The Detroit International Jazz Festival has yielded an embarrassment of good music these past few years. It’s become an institution brimming with so much quality and culture that one literally has no real capability to participate in all of it – unless of course you’re Superjazzman. Labor Day weekend in Detroit was veritable proof that jazz is not dying.
And yet the facts tell us that it’s not exactly flourishing either.
Lately, people are examining the health of jazz through strict data. “Can Jazz Be Saved?,” Terry Teachout’s Aug. 9 article for The Wall Street Journal, cited statistics from the National Endowment of the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. The article aroused much criticism as a downer piece that preached what jazz enthusiasts already knew: jazz is dying because it has become classified and categorized next to classical music as ‘high art.’ And the statistics corroborating his argument unquestionably boil the pot onto which the censure brews.
But how does any of this substantiate a confirmed death? Ideas like quality and jazz innovation vs. jazz classicism are quantified by taste and not statistics. These factors are nowhere near the survey, or the public’s consciousness of jazz’s demise. For every Wayne Shorter Quartet (and I will use them as the embodiment of ‘serious’ jazz), you have a Stefon Harris and Blackout, a Chris Potter Underground, a Dave Douglas and Keystone, a Robert Glasper, a Karriem Riggins Virtuoso Experience. Not substandard music, but music simultaneously progressive and urban, conceptual and elementary; music designed to attract the young.
And honestly, Mr. Shorter’s new music, as exciting, jarring and soul stirring as it is, deserves to be distinguished as high art. Something that cerebral, and at times intensely unsettling, demands to be filed away from any music that may appeal to the masses just for the plain fact that one with unlearned ears may combust upon first listening.
But again, for every intellectual jazz artist playing with conceptions of atmosphere and space and abstracted group improvisation, there are still those who do keep their imaginative and decidedly dexterous hands and feet strongly planted within the deep realm of popular music.
Teachout likes to blame the artist. I will blame some artists, and the listener. Jazz isn’t dying folks. It’s just evolving.
It’s understandable that the Wayne Shorter Quartet will turn some people off. I’m quite sure that not every listener was as astonished as I was. I’m betting that some were as dumbfounded as I was dumbstruck. It’s just as understandable that many listeners are turned off by the chosen classicism of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his compatriots, the ‘young lions.’ But for those who can only make sense of jazz as high art and/or literal recreations of the past, there is much below the surface.
The night before Wayne Shorter accomplished the ineffable, Karriem Riggins Virtuoso Experience astutely accomplished an alternative. Riggins is a drummer of considerable talents and considerable listening interests. The Detroit native is by trade a jazz drummer, hip-hop producer, and sometime rapper.
The quintet led by Riggins included Detroit heroine and Pontiac native Geri Allen on acoustic and electric piano, Robert Hurst, another Detroit native on acoustic and electric bass, Warren Wolf, an up-and-coming soon to be star on vibraphone, and wild card Pete Rock of influential rap group Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, as the group DJ. Prior to the festival’s start, this group was far and away the most intriguing act. How would they incorporate the DJ into the jazz? How hip would the hip-hop get?
Since the golden age of hip-hop – late 80s to early 90s – everyone and their bebop-loving father has attempted to connect the roots of jazz to the burgeoning tree of hip-hop. The method of jazz rap inclusion went something like this: new urban black music incorporating improvisational elements endeavors to identify with old urban black music incorporating improvisational elements. Initially it was a thankless effort to grant respectability to a new music deemed delinquent.
But A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 album “The Low End Theory” solidified the movement’s legacy. Incorporating legendary Miles Davis bassist Ron Carter on one track, and songs titles like “Jazz (We’ve Got)” and “Vibes and Stuff,” the album’s eminence exists beyond the supplementary jazz flavor. It stands as one of hip-hop’s greatest albums and a testament to the fortified bond of cultural recognition, musical remembrance, and black ingenuity.
