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Point of View 

We asked eminent Australian
jazz composer/pianist, Bill Risby
to answer the following question...

Bill Risby

October 2008

The Question:
Has jazz plateaued or is it still evolving?


Response by Bill Risby share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

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 Dearie.

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 is. 

© 2008 Bill Risby


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