Point of View
We asked eminent Australian
to answer the following question...
Has jazz plateaued or is it still
by Bill Risby
To answer this question I thought it would be good to compare jazz to
many styles of music. “Has Baroque music plateaued or is it still
evolving?” “Has Disco music plateaued or is it still evolving?” “Has
Be-bop music plateaued or is it still evolving?”
We can define these styles/types of music by writing a list of the
harmonic and rhythmic elements that the music contains, its repertoire,
instrumentation, and also the culture that surrounded (and help create)
the music. Once we define it in this way it is defined. If we add
something to it, or subtract from it then it is no longer “Baroque”, or
“Jazz”, or “Disco.”
If you define Charlie Christian as jazz because of his contribution to
American music of the 30s and 40s playing songs such as “Rose Room” with
Benny Goodman, and then someone such as Bill Frisell comes along who
currently plays a pop (Madonna, John Hiatt) and classical (Charles Ives,
Aaron Copland) repertoire all over the world at festivals, often
utilizing a ’cellist, an accordionist, then you either have to change
your definition of jazz, or change your definition of Bill Frisell’s
music, or even your definition of Bill Frisell himself.
Perhaps jazz is just the music that was started near the turn of the
20th century and ended around when Miles Davis was 18 years old. Don’t
shoot me yet! Perhaps Miles Davis is what defines jazz for you (noting
too that he once touted Jimmy Hendrix as the next new direction in
jazz). It could maybe be Weather Report, or David Sanborn, or Blossom
Whichever way you define it, ALL of these eras are over. Miles, Josef
Zawinul and Hendrix are no longer with us. You might say your
definitions are dead. These remaining people may evolve themselves by
incorporating their influences into what they play and perhaps they
represent your definition of jazz, but it’s just your definition.
It’s worth noting that the titles we attribute to styles of music
(baroque, disco, klezmer, fusion, jazz) weren’t necessarily in existence
when the music was first written or performed. These music styles were
new, and their common factor was that they broke the musical rules that
preceded them. Beethoven rhythmically played 2 against 3 for the first
time (and we “jazz” people think we invented it). Bach wrote figured
bass parts to be improvised in the left hand. He also left cadenzas to
be improvised by the performer. He also used harmony that is common to
“jazz” today, but it clearly isn’t what most people call jazz.
You could say that jazz hasn’t harmonically come close to Olivier
Messiaen’s music, but if it did, would it be jazz? You could say that
jazz (usually) isn’t as complex as Greek or Bulgarian folk music, but if
it was would it be jazz? You could say that American culture since 9/11
is now vastly different to the 1920s, but does that make current music
from the USA jazz?
The people that music comes through throughout the ages evolve during
their lifetimes, but their lives eventually end. I would say that if you
define music as language (as I often do) then as the musician develops
their self expression then their music evolves (matures), but only in
that you understand that person better.
In the whole scheme of things you can view jazz as either a syntax
within a language, or perhaps more accurately as a language in itself
(baroque being another language, etc..). More accurately because this
second view incorporates culture as an influence and a divider between
types of music.
In conclusion it would be tempting to say that jazz is dead (and
classical for that matter) but I think that it’s just our definitions
that are dead, and the music lives on in our hearts and minds. All music
always has a place, and as far as a new definition goes, it is what it
© 2008 Bill Risby
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