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Discussion on the Place of Jazz in America's Music Industry
By MusicDish
(more articles from this author)
2002-10-06
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In reference to: "The Place of Jazz in America's Music Industry" by Nathan Gold


FEEDBACK
I'm both a songwriter and a jazz musician (sax and flute) who began writing songs to combine the harmonies of the Blue Note era with interesting, meaty lyrics. But as a listener, I think that both jazz and classical music have stagnated due to factors intrinsic to the structure of the music itself, as well as these other factors... once you go "on beyond zebra" to 12-tone, microtonal and then atonal music... what's left to provide the energy of innovation? Most composers in both genres have picked their favorite parking place on the continuum and stopped. They may create interesting material, but the exploration aspect is no longer present, there is no wilderness to discover, in the way that playing 9ths and 11ths was new in both genres. I've played free jazz too, and it is as good as the players and serendipity intend at that moment, but conceptually it is not new. As for the business, yes of course, but the 'Net gives us a million new venues to taste new music. The function of life of Earth is to be generative, so whenever there is new and powerful creation, it pokes its beautiful head through the dirt and fertilizer, maybe not in its composer's lifetime, but it rises. I am not afraid.
- Ruth

RESPONSE
I'm not sure what jazz and classical music you've listened to. Penderecky, perhaps, in classical? G. F. Mlely in jazz, his Jazz Inventions in the 8- Tone Quarto-Modes? As to "their favorite parking places on the continuum and stopped." Goodness, what does that mean?

As for the plethora of music available on the Net. Outside the large crowd of eager imitators, what I've come across offers little beyond extremities of tone manipulation, or their electronic equivalents. Nearly all the "new" musics striving for pop stardom are essentially folk musics, often dressed up electrically.

Which is why musicians from different nations are able to fit in so nicely with one another in the trend towards "World" music, for instance. The harmony is at the lowest common denominator. Nothing wrong in that. But there is more to music than what they offer, more to music than kitschy entertainment, more to music than words, and more to music than sound alteration. Much more.
- Nathan Gold

RE-RESPONSE
While I can't claim to fully understand what >I< meant in my post, I will clarify one point and then ask for some suggestions on what to listen to that I may have missed (forgive me, I have little ones these days, who oddly enough prefer the Teletubbies theme song to Archie Shepp. Not that I do, but it puts a crimp in my jazz listening.)

What I meant by artists stopping on the continuum, was those who "stop" at a certain degree of tonality vs. atonality and venture no further, i.e. major-minor, modal, atonal. For example, I haven't heard Wynton Marsalis play "outside." There was a time when going beyond the root, third and fifth in both classical and jazz was as outrageous as the thought of going to the moon, even diabolical. But it was a frontier, with all the excitement and potency of a wilderness to be explored. And I remember long conversations with a classical music major when I was in college (1976) who felt that jazz was, structurally, so 19th century in the predominance of music in 4/4 and with standard 32-bar structures (with some variations, of course, but not as much as contemporary classical music at the time, with odd time signatures and changes occurring as frequently as every bar).

The Mlely music sounds very interesting. I'll try to get it. Who else is writing and playing with concepts that fresh? I played in a free jazz group when I was at Berklee, whose bassist ran their library, where I worked, so we would listen to every experimental music that came in. I was interested in the multiple tones Bruno Bertolozzi's book taught me to produce on my flute and sax, as well as Indian music, and different scales gleaned from Slonimsky. I listened SO broadly. Then I went on to study with a wonderful classical composer and became interested in Japanese classical composers like Takemitsu, and also studied jazz at Jazzmobile and with Karl Berger, Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman. Loved Sun Ra. Love Paul Bley, Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Eric Dolphy. Had a Saturday night jazz radio show one year in college and spent other college years' Saturday nights in jazz clubs. So maybe I'm a bit different than your typical lady songwriter. I can hear a lot of jazz on public stations here, WBGO-Newark and WRTI-Philly, but I'm on the run a lot. So please enlighten me. Who else is playing jazz that takes the same kind of risks Bird and Coltrane did? That not only has a conceptual base but sounds as good and moves heaven and earth in the same way? Is not just a cerebral exercise, but comes from black roots?

But I have a question...unless I'm misreading your article...are you are saying that the music industry is giving far less exposure to deserving jazz artists than at some other time? When has it ever, except to artists with huge popular appeal? I used to live around the corner from the Village Vanguard. This Mount Olympus, this ultimate crowning nightspot of the Big Apple was a tiny, cramped, low-ceilinged dive. I sat there watching Herbie Hancock and band just crammed in there, earning some pittance compared to the rock bands playing the Felt Forum, and realized that jazz musicians struggle so much, even the very best. But it's always been like that with jazz, especially postwar jazz. One part racism, one part being too sophisticated for the average ear. Jazz's popularity has waxed and waned more than once over the past 4 decades, and perhaps gets more attention now than say, 10 years ago.

