Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

Speaking to a young American musician the other day, I was struck by his assertion that Europe was now more receptive to jazz than his home country.

Speaking to a young American musician the other day, I was struck by his assertion that Europe was now more receptive to jazz than his home country. This would seem an odd state of affairs. The US is, of course, where the music sprang from, and it has produced the majority of the greatest practitioners. Only recently, the Frederick P Rose Hall has opened in Columbus Circle, New York, a grand building project to house "Jazz at Lincoln Center". The "Taj Marsalis", as one critic has dubbed it (after its artistic director, Wynton Marsalis), boasts patrons who have donated $1m or more each, and corporate sponsors such as TimeWarner and Cadillac. Doesn't that sound pretty healthy?

But, it was pointed out to me, outside parts of the Eastern Seaboard and sections of the West Coast, the appetite for jazz is small. The guitarist Pat Metheny even suggests a connection between the level of enthusiasm generated by the Democratic Party in the US presidential elections and that which exists for jazz. "If you look at the red and blue map of America at the time of the election," he says in the current issue of Jazzwise magazine, "all the blue states are the places you can play gigs and people will come and they'll be great, and red states are where you've got to worry if you'll fill up the hall."

The irony is that Marsalis would probably have less to worry about in the red states, because, at 50, Metheny may be the older of the two, but he is also the more experimental. "The guys younger than me are much more conservative," he says. So, if there is truth in the idea that Europe is a better place for jazz now, it is only because the old continent has retained its willingness to embrace innovation, in contrast to a new world currently digging in behind the cultural barricades.

Much is made over here of the tidal wave of Nordic jazz musicians, the Esbjorn Svenssons and the Nils Landgrens. Sometimes too much, so that commentators carried away by enthusiasm declare that European jazz has outgrown its transatlantic parent and need no longer measure itself against the yardstick of the US. If the yardstick was one provided by Marsalis, that would certainly be justified. This is a man, remember, who declares any use of electronica against the jazz rules, which would discount the Esbjorn Svensson Trio, to name but one.

If Miles Davis was still around, however, he would have a very different, and an infinitely preferable, yardstick to hand - one whose calibrations were in change and in challenge. He might well approve of what some European musicians - the trumpeter Erik Truffaz, for example - are doing. But I don't think that even the proudest continental jazzer would claim to have equalled Miles's record in any decade, let alone over his long career.

So, if Europe can provide a refuge for bravehearted questers while the conformity of the past casts a shadow over America, it will be a noble gesture to the country that gave us jazz. To claim the future of jazz as Europe's own, however, would be churlish. If the patient is ill, we must hope for his recovery, when we can share the gift we have in common again.