Move in time with me a little bit – let’s bypass some other jazz rap figureheads like Gang Starr, Digable Planets, Common, The Roots – and we arrive in a beguiling postmodern present where all musical genres are being absorbed, converged and combined, disassembled, reassembled, and then disassembled again, until what is left is whatever the listener surmises to be there. Think there is hints of hip-hop rhythm being revealed in that jazz drummer’s skid bounce beat? There probably are. What about electronic elements? Now those are more easily distinguished, just listen for tuneless blips and bleeps and the contorted sounds of acoustic and electric instruments.
And don’t even get me started on the fusing of jazz and rock – sure, Wynton had his lions, but Miles had the entire savanna. And that was back in the 70s. This is the here and now for our music, all of it. So ponder this: jazz, that varnished old relic we picture as either kicking cans in back alleys with good ole classical, shaking hands with the president, or accepting awards on behalf of condescension? It’s right in the thick of this evolution of genre melding.
The aforementioned genre melding force jazz rap, indicates hip-hop fascinated by jazz, in that direction. It should also be noted that jazz rap has thus far been perpetually more popular than its inverse, and not because hip-hop is more popular than jazz, but because hip-hop’s fusing of jazz has always been more effective. Miles Davis, extensively considered one of the most pivotal artists of the 20th century, made a dreadful jazz rap album in 1992 entitled “Doo Bop”. Granted he had already appropriately envisioned this amalgamation of jazz and hip-hop back on 1972’s “On The Corner”, six years before the term hip-hop was even coined. But Miles’ inferior attempt at crossbreeding raises questions for jazz musicians, and for all postmodern artists: who else can synthesize? who else can do it well? and why does it matter?
A contemporary musician like Andrew Bird is the epitome of this musical receptiveness to synthesize. His impartiality actually empowers a manipulation of his various influences (established styles like jazz, swing, folk, pop), whereas by admitting what he’s most partial to, it allows him to somehow produce music that’s totally distinctive and remarkable. Andrew Bird officially sounds like no one else but a non-existent past.
This hypothetical, nonexistent past is the most significant component of today’s popular music. I call it hypothetical because it clearly exists, or existed, but it has been elusively transmogrified by time, place and technology, and what those three things eliminated was a proper tangible past, not one decorated in fanciful glitter. Obviously one doesn’t just recreate the past verbatim unless theft is involved. But as musical history grows thicker, so does the amount of available material worth thieving. One could even be so flippant to say that our entire indie music scene has been demonstrated to sanction skillful shoplifting.
This isn’t an actual problem though, if authenticity is present in the appropriation. And certainly musical thievery cannot just be designated as a crutch of what is perceived to be indie music. What is anything that’s genre hopping, or postmodern, if not independent of something simplified and isolated? Jazz is a supreme example of both sides of that fact – Miles Davis vs. Art Blakey, Dave Douglas vs. Wynton Marsalis, jazz innovation vs. jazz classicism has manifested itself throughout the last century, and there is no reason why it should stop anytime soon.
It is the ubiquitous nature of our web-enabled world that has bequeathed to all those keen on things hip – see ‘hipster’ – and creative, a kind of cultural homogeneity. The genuine truth of our seemingly mechanical inclinations towards music, movies and books contends a fallacy in the implications of popularity and innovation. Nothing is really popular anymore, meaning everything is somewhat popular and numbers reveal no story here. Nothing is really new anymore, meaning what? Nothing is really new anymore since everything is either fused anew or sewn stale. Unless you are the next Radiohead (who for some are cribbing from a multitude of sources), your best bet is to be an adept chef and delightfully combine.
So it is artists like Andrew Bird and Karriem Riggins who keep this evolution of integration interesting and of definite consequence.
In the quintet’s performance, Riggins didn’t so much devise something new from two somethings old as separate the jazz and the hip-hop elements of his own music with strict precision. It was more like genre sailing then hopping – the wind was weak and it was a long trip over to the other side, although it was all occurring in the same water.