In the songwriting field, to which I have returned after a hiatus for my kids, I notice a huge change to independently managed performance and recording that cuts across genres...country, pop, rock, r&b, folk, jazz artists are able to record their own CDs, book their own gigs, break free of the servitude to record labels and I think the major labels are feeling big bites from both the Internet and from the boom in independent artists. It's just beginning, but any artist can buy a barebones "studio" for under $1000 and press their own CDs. If the record labels and NARAS are increasingly constricted, perhaps it will allow new channels to emerge.

But does Miely imply that the reason why American teens aren't grooving to his microtonal etudes is because Miely's music hasn't been marketed to them? The boyz in my 'hood aren't exactly sitting on the curb listening to Harry Partch, and I don't know if they would even if it was marketed by the leading ad agencies. Does Miely want to be recognized as an artist at the pinnacle of his craft (given a jazz Grammy) and to be marketed as if he were Nike sneakers? Oy vey. Maybe jazz should be regarded more like classical music...subsidized, studied, full of virtuosi, not for everyone, appealing to those of refined taste, with big ears and a lot of patience, the kind of people who don't need stimulation on both sides of their brains as song provides.

Anyway, if you have the time, tell me who to listen to, who will blow my socks off, make me weep, edge my IQ up a couple of points. It's on the Internet that I'll find them, that I can buy their CD or listen to them on streaming audio. This is where the best music stores are, and where people devote a lot of time to the arts without recompense, because they want to share their enthusiasm for their favorite. Radio's always been limited, TV even more so. But there's a little of that frontier feeling here...
- Ruth

RE-RE-RESPONSE
Ruth, I'm motivated to address some matters you bring up in your re-response. You ask "Who else is playing jazz ... moves heaven and earth ... but comes from black roots?"

Jazz has black and white roots. There are many who could move you, given the opportunity. Nowhere else did jazz evolve except in America's black and white society - where Africa and Euro- America met. It's as racist to ignore white (or yellow or red) contributions as it is to ignore other's. Taste does not always come naturally. Sometimes it's acquired. And, with modern- style marketing and education, it's often impressed.

You reference "those who "stop" at a certain degree of tonality vs. atonality and venture no further, i.e. major-minor, modal, atonal."

And you might also add pantonality. Adventurous music, though, doesn't always need to be "outside" prevailing modes, or offbeat. It doesn't always need to keep moving on. Rachmaninoff, for instance, was a retro composer, writing freshly in a style nearly 75 years out of date at the time he wrote. On the other hand, Marsalis offers little new to his retro style. But, have you heard Piazzolla's work? Not "outside," at all, but o so original and fresh.

Yes, most jazz getting out there (getting major media support), as with virtually all pop, is still harmonically retro. But, that's due to the totalitarianism of the commercial music industry, as discussed earlier in my article.

It should also be noted that while advances in classical music have their institutional forums to get heard, there is little or nothing like that for jazz. You ask what's out there in jazz that's new and can inspire you. Well, it's because the only outlet for jazz is via the commercial music industry. Music there must be instantly marketable. New music that is truly new often needs time to be accepted. That's not possible in the music industry is presently constituted. There should be forums for new jazz as there are for the classical arts.

Okay, the net. But, consider the sound quality. And there's still the need for live performing. Besides, the major media are so dominant, that they continue to be, and for some time to come I think, where most people look for information. People stumbling across new music on the web relies on happenstance.

I've gotten a lot from G. F. Mlely's essays, which is why I often quote him. He suggests the need of forums to be established, for the reasons I mention above. Neither of us agrees that "free" jazz can offer anything lasting. It is, by its nature, music by chance. Art requires form. Stravinsky notes, in words to the effect, that the greatest work comes about through the narrowest confines. There needs to be barriers to be overcome. Check out "Freeform Jazz - Politics Versus Excellence" by G. F. Mlely online at http://home1.gte.net/jazcraft/freeform.htm.

I can't speak to what Mlely wants for himself. He probably wants what any human wants, appreciation and reward for his work. He's a bit of an idealist, one of the reasons he quite NARAS and other organizations that were not what they make themselves out to be, and are, in his opinion, counterproductive to the artistic process.

I guess some people might consider him odd. And, if I'm going to write that about him, I must also add that he's something of a genius, too. Strange how those two things always seem to go together. You identify yourself as a songwriter. Mlely is also a songwriter, whose "commerical" work has been recorded and produced by such as Freddie Hubbard and George Harrison - talk about diversity.

You asked "Who else is playing jazz that takes the same kind of risks Bird and Coltrane did?"

Mlely, for one. But, he's a pianist. His are not "microtonal etudes," by the way. And there's more to music, including jazz, than "grooving."

Note how the only "major innovators" regarded as such these recent days are mostly the surface voices, horn players, particularly the saxophone. Single-note instruments, often straining to get inharmoniously beyond their natural limitations. The piano is naturally capable of multi-voicings. It has the most potential for innovation. Besides the melodic, it has the percussion, and it has the harmony.

I can't address everything you've written, except to say that it's possible to get jaded from hearing so much music. So much music constantly available, especially unasked-for-music coming at us from overheads, phone holds, supermarkets, elevators, offices, restrooms, passing cars, portable audio boxes - absolutely everywhere. And who needs it?

I was once told that "You do, sir," when I asked and was told that some opinion poll had been held. We become deadened to music, and, as Mlely writes, we begin to train to shut out the sound from our consciousness in order to get on with the business of our lives. First we train to shut out the ugly, which ultimately results in our shutting out the beautiful.

I've been assuming all along that you are writing and performing for what pleases you aesthetically, not doing it just for what it can get. What you write of your studies, you've experienced a broad spectrum of music. It's not possible, of course - and you probably knows this - to incorporate all of it. Many try; a rare few partially succeed in some degree. But, I believe that a musician who makes music needs to find a personal voice. It can be simple or complex. A musical personality.

Sometimes, after hearing so much for so long of other's music, this takes getting away from them. Once you've absorbed so much, this might take shutting oneself off into a private, undisturbed place, sometimes for extended periods. I realize that your a mother with kids. But, where possible, write what pleases one's self, not for an idea of what someone else wants. Knock your own socks off, don't be in a spin for others to do it for you.
- Nathan Gold


FEEDBACK Great piece! One point I'd like to make, though, concerns your focusing on extended harmony as the primary element of jazz. For much of jazz history the fairly simple harmonic and formal structures of blues defined the medium. Rhythm, too, has been no small part of the mix. Disowning free jazz and electric jazz reveals a personal prejudice that dilutes the power of the argument your piece intends to make. I think the reactionary rantings of Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch have hurt jazz as much as the narrow-mindedness of NARAS and the elevation of teenagers as the ultimate arbiters of culture.

Until the 50's jazz was America's pop music. "A Tisket A Tasket," Basie's riff-based swing, Louis Armstrong's entire body of work and Ellington's kitchy jungle music did not aspire to be great "art." And young people loved it. It was pretty accessible to their unschooled ears. Jazz adopting textures of rock and funk in the 70's (fusion) and now hip hop did what jazz always did -- trading freely with the culture it existed in. Those forms of jazz (with exception of smoooothJazz) are no more dumbed down than bebop and "Kinda Blue" and were never formulated to win Grammys. Harmonic complexity aside, "Kinda Blue" has become the Number One With A Bullet Muzak of musically clueless Yuppie America. So much for high culture. Mahavishnu Orchestra and Ornette Coleman belong at the same table as the old school and phat harmony icons.
- Polar Levine, Editor, popCULTmedia.com

RESPONSE
You're close to the mark with your witticism about "Kind of Blue" ("Kinda Blue"). Yes, certainly it was mostly jazz musicians who supplied America's pop music until the 50s. And, yes, Marsalis and Crouch (certainly Crouch) are reactionary as well as bigoted voices. And, yes, rhythm of course is essential to jazz, though "pulse" might be a better way to put it.

I cannot understand, though, your assertion that "For much of jazz history the fairly simple harmonic and formal structures of blues defined the medium." When do you begin jazz's history? For one thing, the only Blues form to survive in jazz was the 12-bar.

I don't want to get off into technicalities that only certain people will understand. Suffice it to say, that Blues is not jazz. But, jazz would not be the jazz we know if not for the emotional influence of Blues.

As things are today and have been for quite some time, jazz, unlike the Blues, is not just another form of pop music, at least what I dare to classify as "higher" forms of jazz. Political correctness will make that out to be elitist, but so be it.

I did not say that extended harmony was "the" primary element of jazz. It is, at least in its higher levels, an essential element. This is not just a later development, either. It's a major stream from very early on, Ellington, Hines, Strayhorn, Gershwin, even Parker, his endless roster of imitators and imitations aside.

Yes, some of them made some kitschy forays towards reaching the lowest common denominator, to put some bread on the table. But, that was not their main concentration.

Jazz musicians did not "adopt textures of rock and funk." Rock and funk musicians were the ones who did the adopting, what they were capable of adopting from jazz. Such music is not a form of jazz. It is a form of pop music, as is Hip Hop.

Pop music has given little or nothing to jazz; it's quite the other way around. The established jazz musicians, who sometimes featured on certain pop albums, did not play the pop music, they played jazz while those in the group around them played the pop. It's a political gesture you make, not a musical one, when you equate Hip Hop with bebop and "Kinda Blue."

It's interesting the attitude that if music involves harmonic complexity, it deserves a kind of censure, as though it was arrogantly defying demands from the majority. Jazz has its popular levels. It also has its evolved levels. To each their own.

Music does not need to satisfy mass appeal to be good music. It's a matter of taste, as with food. Is a gourmet to be disdained, while a Mac burger eater is an okay kind of guy?

I do not "disown electric jazz." I've heard some that has moved me, created usually by expert jazz musicians and composers. The electric revolution, however, has mostly resulted in music being cheaply gained, which opens up a whole other matter that is inappropriate for this forum. As for "free jazz," it is a form for undisciplined performers - music by accident.
- Nathan Gold


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