Art forms have natural life spans. Epic poetry, Gothic cathedrals, commedia dell’arte plays, rondeaus and virelais, Persian miniatures are no longer written, built, acted, composed, or painted, except by revivalists – they belong to the civilizations they came from.

More recently, from its beginnings about 100 years ago, as one of the many American folk or popular arts, to its early maturity as a fine art and for at least 60 years, the extraordinary feature about jazz was its enormous vitality. New idioms, new creative disciplines, new visions not only kept emerging, they seemed to multiply in each decade.

During all those years musicians from every era of jazz were actively playing in public and making records. Here in Chicago I wonder if today’s young folks have any idea what pleasure it was to have a grand choice of music to hear, live, each week, played by musicians from each idiom’s first generations – early jazz, swing, bop, hard bop, cool, little bands, big bands, solo pianists, and singers, and eventually free jazz and fusion, too.

The deaths of Louis Armstrong (1971) and Kid Ory (1973) climaxed the vanishing of jazz’s earliest generations. Most of the remaining Swing Era elders disappeared in the 1980s. By now, from the bop decades only Sonny Rollins and a few others in each major city are still active, along with a few brave iconoclasts like Bernie McGann and Lee Konitz. So our senior jazz artists are mainly from the first free-jazz generations who raised hell: Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, the New York Art Quartet, the early AACM and their London peers, Alex Schlippenbach, Giorgio Gaslini, and all their remaining old friends.

Meanwhile, the popularity bubble burst at the start of the 1960s. Jazz’s audiences started to drift away. In just a few years all the Gene Ammons, Horace Silver, and Jimmy Smith 45s on big-city jukeboxes were replaced by Motowns. As for the great social movements of the time, the triumphant civil rights movement and the defeated anti-war movement, it was the likes of Mahalia Jackson, James Brown, and folk and rock singers who provided the music, not jazz artists. Even so, wonderful, original new jazz musicians kept appearing. Many of them performed in schools, churches, art galleries, lofts more often than in nightclubs, but they played.

While the jazz marketplace was dwindling, jazz education was expanding like the universe after the big bang. Not only did jazz musicians pour forth from high schools in little, lonely towns on the North American prairies and plains. More jazz musicians studied Advanced Stan Kenton Licks and Coltrane Sheets Of Sound 100 through 401 and then graduated with doctorate degrees in jazz from colleges and universities around the world. From the mountains and meadows of Uzbekistan, Uruguay, Romania, young Bill Evanses and Oscar Petersons and Wayne Shorters keep coming.

Where do they play? True, the number of jazz festivals keeps increasing, too. That’s another phenomenon that not just American, it’s international. Here in Chicago, at our annual free, city-sponsored, end-of-summer, three-day jazz festival, the total crowds invariably exceed 200,000 despite fierce competition from other, nearby jazz fests the same weekend. But when the festivals are over, reality returns to jazz artists for the rest of the year: Intermittent gigs playing fewer nights in fewer clubs, and most musicians play in some self-produced or pass-the-hat settings just to stay active. In fact, almost all the jazz musicians I know here have day jobs. Moreover, presently there’s not one nightclub in Chicago that regularly books nationally touring jazz acts. And this city is one of the two leading jazz centers in the U.S. The situation is far more difficult for jazz musicians and audiences in Los Angeles and in smaller cities.

Why do jazz artists put up with it? Why do they endure the necessary, extensive training and discipline, then accept the sacrifices of a creative life? The truth is, nowadays more than ever, it seems, a great many promising ones abandon fine art. They’d rather raise their families and live normal lives in adequate homes, eat regular meals, and have decent medical care. Rather like Muhal Richard Abrams has said, I too would not necessarily criticize a musician for abandoning creative music.

In the 21st century there’s also the replacement factor to consider. Within the last 16 months we’ve lost at least 50 significant musicians — among them the fine trad trombonist Deryck Bentley, Andrew Hill, Leroy Jenkins, Teo Macero, Frank Morgan, Max Roach, Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Rutherford, and Dakota Staton. Have 50 new musicians of similar value emerged in the same period?

Against this background, Peter Jordan in Sydney is concerned with the future of the music we love, and he asks three very good questions:

1. What’s the relationship between jazz and free improvisation? Is jazz tied to it?
2. Is jazz a largely a heritage music as is being claimed, including many in the free improvisation scene?
3. Has jazz come to the end of its development?

