Jazz Isn’t Dead, It just Sounds Funny

by: Vincent Meelberg

On Saturday, April 14, 2018 the next edition of the Transition Festival will
take place in Utrecht, the Netherlands. This festival promises to provide a
fresh view on the current developments in jazz, offering concerts where
established jazz artists share the stage with young innovators. And indeed, the
lineup includes well-known names of jazz veterans such as Pat Martino and John Surman, as
well as new(er) bands including Mammal Hands, Sons of Kemet, and
Cory Henry and The Funk Apostles.
While the musical qualities of these newer bands are beyond dispute, whether or
not these artists can actually be considered genuine jazz artists is not always
completely clear. Cory Henry, for instance, brings along his Funk Apostles, not
his Jazz Evangelists. Can we still call his music jazz, despite its obvious
funky sound?

In order to answer
this question, first it must be clear what jazz exactly is. Throughout its
history, jazz has developed from ragtime and New Orleans jazz to jazzrock, fusion,
and free jazz. As a result, it seems almost impossible to characterise jazz in
a productive manner. Some festivals, such as the North Sea Jazz Festival,
stretch the notion of jazz to such an extent that most popular genres seem to
fall under this category. Just take a look at the lineup
of the 2017 edition of the North Sea Jazz Festival
. Headliners of that edition included Usher & the Roots, Grace
Jones, and De La Soul. And Although some of these artists do have a jazzy sound
in some of their songs, they cannot be considered actual jazz artists by any
stretch of the word. So, does this mean that jazz has become an empty term?

According
to jazz critic Ted Gioia
,
jazz still possesses a certain mystique, one that pop artists would like to
benefit from as well. That is one of the reasons why pop stars prefer to
perform at jazz festivals and occasionally even hire jazz artists to play on
their records. That is, as long as the musical result is not too jazzy…

Stanley
Crouch, another jazz critic, claims
that we need to make sure that mainstream jazz is preserved.
Crouch generally dislikes all jazz that deviates from the way jazz was
performed between the 1930s and 1960s, thus to him the fusion of pop with jazz
is a horror. Ultimately, he asserts, people won’t be able to distinguish real
jazz from pseudo jazzpop tunes.

But is it really the
case that jazz is threatened by outside influences? Will jazz disappear when it
adopts elements from pop music, or when pop music borrows elements from jazz?
When we take another look at the history of jazz, then we can see that it is
characterised by impurity, that is, by influences from other musical genres. In
this sense, jazz is an impure genre, impure in the sense that it has always
been hospitable to other musics. Since improvisation is a crucial element of
jazz music, and new generations of jazz musicians improvise while drawing on
their own musical experiences, both as players and as listeners, it is
inevitable that other musical styles will influence their improvisations. they
will simply improvise differently than their predecessors. As a result, jazz as
a genre will evolve and change as well.

So, can we still call all of the artists that will
appear at the Transition Festival jazz musicians? I believe that we can (even
though I am sure that some of these artists would not call themselves jazz
artists). Sure, they may not play the kind of jazz that was played
in the 1950s or 1960s
, but the spirit and
intention is similar. To create new sounds, improvise new stories, and just make
great music.

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