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Jazz And Conversation: The Ever Changing Contradictions Of Improvisation

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JAZZ SEXTET - Synopsis 130305_img_0                         Ornette Coleman, saxophonist and innovator of free jazz,once remarked that,in jazz composition he viewed the theme one started out with at the beginning was the territory and that everything that came after was the adventure. And it is not only jazz music that is an adventure either. Even more so the true adventure comes in the public perception of it. There are many critical scholars of the music who still loudly maintain that the challenge of jazz is it’s continued stationary integrity during times when the very nature of music is changing around it. For example,the advent of electronic musical instruments. This viewpoint could be perceived as exclusionist and  conservative. And as such would be reflective of the sociopolitical attitudes of the individual writer or critic. Another viewpoint on this might hold that such a person might have begun with attitudes towards art that were more warm and welcoming. And as these radical musical changes began to occur around them,they’d succumb to one of the biggest challenges humanity continues to face: the fear of change.

                                                Change is a condition that so many individuals alternately embrace and fear. And that can happen by degrees. The general embrace of jazz by the mass public largely depends on appreciation of the natural improvisation resulting from changes. For example in the mid to late 1990’s,America was basking in the splendor of a generally balanced economy. During that time many college age Americans,who only a few short years before were mostly effected by alternative rock and hip-hop music,began to popularly embrace groups such as the Brian Setzer Orchestra and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies,both of whom based their music on the most jazz oriented of swing within the context of first generation rock and roll.  Alternately there was at the same time a degree of interest in jazz oriented hip-hop of artists such as MC Solaar and Gang Starr’s Guru, though popular only within the context of the than still relatively small hip-hop audience. However in the post 9/11 world,the economy has continued to take a turn for the exact opposite. A mixture of the urgency of war in the middle east,modern day young people are  being forced between family,friends,work and going back to school and racial and political uneasiness have created an environment where change,therefore improvisation as well,have again come to signify something to fear. And modern-day young jazz based artists such as Jamie Cullum  and Esperanza Spalding have difficulty building an audience in the mass public.

                                              In addition to the individual opinion of people in the mass public is being equally effected by the mass media. In modern society,the mass media exists primarily as a promotional device that continually promotes and advocates extreme surface value. Even televised entertainment news magazines more strong emphasizes a movie stars tailored suit or dress rather than the artistic qualities of the film they are offering. This amounts to a general degree of equal embrace of explicitness in the same cultural arena-whether it be controversial reality television or the deliberately censorship-challenging profanity embraced by mass market hip-hop lyrics. More and more art,especially music,seems to exist primarily as a stationary construct. And with that mentality prevailing even electronic music that embraces any sort of adventure,improvisational or otherwise, is not something generally encouraged where the mass culture often allows itself to be influenced so strongly by the mass media.

                                                            Historical irony plays a much bigger part in this than one might think. Mass media manipulation of individuals tastes and viewpoints has been a primary factor in American society since the conclusion of the first world war in 1918. And it was during this time that the jazz age,including within it the Harlem Renaissance,that celebrated improvisation  became ascendant. In most aspects of society an action is usually followed by a reaction. The Klu Klux Klan,for example,did not form during slavery but during the following events of Reconstruction. Politics and the balance of said power plays a role in this. It is often in terms of art,however that an action and a reaction occurs either at the same time or in the opposite context. The paintings of Vincent Van Gogh,for example was only fully appreciated by the public following his death. And we’ve seen the exact same thing occur with many jazz musicians who’ve passed over the years-whether it be Charlie Parker in the 1950’s or Miles Davis (in terms of his electric jazz innovations) in the 1990’s.

                                                 While cynically it may seem from all this that revisionist history is the only factor in altering people’s perception on jazz,it’s hardly universal. It’s well documented that,even to this day jazz in many forms flourishes and continues to grow within the cultures of Europe,Japan and Africa-none of which of course originated that form of music itself. In some ways the same type of mass media exposure that behaves as a hindrance to jazz in its own birth country could easily have the opposite effect in areas of the world that celebrate and embrace it. There is of course a racial component involved in that. But,perhaps also related could be the given cultures appreciation of rhythm in music,and rhythms of their lives itself. Much the same way as Joe Piscapo in an Saturday Night Live sketch impersonating Frank Sinatra illustrated racial misconceptions by referring to Ebony as a “magazine very few people buy”,there are likely many people in America who will go into their local music store and view the jazz section as an area of the store few people browse in. Perhaps if these said people would realize how much outside viewpoints have affected their perceptions on this jazz,a music that originated on one level as a way to expand the limits of dancing, might in fact be highly beneficial in assisting these people in the dance of life itself.


1 Comment

  1. AMG says:

    The evolution of jazz is much like the construction of a dance; influenced by various conditions in our society, our personal experiences and change, a most difficult concept to many. A thoughtful, wonderfully written homage to an under-appreciated music.

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