Is Jazz Dead? Or Has It Moved to a New Address
Sunday, November 6, 2005
Dallas Morning News
Stuart Nicholson's Is Jazz Dead? Or Has It Moved to a New Address is a smart analysis of contemporary jazz. Mr. Nicholson contends that jazz music, if not yet dead, is a dying art form in the United States. But the author finds jazz thriving and maintaining its relevance in other parts of the world.
Jazz's vibrant life outside the United States, the music's birthplace, troubles many traditionalists. Mr. Nicholson uses two chapters to question the commercial and critical influence of the trumpet master Wynton Marsalis, music critic Stanley Crouch and their pet project, Jazz @ The Lincoln Center. Their main objective has been to push jazz onto the frontburner of U.S. culture and to present the music as a symbol of black identity and ingenuity.
In Mr. Nicholson's estimation, however, the good works of Mr. Crouch and Mr. Marsalis have actually frozen the music in 1965 in order to maintain the integrity of the jazz tradition, marginalizing recent efforts to expand the limits of jazz performance. Mr. Nicholson says that the conflict between the "Marsalis traditionalists" and the jazz innovators involves black identity in the post-civil rights era.
While Mr. Nicholson acknowledges that jazz began as an expression of black life, he doesn't discuss how that history might be respected or maintained while musicians stretch boundaries.
In fact, Mr. Nicholson doesn't seem fazed by the prospect that jazz is no longer related crucially to black identity. He sees jazz as part of the lingua franca that ties world communities together.
Mr. Nicholson says that in northern Europe, where Dutch and Norwegian musicians are influenced by their folk music and electronica, jazz performance is flourishing. He explains that European jazz musicians compose toward musical futures rather than the traditional past.
Interestingly Mr. Nicholson makes his most compelling arguments in discussing the new vocabulary that hip-hop techniques bring to jazz performance. So even while jazz goes global, African-American innovation still reshapes jazz performance.
Jazz has always been international, of course. Since James Europe and the 396th U.S. Infantry's Hell Fighters band went from Harlem to France during World War I, jazz has been global.
As Penny Von Eschen illustrates in Satchmo Blows Up the World, jazz's global exposure after World War II was part of the government's inadvertently ironic Cold War strategy to turn the world toward U.S. democracy with the black music of freedom. Yet Mr. Nicholson's well-written book provides a strong introduction to some underexposed jazz singers and instrumentalists worth listening to and investing in.