1. The relation between jazz and its most extreme extension sounds most obvious in
musicians whose free improvisations use jazz phrasing. Of course, as Derek Bailey indicated long ago, free improvisers have come from all over – classical, rock, African, Asian, Latin-American musics, as well as from trad, swing, bop-era, and free jazz. In his wonderful new AACM history A Power Stronger Than Itself George Lewis proposes applying the one-drop-of-blood test: If there’s the faintest connection between a free improvisation and the jazz tradition, it’s jazz. I think whenever free improvisation is successful, the music’s vitality, the personal characters of the artists’ sounds, and the artists’ crucial needs to express themselves in utterly personal ways, as soloists and interacting with other artists, are elements at the heart of the jazz tradition. However different they sound, Jelly Roll Morton’s shapely stomps, Charlie Parker’s broken melodies, Ross Bolleter’s ruined pianos, Roscoe Mitchell’s obsessive quests, and Sainkho Namtchylak’s howls have similar spiritual sources within the artists.

2. The most popular kinds of jazz today are still, first, vocalists, then bop revivals that trudge in the footsteps of ex-Jazz Messengers, especially Wynton Marsalis, and third, fusions with a world of pop and traditional musics. This very night in virtually every town around the world there are folks, usually gray-haired, onstage singing in Frank Sinatra and Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald styles. As for bop in all its manifestations, from its bebop beginnings through hard bop, cool, and modes, today its instrumentalists far and away outnumber musicians who are playing free jazz and free improvisation.

Moreover, some of our “outside” players are playing in styles that originated decades ago. By now John Coltrane may be less directly influential among them than Albert Ayler. It surely takes familiarity to distinguish Ayler’s saxophone heirs from each other in a blindfold test. Roscoe Mitchell and Evan Parker, whose distinctive styles appeared in the 1960s and ‘70s, are two other big influences on saxophonists. Plenty of pianists still play Cecil Taylorish tone clusters and ultrafast tempos and guitarists still make Derek Baileyish free associations. Trouble is, the styles of the original influences simply overwhelm the personalities of too many influencees. Often the likes of David Murray, Archie Shepp, and Ken Vandermark, for three examples, even think of themselves as revivalists. It’s no wonder that some older free-jazz fans think post-Ornette music is also becoming heritage music.

In a more subtle sense, jazz-rock, jazz-Latin, jazz-India, and other fusions are also to a large extent heritage musics. Today’s fusion emerged near the end of the 30-year bop heritage, in bop’s decadent, modal stages. The most rewarding aspects of fusions are usually their jazz elements. Trouble is, those jazz elements, especially jazz’s post-Charlie Parker rhythmic variety, are typically subdued by the insistent patterns of rock and traditional musics from around the world. That’s why so many fusions are first, meetings of styles and only secondarily, if that, joinings of sensibilities. When the jazz element is reduced to plain style, fusion is a heritage music too. Here in America the end of fusion is the smooth jazz of fashionable stores and hotels, those cooing soprano saxophones that instill a vague sense of hollow despair in the hearts of listeners.

The old distinction still applies, the distinction between capital-F freedom – the free-jazz and free-improvisation methods, or idioms – and small-f freedom, the artist’s genuine freedom to say what cannot be said in any other way. Are fusion and bop living musics? They can be. The test of vitality is, can individuals best communicate within these idioms?

3. So many of jazz’s possibilities have always been undeveloped, or underdeveloped. Virtually every important jazz artist of the past left ideas that beg to be expanded upon. James P. Johnson’s 1927 rhapsody, his concertos, and his opera were almost never performed in his lifetime and apparently had no influence at all. One of Jelly Roll Morton’s last works, Ganjam, is startling – it sounds like a highly personal response to Ellington works like Reminiscing in Tempo. An advantage of today’s proliferation of jazz scholarship is the discovery or rediscovery of these old pieces. Johnson’s Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody and Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha have been performed in recent years and Ganjam, which was discovered in a New Orleans archive, was at last recorded, by Randy Sandke on his Outside In CD, in 2005.

Was the traditional-jazz revival, beginning in the 1940s, really a dead end? Some of David Dallwitz’s iconoclastic compositions, especially his wedding of jazz and poetry in Ern Malley Jazz Suite, as played by his excellent 1975 Adelaide band, are absolutely a revelation (Swaggie should immediately reissue the Malley Suite on CD). By now the number of trad-revival specialists is dwindling, true. But for instance the recurring energy of some younger New Orleans musicians, such as clarinetist Dr. Michael White’s band, and the sheer personality of some revivalists, especially Paris’s Le Petit Jazzband are, if not developments, at least evidence of lingering trad-jazz vitality.

