing; melody, rhythm, emotional content. Jazz has regularly been accused, since the 1940s at least, of having too many notes and not enough melody, especially by people who don’t like it – not least by Chuck Berry in the second verse of Roll Over Beethoven – and the current obsession with tricky metrical high-wire acts certainly won’t help put those accusations to rest. The same criticism, coming from an accepted master of the genre, deserves fresh consideration; though of course the Marsalis brothers are renowned for their back-to-basics philosophy, with Wynton more associated with the historical or neo-classical approach and Branford with the populist one since his employment on The Tonight Show.
Is Jazz really in terminal trouble or have reports of its death been much exaggerated? Jazz musicians have long ago lost the supper club circuit and the studio work that used to sustain them, yet dedicated audiences remain, for whom jazz is far more than a lifestyle accessory or a background wallpaper for TV cop shows. Last week a band composed of elder statesmen Jack DeJohnette and Joe Lovano, teamed with 20-something newcomers Esperanza Spaulding and Leo Genovese, sold out the Barbican at £30 and upwards a ticket; the week before, Robert Glasper played the Concorde in this town, a venue more usually associated with rock crowds, to a young audience whooping with delight at every fractured breakbeat. Times move on and fashions change; the legacy survives, even if there’s not the money in it that there used to be.
It must unfortunately be admitted that musicians, in general, and jazz musicians in particular, are extremely prone to complaining because they think that other, less talented, musicians are making more money than they are. Let’s remember that jazz has not been a popular mass market music since it migrated from the dance-halls to the supper-clubs to become a social marker of urban sophistication. Even in the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1950s, a primary artist like Miles Davis- then at the peak of his popularity in an age when consumers really bought vinyl- would sell only 80,000 copies of Miles Ahead while the million-sellers were the then critically-dismissed Eddie Harris, Andre Previn and Ahmad Jamal – the latter still surviving to sell out the Festival Hall but only after a long, slow Miles-endorsed journey to critical acclaim. Bird & Diz in their time were also accused of ruining jazz when their be-bop revolution ushered in what remains for many its golden age. Coltrane horrified his followers when he abandoned harmony, and eventually even rhythm, in search of a music that strove for timelessness, but now paradoxically seems inextricably linked to its own particular era. All of these, now canonised, players spent the majority of their working lives playing late sets in tiny clubs – teaching posts were non-existent and recording royalties often conspicuous by their absence. The life of a dedicated jazz musician was never easy; here in the UK, a financially sustainable jazz scene has always struggled to survive, yet both here and elsewhere in Europe it finds an audience who are looking for a more absorbing, challenging musical experience than other current popular forms can provide. So it is that much jazz finds itself firmly in the art music niche, and this unfortunately tends to militate against the primacy of a hummable tune in most artist’s modus operandi. Did audience expectations lead musicians down the path of atonal virtuosity, or was it the increasingly hermetic world of the art musician that set the pace of change?
Let’s return to what Branford has said. It’s true that at a certain point in jazz history, critics and record promoters alike decided that musical innovation was as important as musical execution and a whole generation of players were promoted on the basis that what they were doing was significant because it was new and thus important, and audiences accepted it as such even when the artists themselves hadn’t necessarily worked out all the creative details and the results weren’t actually that much fun to listen to. Everyone, including many of the artists themselves, bought into this, and a whole generation of wonderful creative musicians fell out of the limelight. Of course, in an advanced consumer society everyone’s always after the latest new thing. I’ll betray a personal prejudice here and say that when I listen to a lot of cutting-edge jazz from that crucial period, much as I love it, I don’t get the impression that every phrase is played because its creator felt absolutely certain that it was the exact one needed – one multi-octave virtuosic splurge from Cecil Taylor will very much do in place of another, whereas every note in an Ahmad Jamal solo seems to be perfectly selected as the sole unique choice for it’s position. Anyone who has had the misfortune to listen to the unedited sessions from Bitches Brew will soon realise that no-one present had a really clearly evolved idea about where the music was going. Experimentation and risk-taking have become an essential part of the way jazz maintains its cultural integrity and distances itself from the easy-listening lounge music or fusty heritage display it’s terrified of becoming. In the process, I’d say that something has been lost. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the understated genius of such relatively unsung heroes as Sonny Criss, Harold Land, Carmell Jones, Jack Sheldon, Hampton Hawes and any of the other legions of players, lost in the blare of the avant-garde, who may not have grabbed headlines or broken boundaries but just played the music flawlessly and with feeling to whoever had ears to listen.