An Indictment on the Jazz Establishment
“ Perhaps if we return to the mind set of jazz as a way of life rather than as a business, things may be different. ”
The recent dismissal of writer Stanley Crouch from Jazz Times because he has already made his “point many times about what jazz is and who can play it,” has been the subject of numerous conversations for the past few months. The interestingly-timed and clearly unprofessional canning of Crouch brings into play a serious exposure of a reoccurring and often hidden plague within the world of jazz - the jazz Establishment.
As always there are three sides to the story, the version presented by Jazz Times, the word according to Stanley Crouch and the reality that this thing called jazz is getting further and further away from its own self, whatever that was. The current presentation of jazz neglects the mature talents of the living legends in exchange for the promotion of the new and often young voices within the music. Over the history of jazz each new generation of musicians has prided themselves on repertoire and the upliftment of legacy, heritage and connection. Even when the elders did not all approve or acknowledge the new trends in the music, there was still a sense of pride for those younger musicians who had a grasp and understanding of repertoire, history and the role of musicians within greater society. The musicians who innovated bebop had a clear understanding of swing whether or not they wanted to play it or not. Even most of the free jazz musicians of the 1960’s had an understanding of swing, bebop and/ or hard bop whether they wanted to play it or not. These musicians also understood the importance of their societal roles as spokespersons, activists and motivators in addition to musicians/ artists. Let us remind ourselves that the music of Ellington, Williams (Mary Lou), Coltrane and Coleman (to add a little extra flavor) all dealt with the good and bad of human nature. Might we even consider them sociologists or anthropologists in addition to their highly recognized professions as composers and creators of this music we now can’t define? Yet, Stanley can define it, and because he can, he got fired. Although I am not a huge Crouch fan, and rarely agree with him, I do respect his talent at writing and more importantly the fact that unlike many jazz writers/ critics, he is consistent. His allegiances are pronounced, his theories are predictable and his words create controversy. I’ve always held the notion that controversy breeds curiosity which creates sales, and yet he receives the final pink slip (by email no less).
Jazz magazines such as Jazz Times, Jazziz and Downbeat have put so much focus on the hybrid jazz stepchildren, the various post 1960’s fusions (jazz-rock fusion, jazz-r&b fusion, jazz-hip hop fusion, jazz-“neo” soul fusion, jazz-reggae fusion, etc.) that we might need to ask for the real jazz to please stand up. These are all fusions that incorporate elements of jazz and mix, merge or synthesize them with other musical forms. But are they really the face of jazz? These fusions have been co-opted and presented as the look, feel and touch of jazz and the identity of the merged genre becomes the silent second “z” – not pronounced and not mentioned (jazz). Perhaps it is an attempt to stay fresh, current, hip and on the cutting edge. Regardless of the motive, jazz magazines have attempted to create new jazz giants out of the freshman class omitting not only the teachers, but the lessons brought forth by these teachers after decades of living the music. These magazines and many of their writers have transformed jazz from a way of life into a way of making a living. These magazines and many of their writers have returned to the old habit (or practice) of positioning themselves as the owners and/ or keepers of jazz. These magazines and many of their writers not only write a revisionist chronicle of the music often neglecting extremely important cultural underpinnings but they also disregard the ideas, opinions and more importantly, the voices of the musicians who create the music. Jazz has been reduced to a musical language that is learned and no longer lived. These magazines and many of their writers have removed the legacy, heritage and unique culture from the chronicle of the music in exchange for attempting to be the first to present the newest innovator(s).
This is not an attack on the young talented newcomers, they are all welcomed and a much needed infusion of fresh blood. There is room at the top for all who deserve. However, I prefer to celebrate both the living legend teachers, who have given their lives to the music and created paths not fully realized and replicated, while simultaneously watching the growth and musical maturity now bourgeoning of perhaps the next generation of legends. As a matter of fact, I’d love to see the teacher and student share the same stage more, although Crouch feels this will not happen for other reasons.