Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

In Is Jazz Dead? (Or has it moved to a new address), Nicholson argues that what he calls the "glocalisation" process, in which jazz has spread around the globe and taken root in, has been beneficial for the music.Local soils have provided different and invigorating nutrients for jazz, and that by bringing their own cultural inheritances to jazz, "glocal" musicians have created something worthwhile - whether it be the "Nordic tone" of Jan Garbarek, the foggy England suggested by Michael Garrick's compositions, or the Gallic fusion of Erik Truffaz.

As Nicholson points out, proponents of "glocal" styles have often been dismissed as inferior to the dominant Americans. Sometimes, in my view, that's fair comment. But Nicholson makes a good case. There are no living jazz superstars, he says, of the stature of a Miles Davis or a Dizzy Gillespie. So what we should be comparing are the current leaders of the jazz field. Here the Europeans hold up very well against the yardstick of innovation, the measure of health of any great art form.

In America many leading figures take a different and dangerous view. Jazz, it is claimed, is America's classical music - hence Ken Burns's decision to make the third instalment of his television series on US culture about jazz (the first two were on baseball and the American civil war). This desire to give jazz the same credibility as classical music is understandable. But as Nicholson observes, "the classical music of America is classical music". Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber - these are America's classical composers, not Ellington and Monk.

Those who want jazz to be America's classical music are doing it a disservice, for this has led to the over-codification of jazz and an unhealthy preoccupation with the past, both at Wynton Marsalis's Lincoln Center in New York and at many of the colleges which teach jazz. Learning a "right" way to play has spawned a generation of jazz musicians of great technical expertise who know how to sound like Coltrane, or Ben Webster, but don't know how to sound like themselves. Does this matter? Marsalis is chief among those who claim that it doesn't. Celebrate the tradition, he urges. It's enough to master those old styles. Not all can be innovators, as he once said to me.

That, of course, is perfectly true, and there is certainly a pleasure in hearing young groups tearing their way through bop standards by Horace Silver or Bobby Timmons. (Curiously, there is not the same pleasure listening to Marsalis's Lincoln Center Orchestra and its perfect but lifeless recreations of Ellington or Armstrong. But I digress.) If the future of jazz, however, consists entirely in endless "celebrations" of the past, then it really will be dead, even if its corpse continues to receive pilgrims making homage.

A further claim made by some in the US is that jazz is an achievement of Afro-Americans, and therefore that community retains rights of ownership on this cultural property. This not only delegitimises jazz from other parts of the world, but also ignores all the other influences that have contributed to jazz from its very inception. Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, who may not have invented jazz, as he bogusly claimed, but was certainly one of its first important composers, was from a New Orleans French Creole family. European classical music, particularly that of Debussy, has been cited as an influence by countless jazz musicians. Rhythms from the Caribbean and South America have long been part of the book of standard time patterns.

No one would seek to downplay the huge role played by Afro-Americans in developing jazz. But to say that only that community can be jazz's true custodian is to diminish jazz, to reduce it from a universal art form to a localised tradition. As well as being ridiculous - Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Chet Baker, anyone? - it is also racist.

Jazz belongs to everyone, regardless of colour or country of origin. It is a sign of its maturity that it now flourishes in so many parts of the world and not just in America. If some at the old address don't like this, then maybe they should get out more. For if they don't do that, jazz across America will be in danger of turning itself into a magnificent museum to a dead art form. Outside of the states, jazz will continue to find new addresses. It would be a terrible irony if the one place where it failed to ensure its future by continuing to innovate and evolve should be in the country of its birth.

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