Still, the latest version of the "whither jazz?" debate has taken on some of the weird energy collecting at the end of the millennium. As the music approaches the conclusion of its first century, some jazz prophets regularly proclaim the Second Coming -- of Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley or Sarah Vaughan, take your pick -- while others preach that the end of the art form is near.
Though the vitriol and ad hominem attacks are relatively mild by the standards of the mid-'60s anti-jazz feud, when white jazz critics denounced the likes of John Coltrane, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler as destructive musical influences, in the last few years positions have hardened to the point where two noted jazz critics recently came to blows -- actually, one sucker-punched the other.
It's easy to sum up the opposing sides with a best-of-times, worst-of-times cliché. For the boosters, who can be found in the pages of most glossy jazz magazines and the New York Times, jazz is in the midst of a glorious renaissance, with a surfeit of talented young cats dedicated to exploring the tradition. The naysayers look at the same players and see a bunch of degreed musicians with highly developed technique but little personality and vision. The truth is that each side is describing one facet of a larger phenomenon.
"Things Ain't What They Used To Be"
Even the most optimistic boosters acknowledge that jazz is in a period of retrenchment. With few galvanizing figures to define the present moment, àla Sonny Rollins in the late '50s or Keith Jarrett in the mid-'70s, the dispute comes down to one's view of the broader forces at work shaping the jazz world and, implicitly, of recent jazz history.
Lauding the '90s as the healthiest jazz decade since the end of the New Frontier means comparing today's scene, where young musicians can actually hope to make a living playing acoustic jazz, to the bad old days of the avant-garde '60s, when jazz lost its audience, and the fusion-crazed '70s, when jazz lost its soul and unplugged musicians almost became extinct. Of course, it's all much more complex: Whatever one feels about the free jazz movement of the black power era, the fact is that the Beatles, Motown, Stax and Dylan plugging in did more to undermine jazz's constituency than the New Thing ever did. And while the major labels ignored countless veterans and young musicians playing adventurous acoustic jazz -- and there was a whole lot of boring and forgettable fusion recorded in the '70s -- the decade also saw the rise of the loft jazz scene, with its fearless, experimental ethic and general indifference to the marketplace.
The '50s are often excoriated as a period of cultural repression and enforced homogeneity. But consider some of the truly visionary musicians recording for major labels: George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Max Roach, Randy Weston and Charles Mingus -- though he slipped in at the end of the decade and was forced to drop the lyrics for his politically charged "Fables of Faubus." The point isn't that everything used to be better way back when; it's that, as jazz moves toward an exalted status as a repertory art form, achievements of the past are privileged over the idiosyncratic creativity that has always marked the music's innovators.
"Love for Sale"
The defining characteristic of today's jazz scene is its coziness with power. The triumph of the '90s is that jazz has finally stormed the establishment ramparts. The music has never enjoyed such widespread acceptance among the elite. From myriad university programs to jam sessions at the White House with President Bill Clinton sitting in, jazz's status as America's great indigenous art form has become a piously mouthed cliché. The tired old associations with whorehouses, drugs and seedy nightclubs have given way to MacArthur genius grants, Pulitzer Prizes and MFAs. After all, would you rather your son or daughter become a corporate lawyer, a doctor working for an HMO or, God forbid, a journalist -- or take up a nice, clean, creative profession and pursue a career as a jazz musician?
Leave it to the Village Voice's Gary Giddins, the most incisive jazz writer of the past two decades, to nail jazz's predicament at the turn of the millennium. In the introduction to his magisterial new book, Visions of Jazz (Oxford Press), Giddins writes, "Excoriated at its birth and mocked and neglected during many of its most glorious eruptions, jazz at the outset of its second century faces the more perilous future of respectability and disinterested acceptance. Big money has moved in, the type that goes to institutions, not musicians: government money, which is to say tax money, and corporate money, which is to say tax deductible money."
As someone who managed a nonprofit jazz performance space for two years, I'm dedicated to the concept of jazz institution building. There's no reason that jazz should be left solely to the vicissitudes of the marketplace. But as Giddins implies, institutions quickly develop agendas that have more to do with their own growth and accumulation of power than serving the artists for whom they were created.
It's hardly surprising then that Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra has become the most conductive lightning rod for jazz debate. Though mired in controversy since its birth, the Jazz at Lincoln Center program has become the flagship jazz organization in the United States in less than a decade. Then this summer came the stunning announcement that Lincoln Center's redevelopment plans for Columbus Circle will include a concert hall and complex of offices and rehearsal rooms built specifically for the program. Most importantly, the 1,100-seat concert hall is being billed as the first to be acoustically designed for jazz.
The gnashing of teeth heard accompanying that announcement came from all the people worried about Marsalis' growing ability to define the jazz canon. While the criticism Marsalis has faced over the racial balance of musicians hired and works performed at Lincoln Center is largely unfair, there's no denying his constricted view of the jazz tradition. Some musicians have defended the trumpeter, saying the problem isn't Lincoln Center; it's that no other arts institution has yet followed suit. In truth the dilemma is bigger than Marsalis and flows from the nature of late-20th-century arts organizations in the United States.
