Jazz is not dead

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Jessica and Dr Billy Taylor at the Kennedy Center

Is jazz dead?

One might as well ask if PAINTING is dead.


Perhaps it's not being done often enough (or well enough) for many people's tastes, but it decidedly is not dead.

If you attend a jazz festival, there might be (hopefully) some jazz being played there. If you go to a jazz club, you might (again, hopefully) encounter real jazz.

When I look back at my own 50 years of playing this Music for a (ahem) living (and for my own spiritual health), I can't really see much difference between the "then" and the "now" of things. Back "then", it was hard to find appropriate venues for presenting pure, original jazz. Most jazz musicians had little chance to be free of restraint ... to be free to create and present their own personal vision of jazz.

Name-recognition came hard to those who wouldn't or couldn't live in New York City, for one personal reason or another. Back "then", if it wasn't stamped "Made in New York" then it wasn't the genuine article.

And that's a mistake in thinking.

Some of the best players you'll ever hear (or ever not hear) are out in the "trenches" trying to make a living in their own home towns. They rarely get to travel, to "go on the road." But they're playing some of the greatest jazz ever.

That's because jazz is a "HOW", not a "WHAT" or a "WHO"... it's HOW you approach a piece of music, how you render it, how you hear it, how you communicate it.

Jazz is also a LANGUAGE. My generation (those of us born in the 1930's and 40's) learned the language through teachers like Miles and Trane and Monk. We don't have too many folks like that with us anymore: leaders that wrote and performed totally ground-breaking, original, stylistically sophisticated modern jazz.

We know it when we hear it. And we don't hear it much anymore.

I found part of the the reason why some people might want to pronounce jazz as dead while reading an ART IN AMERICA magazine, full of reviews on visual artists, all written by critics.

The critics had unanimously decided that "PAINTING IS DEAD," and they each cited the works of the "GREAT MASTERS" ... folks like Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Matisse, Monet.

Their thesis came down to a simple equation:

If it's been done before, it doesn't count if you do it again.

And that gave me part of the answer to the question about jazz.

If Miles had played a tune once, and played it so perfectly that it couldn't be improved upon, did he have to stop playing it forever? Why did he play If I Were a Bell about a thousand times?

If Trane made a miraculous recording like A Love Supreme, did that mean that he had done his job and could go home now and rest?

AND, if a whole form of art went through cataclysmic social change, right along with the society that had created and fostered and nurtured it, did that mean that it wasn't possible for it to be revitalized and rejuvenated and reborn as something GREATER than it ever was?

I realized then that we're going through a transitional period where art and music and philosophy and political thought and science and technology are changing so rapidly and unexpectedly that it's easy to miss the "old days and the old ways" of doing things.

This is a period of immense change and a time of incredible importance for us and for future generations.

The Earth and its people are RE-TUNING their instruments, replacing old, broken ideas with new and exciting possibilities. The important and useful and meaningful things will survive, and the rest will slowly perish.

Jazz won't die unless WE do. Jazz is a HOW:

How we play, how we live, how we work together, how we celebrate each other, how we survive this experiment together, how we love each other.

How we respect each other. Jazz isn't dead unless we are.

And what will the new jazz sound like? I think we can hear a bit of it now, in players whose minds and hearts are free. I hear it in Ravi Coltrane's playing and in Branford's playing. I hear it in Victor Lewis and Jeff Watts. I hear it in Keith Jarrett and I heard it in Michael Brecker. Lots of people are making lots of new jazz that still moves the heart and makes the foot tap.

For me, part of the joy of playing jazz is the "dance"... that feeling that makes you want to move your body. Part of it too is the joy of discovery, and I have to seek out more of that for myself. Discovering new territory while in the company of others is especially thrilling, and I've been isolated from that for too long.

It's not about WHO, and it's not about WHERE. It's about HOW. HOW we play, HOW we do anything, constitutes the true definition of the thing. As long as we do it right (and, as Edward Kennedy Ellington said, "there's only two kinds of music, the good kind, and that other kind") then we're making art, making real music, making real jazz.

I feel a whole lot of jazz is coming on, just over that next hill, just around that next bend. Jazz is the people's music, and, as long as there's someone to play it and someone to listen, it's ALIVE.

Jazz isn't dead for me, that's for sure.

But change is the only Universal Constant, they say. I am not yet gifted with prescience.


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Jessica and Dr Billy Taylor at the Kennedy Center