The bop era developed many of the possibilities of the swing era in the sense that Charlie Parker was a development of Lester Young, for instance, or Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano were developments of Art Tatum. Larry Kart’s 1985 essay The Death of Jazz? in his book Jazz in Search of Itself is a requiem for bop-era revivalism. It’s interesting that some who attacked Kart in 1985, most famously Gary Giddins, have now abandoned jazz, while Kart continues to discover and encourage talented young artists. Nowadays amidst the widely hyped revivalist young lions, the Marsalises, Hargrove, Blanchard, Marcus Roberts, and so on, some rewarding music has come out of older traditions. Often it’s by comparatively obscure musicians – note the recent series of albums by the late pianist Frank Hewitt. And the struggles of, for instance, Mark Turner, Wallace Roney, and the Bad Plus to communicate their changing, challenging ideas are steps forward in “inside” jazz.

Tantalizingly, critic Max Harrison once suggested that Ellington might have more completely fulfilled his talent if he’d abandoned his orchestra, in the late 1930s, to instead compose more formally and harmonically liberated works. Wynton Marsalis’s largest works are an extravagant extension of this notion. He’s quite an imaginative arranger with plenty of vari-colored instrumental combinations in a monumental work like All Rise (1999), for big jazz band joined by symphony orchestra and chorus. In fact, Marsalis’s virtuosity as an orchestrator almost manages to obscure All Rise_’s lack of lyricism or linear development, and these weaknesses run through much of his work as composer and improviser. His flamboyance is the exact opposite of John Coltrane’s austerity and passion, yet Marsalis arranged _A Love Supreme, of all things, for big band. It proved to be quite an exhausting reduction. Despite his weird choices so far he may yet score some valuable music.

In the 1970s and ‘80s more liberated composers created ambitious works that were at least as varied and colorful as the improvisers of the 1960s. In America there were Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, and their AACM friends from Chicago; the composers of the Jazz Composers Orchestra in New York; Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Julius Hemphill, Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America, early Carla Bley, and others who composed for or led “outside” big bands or arkestras. In Europe Alex Schlippenbach, Barry Guy, Chris McGregor, Willem Breuker, Pierre Dorge, and Misha Mengelberg were among the progressive bandleaders. Other composers realized large ambitions with somewhat smaller ensembles, such as Edward Wilkerson’s Eight Bold Souls and John Carter’s gatherings in his huge Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music. Carter’s work was an epic, a five-album musical history and interpretation of the black experience in America, with smaller groups of players, singers, and narrators than Marsalis’s All Rise but with more melody and better improvisers.

Every one of these composers and bandleaders was an original and different from every other. Especially since there had been no major innovators among free-jazz improvisers since the late 1960s, it raised the question of whether the final part of Martin Williams’ dialectic was soon going to be fulfilled. The late critic Williams maintained in every jazz era, first, great improvisers created idioms, then great composers and organizers created forms that climaxed each idiom’s development. So early jazz climaxed in Jelly Roll Morton’s 1926-27 Red Hot Peppers; Armstrong and swing were fulfilled by Duke Ellington’s early 1940s masterpieces; Charlie Parker’s innovations had their highest development in the composed and improvised unities of Thelonious Monk. Nearly half a century ago Williams asked, who would fulfill Ornette Coleman?

It now seems as if there are several Ellingtons to Coleman’s Armstrong. Yet despite the appearance of some talented composers and ensembles since 1990, the quantity of activity in this realm has been disappointing. Governments’ support for the arts has dwindled. A large work like the Sandy Evans (Australian)-Yusef Komunyakaa (American) Testimony, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation project, seems like a genuine miracle. Testimony is an epic: Charlie Parker’s story told and sung by those who knew him in poet Komunyakaa’s 14 colorful double sonnets, set to composer-woodwind player Evans’ music. The rhythmic agility of Evans’ snaky melodies is most ingenious, set to the long lines of the poems. While most of the big-band and small-combo pieces here are in her personal, updated-bop idiom, she includes subtly dramatic sections of harmonic and rhythmic extremes, too. There was fine playing and singing by Australian artists in the 1999 ABC radio debut, and although Parker’s life was tragic, his art, as Testimony testifies, was a triumph.

Read the full article on the SIMA website.


Chicago-based writer John Litweiler is the author of Ornette Coleman: A Hamolodic Life and The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958.

Photo: Sandy Evans

Hash Varsani is the owner of The Jazz Directory, a network of sites related to jazz, travel and everything else he loves. He also runs a selection of jazz related sites including Jazz Club Jury, a jazz club and festival review site. Check out his Google+ Profile, to see what else he's up to...probably setting up another website from one of his many passions.