"Blue in Green"
Once an institution is launched, it's a monster that must be fed. As symphonies, Broadway theaters, opera companies and museums all contend with an increasingly brutal marketplace by limiting their repertoires and relying on blockbuster shows, the question arises whether it makes sense for jazz, an unruly art form that thrives in niches, to follow suit. And with the trend toward corporate sponsorship replacing government funding for the arts, even if the NEA thrives after its brush with death, jazz has no reason to trust the corporate hand.
Indeed, the consolidation and corporatization of the entertainment industry is the other powerful current shaping jazz at the end of the millennium. Though there has been a proliferation of small, independent labels, and the Internet might end up making traditional distribution systems obsolete, it's the major labels that define the public face of jazz. For all the blather about jazz's significance, many of the music's leading figures, luminaries such as George Coleman, Sam Rivers, Muhal Richard Abrams, Art Farmer, Lee Konitz, Randy Weston, Billy Childs, Carol Sloane, Benny Golson, Teddy Edwards, John Hicks, and on and on, can't get a multinight booking in the premier clubs -- Yoshi's, Blue Note, Jazz Alley -- because they don't have the backing of one of a handful of deep-pocket labels.
The self-loathing among jazz industry insiders that this situation engenders echoes the media's ritualistic self-flagellation, with similar underlying causes. It's safe to assume that most people working in the jazz wing of the music industry are there because they love the music. But with all the major record labels owned by the various behemoths in the communications-entertainment-industrial complex, the jazz business increasingly resembles a bottom-line-driven corporate enterprise. And corporate culture has an undeniable trickle-down effect. Mimicking the marketing and accounting suits who drive much of the jazz business, many musicians have taken to calling their recordings "product."
For a firsthand account of life inside the beast, check out Bird Lives, a deliciously dishy Web site created by the Pariah, an anonymous jazz industry veteran who writes columns about "Record Industry Weasels." The site has quickly become a magnet for depressed jazz types who desperately resent the new ethos in the business.
Here is one anonymous jazz industry insider writing about a recent kickoff event for the yearlong celebration of the Blue Note label's 60th anniversary. "I envisioned some kind of Mafia syndicate as I listened to the stuffed suits who run the label talk about 'being on the vanguard' and 'pushing the music forward' and being 'a haven for original artists.' Do they really believe this crap? The speeches were also filled with words like 'spiritual,' 'family,' 'commitment,' 'hardship,' 'perseverance.' I feel guilty being so cynical, but again: Do they really believe this crap? Do they, in this modern corporate society, really equate what they do with the personal, financial and emotional risks that Alfred Lion and Frances Wolff took when they started Blue Note Records 60 years ago?"
"A Fickle Sonance"
Part of the dissension in the jazz industry is the result of marketing and production cutbacks as CD sales have fallen over the last few years. But the drop in sales has little to do with the popularity of jazz as such and everything to do with changing formats. At the most basic level, the change in technology from analog records to digital compact discs created a bonanza for the entertainment industry. The companies that owned catalogues bulging with 70 years of recordings began massive reissue campaigns, from quick and cheap Best-Of packages to elaborate multi-disc box sets. With thousands of albums reissued on CD, jazz fans replaced old LPs and bought albums that were once hard-to-find collectors' items. But this market wasn't bottomless and, as it's dried up, the funds available for recording and promoting active artists evaporated too.
But the flood of reissued CDs has had a greater impact on the players themselves. The jazz musicians who came of age during the past decade, the musicians celebrated by some for their unprecedented historical knowledge and derided by others for their lack of musical personality, have more jazz history at their fingertips than any previous generation. Never before has it been possible to easily find the seminal recordings by, say, Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano and Bud Powell.
For all of jazz's cultural cachet, the entertainment companies that own the labels still treat the music with, at best, indifference. Though George Gershwin is Duke Ellington's only competition for the title of America's greatest composer, Ellington's most celebrated works, the 1940-42 recordings known as the Blanton-Webster band -- after the pioneering bassist Jimmy Blanton and the great tenorman Ben Webster -- are available on RCA with dead, mushy, digitally remastered sound, a desecration much like colorizing classic black-and-white films.
"Tomorrow is the Question"
Clearly, jazz's future depends upon maintaining the independence that has marked its entire history. The music's essence is a willful sense of liberation, a refusal to recognize boundaries between high and low art, and the ability to absorb and transform influences while maintaining the core values of improvisation and experimentation. If jazz can avoid the stultifying influence of the institutions and companies that want to make the music safe and predictable for the concert hall and boardroom, it will maintain its vitality while remaining a commercial backwater as the price of independence. It's not a bad deal, considering the alternatives. This story originally appeared in the East Bay Express of Berkeley,