The band sans Pete Rock was anything but weak. Bursting through tunes by Herbie Hancock and Gary Bartz, they dynamically performed music in steady motion. With no horns and essentially three percussive instruments, rhythmic diversity was the name of the game. Allen (who is married to another proponent of a jazz hip-hop hybrid, trumpeter Wallace Roney,) proceeded to move up and down the piano, banging atonally at times, and then relocating to a refined unflustered balance as she exchanged musical proposals with Wolf and intensely pushed Riggins into a frenzy. Pete Rock remained practically silent during the jazz tunes, amicably standing next to his turntable and laptop, and only occasionally grazing the vinyl. I’m not positive if it was by design for him to wait until the hip-hop segment to start performing. I would have enjoyed a more active approach to a hip-hop jazz composite instead of the deconstruction that Riggins was attempting.
Yet when it was hip-hop’s turn, Riggins’ quintet didn’t disappoint. Rappers T3 and Elzhi of Slum Village, formally J Dilla’s group before his untimely death in 2006, materialized on stage as special guests. Pete Rock laid down an old Slum Village sample and the group vamped under their clever rhymes. Riggins’ drum set conversed with the two lyricists and the crowd nodded their head in approval. It was a simple yet formidable merging: a band with distinctive chops playing behind two rappers.
After Slum Village finished a two-song rollick with the band, everyone departed the stage except Rock and Riggins. Directly prior to the two musicians’ sparring match, Riggins asserted the reason for the vacated stage, “Me and Pete are about to get experimental.” This was what I had come to see, to experience. Two musical minds at odds with their realms, foraging for a fresh fusion that appears so straightforward on paper but is in fact complicated by the reality of musical limitations.
Nonetheless, and for my sad ears, those limitations were pronounced. What took place between the drummer and the DJ, was engaging but not enthralling and definitely not anything new. Rock laid out his arsenal of sounds – soul samples with scuffing guitars and heavy bass, booming beats, casual and casually weird sound effects – and Riggins danced in and around them. However the dialogue was simply too one sided; Riggins was the only conversationalist in attendance. It was as if the therapist, Pete Rock, was establishing the groundwork for the patient, Riggins, to explore his ideas and his obstacles upon.
Karriem Riggins’ efforts to differentiate his two musical concerns may not have been my ideal performance, but it might have been opportune for some. Those who saw Pete Rock’s name came for the hip-hop. Those who saw Geri Allen’s name came for the jazz. They obtained both things isolated, but under one umbrella.
So what about those who came to see Pete Rock and the hip-hop? What they received was some hip-hop, but undeniably a healthier dose of jazz music. There is no doubt that this is a good thing. The jazz played was not moderate and gentle, but aggressive, bold, varied and hip – music that’s incompatible with the jazz stereotype.
The contrived restrictions inherent in jazz classicism are, if I can use this old maxim, bad for business. Music is full of possibilities right now: what determines popular music is unclear; what determines indie music is unclear; the determinates of what the youth will be attentive to is unclear; and, of course, what is to be considered jazz music (essentially this entire general conception of genre tagging), is so unclear as to be crystal-clear. Nothing is new these days unless it is the old being revived by the older, like in-house popular culture renovations.
Yet, where jazz more clearly fails is in its visibility, and if it is to continue to be regarded by this anonymous listenership (hip or not, usually youngish) as superior and elegant, where one must be erudite to procure any understanding and enjoyment, it is because visibly prominent artists like Wynton Marsalis, and pundits like Ken Burns and Stanley Crouch, have helped to stringently establish jazz as not grounded enough in mass appeal to genre hop like the rest of popular music – too important to American cultural history to advance and move forward. And then the anonymous listener is blinded by one side, feels alienated and moves on. But there is more to this music than Wynton Marsalis and elitism. No music, or art for that matter, can be suppressed and then branded, especially nowadays.