Jazz Notes: Flights from, and back to, the status quo

WITH A new chic based on old brand names, jazz by the end of the 1980s had become self-satisfied. As the end of the 1990s approaches, it has become cocooned establishment paranoia, disguised, as are many elements in our society, as tradition.

Definitions of what jazz is and isn't have increasingly begun to fill the air. If it has this, this and this it's jazz. If it has that, it isn't. Usually "that" means electricity. For if there's one thing that jazz has never really come to terms with, it was that day when the Beatles touched down in America, triggering the rock explosion of the Sixties.

The effect on jazz was profound. By the end of the decade it was pragmatically adopting the electronic instrumentation and rhythms of rock, yet while the first wave of jazz-rock produced exciting music by the likes of Miles Davis, Mike Nock, Jimi Hendrix, Tony Williams, John McLaughlin and Weather Report, it was later undone by the commercial excesses of those in the mid- and late 1970s. So the emergence of Wynton Marsalis in the early 1980s championing acoustic jazz was particularly timely.

Style magazines and Sunday supplements lionised Marsalis, a cynosure for a born-again jazz, a star whose artistry, unusually, came to play a secondary role to his image. His success encouraged record companies to sign similar wunderkinder, creating a bandwagon effect that had the welcome effect of focusing media attention on jazz and raising its public profile. Adopting Marsalis's visual signature of sartorial elegance and using the adopted voices of some of jazz's older and sometimes posthumous heroes, this new neo-conservative movement has represented a major area of recording activity in jazz.

In recent jazz histories, Marsalis has emerged as a figure around whom post-jazz-rock fusion (or post-1970s) developments have been constructed. Yet in the past, the figures who were claimed to codify the diatonic, chromatic, harmonically free and rock-influenced eras of jazz, a Louis Armstrong, a Charlie Parker, an Ornette Coleman and a Miles Davis, were figures who moved the music forward. Jazz has historically been expressed as an evolving whole, a work in progress, its real potential expressed as a flight from the status quo. Marsalis, championing a return to a tradition- centred synthesis of earlier styles was precisely the reverse of this. His was a flight "back" to the status quo.

Jazz may be many things, but it's not supposed to be boring. Beyond the renascent homogeneity of the neo- conservatives, the jazz underground has tended to pay scant regard to Marsalis, a prophet facing backwards. Taking what they can from the acoustic and electric heritage of jazz they are producing music that reflects their own time, and not the values of previous generations. Take the music of Dave Douglas, for example, the New York Downtown scene's trumpeter of choice and one of the most imaginative young musicians in jazz.

His latest album, Wandering Souls (Winter & Winter 910 042-2), is with just a guitar and drums, a group he calls his Tiny Bell Trio. A scrupulous eclectic who traffics only in surprises, Douglas combines an open-vista imagination that incorporates the sound of a rock guitar with old-fashioned polish to create a mix of percussive energy and pointillistic poetry.

A couple of years ago, the guitarist Pat Metheny observed that when he saw young musicians playing as if they hadn't heard a note of rock'n'roll, he wondered where they'd been. When rock brushed up against jazz it let loose a whole range of possibilities that need not submit to commercial exploitation. No matter how appealing it might be to dwell on the style of a Duke Ellington or a Miles Davis, the original recordings by these masters will always overwhelm imitation, however earnest. In contrast, it is musicians like Douglas who are setting the agenda for the future.

Stuart Nicholson is the author of `Jazz: the 1980s resurgence' (Da Capo Press, pounds 12.50)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower