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Kind of Code Blue 

Is jazz dead? Local experts search for signs of life.

Wednesday, May 8 2002
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Imagine you knew someone who was critically ill and you asked his doctor if he was alive or dead. If the physician said, "That depends on what you mean by "dead,'" you might be a tad unnerved. And yet if you ask the same question of music experts about jazz, that's exactly the answer you'll get.

It's midafternoon at dba Brown, a small, independent record store specializing in jazz located in the Rockridge District of Oakland. Best described as a jazz barbershop, dba Brown is the kind of place where longtime patrons stop in to catch up on the jazz news of the day, trading stories with the convivial proprietor, Harvey Jordan. Newbie skater kids browse the racks, listening to tales of Thelonious Monk playing in a small club, or working up the nerve to ask which Lester Young albums to purchase.

A year ago, during the initial broadcast of the watershed PBS documentary Ken Burns' Jazz, the phrase most often heard at dba Brown was, "Fuck Wynton." Burns and his chief spokesperson, composer and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, caused waves with their choices of what to exclude from the series. Briefly restated, Burns and Marsalis' story of jazz began and ended with Louis Armstrong. After "Pops" passed away in 1971, the duo attested, the story of jazz was pretty much over. Current artists like John Zorn and Don Byron -- who are at the forefront of a new jazz exploration -- received scant recognition, while avant-garde icons such as Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton were ignored or dismissed as pretentious.

One year after the TV series debuted, the debate at dba Brown -- and throughout the Bay Area -- persists. Is jazz still a potent and evolving art form or has it become a museum piece?


During the '30s and '40s, jazz was the popular music of the day, simultaneously sophisticated and accessible. Someone like clarinetist Benny Goodman could be both famous and innovative. While today's jazz stars, like vocalist Diana Krall and trumpeter Nicholas Payton, make quality music, they can hardly be said to be pushing the music forward. Rather, they draw from classic styles, with vocalists hearkening back to Ella Fitzgerald and Nat "King" Cole and instrumentalists revisiting the hard bop sound exemplified by Art Blakey circa 1960. Meanwhile, artists who are advancing the music -- New York composer Zorn or local saxophonist Larry Ochs, for instance -- are marginalized, existing only in the realm of the arcane. Their albums get poor distribution and often sell fewer than 5,000 copies nationwide.

Part of the problem is that Zorn, Ochs, and other newer artists are making music that doesn't always sound like jazz. While rock 'n' roll can be defined so broadly that no one cares if Radiohead bears little resemblance to Elvis Presley, jazz is steeped in a tradition that's more specific. Some believe the genre must follow a distinct lineage from ragtime and Dixieland to bebop and free jazz, with ironclad characteristics like swing, syncopation, and group improvisation. By adhering to this classicist view during Ken Burns' Jazz, Wynton Marsalis may have revivified interest in the so-called "golden age of jazz," but he may also have unwittingly trivialized new sounds, his own included.

"The thing is that it's much easier to market a form that is never going to change again, not to mention that nostalgia is always more marketable than "the new,'" says Ochs, who has explored improvised music for 25 years as a member of S.F.'s acclaimed Rova Saxophone Quartet. "And thus [the music industry's] strong desire to institutionalize the music, to put it in a box -- as in coffin."

Throughout history, jazz innovation has often caused a ruckus. Some of the most esoteric artists in the '50s and '60s -- John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, the Art Ensemble of Chicago -- spawned as much vitriol as praise, at least at first. You can bet that when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker initiated bebop in the mid-'40s, or when Miles Davis launched fusion in the late '60s, someone cried, "That's not jazz!"

Nowadays, there are fewer local people yelling anything, good or bad, at jazz musicians, in part because there are so few live venues left. San Francisco once had a Jazz Alley, which thrived in the post-World War II Fillmore District, but now the only world-class club is Yoshi's, and that's in Oakland. Smaller S.F. spots like Rasselas or Bruno's seldom take chances on daring new music, preferring to book groove jazz for the weekends and dinner jazz during the week.

This lack of a live new-jazz scene is especially detrimental to the genre's future, given that most of jazz's breakthroughs have come about via word-of-mouth. In 1960, for example, the Bill Evans Trio played to a few dozen people at the Village Vanguard in New York. The news passed amongst the jazz cognoscenti that Evans had a groundbreaking approach to the piano trio, and eventually journalists came and wrote about it. Only then was Riverside Records able to push New York radio stations to play the tunes -- and to tell people where they could hear them live.

Unfortunately, that synergetic relationship among listeners, media, and labels no longer exists. Yoshi's publicist Marshall Lamm says the large corporations that own the major jazz stations have no interest in synchronizing play with local clubs or artists, while noncommercial radio stations like KALX-FM (90.7) and KCSM-FM (91.1) aren't doing enough to help new acts, either. "[The DJs] mispronounce names, they don't sound excited. Why would they play some random-ass record -- just some tuneless, obscure shit -- when they could play the new Taylor Eigsti or the new Anton Schwartz or Marcus Shelby [three of the brightest new talents in S.F. jazz]?"

Lamm believes radio stations are more concerned with reporting what has happened than in making things happen. "You [could] go down the list and play only local people -- big-name artists who are coming through the Jazz Fest, Monterey, or Yoshi's -- and create a situation to where [the stations] are the resource for jazz lovers in the Bay Area," Lamm says. "I don't understand why they would rather be playing these obscure people where you're not gonna find their records and you're not gonna see them play."

What is jazz's future? "You have to expand what you're calling jazz," says Jason Olaine, former booker for Yoshi's and current director of A&R for Verve Records. "Artists like Galactic and Karl Denson -- that jam band world -- you're not calling that jazz. But the people that enjoy that music [also] enjoy improvised music, and I think it's just a few steps away for those people to discover the younger jazz artists like [guitarist] Charlie Hunter, who made his reputation playing a string of Monday nights at the Elbo Room on Valencia Street."

Harvey Jordan from dba Brown concurs. "If you take jazz as an abstract practice, you can say jazz is alive in another sense, still taking folk or pop materials and jazzing them, using them as a basis for improvisation," he says. "That could apply to a lot of European music -- a lot of what passes for jazz in that John Zorn sense, [with] people using Jewish materials instead of blues materials as their basis."

Chicago-based vocalist Kurt Elling, who recently sold out two shows at Yoshi's, sees hope. "Provided there are young people who fall in love with the sound," he says, "who want to practice their saxophone 18 hours a day, or people who go out to Manhattan and fall asleep under the piano because it's the only thing that fits in the apartment -- people do exist like this -- there will be more advances. There will be another John Coltrane; it's just a matter of time. It's just that it may not fit neatly into a box."

So, is jazz dead? That may depend on what you mean by "jazz."

About The Author

Anthony Bonet

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