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Chapter
19
the Modern Scene
Chapter Outline

Inevitably, contemporary artists challenge categories of all kinds, creating music that is impossible to pigeonhole. We look at several recent musicians, like Jason Moran and Brad Mehldau, who are simultaneously avant-garde, fusion, and historicist. Music such as theirs makes it clear that jazz will continue to confound and amaze.

  1. After History
    1. The 1990s term post-historical conveys the idea that the various political and cultural movements of the past are behind us and that we are now at the pinnacle of history and can act with a clean slate. This arrogance has resulted in debacles of all kinds.
    2. Even so, this might be a useful way to look at the three narratives of jazz history in order to make sense of jazz in the twenty-first century.
      1. Art for art's sake: at an impasse. Neo-classicism represents a retrenchment, not a progression.
      2. Fusion: also appears at an impasse. Pop is moving away from melody and harmony, thus offering less to jazz.
      3. Historicism: very much alive in the work of individual musicians but can hardly define the era
    3. These give us a way of understanding jazz history but not the present scene. Traditionalists and modernists seem to be at peace; perhaps a broader narrative will help.
  2. Jazz as Classical Music
    1. Some have described jazz as America's classical music, but the meaning of "classical" has changed over time, referring to different mixtures of longevity, value, class, and rank.
    2. Jazz has lasted in value as much as so-called classical works of the same period.
    3. Classical has been used in this book to refer to the European concert music tradition. But it can also refer to the status to which any "serious" music aspires.
  3. Four Phases
    1. Jazz has gone through four broad stages that mark its place in the cultural world.
      1. (1890s-1920s): genesis of jazz in the black South, especially New Orleans, where musical and cultural mixes resulted in an improvised, bluesy music that helped build social bonds in a variety of social gatherings and appealed to a broad range of culturally, racially, and geographically diverse populations.
      2. (1920s-1950s): transformation from a community-based form to an art that spread worldwide, influenced other genres and styles, and was performed by uniquely voiced performers as dance music and as an object of modernist intellectual interest.
      3. (1950s-1970s): increased artistic possibilities while alienating the public, which turned to more accessible forms for dancing and singing.
      4. (1970s-): Classical status on two counts:
        1. Depends on academic study and institutional support instead of the commercial marketplace.
        2. Attitudes of young performers
          1. Young jazz musicians are weighed down by the past in that they were partly defined by their pedigree. Moreover, they were obliged to perform the music of the past because modern practices are too difficult for many listeners. This dilemma replicates the dilemma of European classical music.
    2. On the other hand, its status as a classical music leaves young jazz musicians to draw freely on the past or present and on different genres and styles; it also provides the expectation of jazz evolution.
  4. Lingua Franca
    1. Although there is no single jazz school, jazz musicians all speak the same language, which is grounded in bebop and respect for the past-a lingua franca.
    2. One reason for this is that jazz education has been codified in undergraduate music programs.
    3. And yet, even though they learn a shared pool of musical practices and knowledge, highly skilled individual voices persist.
  5. For Example: Pianists
    1. Pianists can act as a case in point, showing how individual visions and lingua franca combine to create musical diversity.
    2. If one takes a list of pianists born since 1960-that is, post-style wars-we find that they share a common language while at the same time they represent a wide variety of approaches.
    3. Pianists born before 1960, like Bill Evans and Cecil Taylor, do not share much in common, but those born after 1960, such as Brad Mehldau and Mathew Shipp, can cross into each other's realms even though they have different approaches.
    4. Some of these younger jazz musicians come from other musical fields (European classical music, fusion, R and B, smooth jazz) and diverse cultural heritages (India, Italy), tour the world, and share an American university education, thus enlarging the common musical language.
    5. Although not major figures, these pianists have all recorded with major labels as leaders and as sidemen.
    6. They illustrate how jazz is still making history (lists could be made of other instrumentalists).
  6. Jason Moran (b. 1975)
    1. An exemplar of the successful contemporary jazz musician despite the remote standing of jazz today. Studied classical music and learned to hate it; loved hip-hop.
    2. His hatred changed when he was thirteen and heard Thelonious Monk's recording of "'Round Midnight," which in turn led him to other jazz pianists, both old and new.
    3. The diverse influences of the avant-garde, historical performances, and fusion resulted in a wide-ranging musical platform.
  7. Mentors
    1. Moran studied at his hometown's arts high school before going to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music with pianist Jaki Byard, who recorded with Mingus and as a leader and was known for his eclectic style.
    2. In addition to absorbing Byard's inclusive attitude and the features of the individual styles represented in Byard's style, he studied with two 1960s and 1970s avant-garde pianists, Andrew Hill and Muhal Richard Abrams, while adding all three pianists' relatively neglected compositions to his repertoire.
    3. At the age of twenty-one he started appearing with David Murray and Steve Coleman, whose M-Base collective was one of the first groups to combine avant-garde and mainstream jazz with hip-hop, electronic music, and world music.
    4. Moran's debut on records was on the Blue Note label as a sideman with Greg Osby in 1997. In 1998 Moran signed with Blue Note; released his first album under his own name, Soundtrack to Human Motion; and participated in Blue Note's New Directions concert tour,
    5. Osby describes Moran as a traditionalist despite Moran's interest in the avant-garde (especially musique-concrete), hip-hop, and electronics.
  8. Keeping It New
    1. Moran released one album per year, each one a distinct project but sharing the trio personnel and his breadth of repertory, love of electronic enhancements, and humor.
    2. His first recording includes works based on the music of Maurice Ravel and Alban Berg, and the first of his series of "Gangsterism" pieces, in this case, based on a theme by Andrew Hill that is Moran's self-described "John Cage interpretation of hip-hop."
    3. His other albums include works based on the music of Ellington and Byard, movie themes with Sam Rivers, album-length explorations of the blues, and original works, all of which are meant to combine contemporary musical ideas with the traditional, resulting in new but recognizable music.
    4. 2007: Moran was commissioned to compose a piece celebrating the ninetieth anniversary of the birth of Monk. He based it on a 1959 big-band concert. Moran's stated goal for IN MY MIND: Monk at Town Hall, 1959 was to get past the accepted clichés about Monk's style to the way he thought.
  9. "You've Got to Be Modernistic"
    1. Moran developed a self-sufficient solo piano style that is illustrated in his varied interpretation of James P. Johnson's 1930 "You've Got to Be Modernistic."
    2. Moran's treatment of this piece includes varying the form, harmony, tempo, and flow while remaining basically faithful to the primary theme.
    3. Moran ironically defamiliarizes the piece by both partaking of it and radically changing it through his own quirky and elusive playing.
  10. "Planet Rock"
    1. Originally recorded by Afrika Bambaataa in 1982 as one of the first and most influential rap pieces, Moran treats this piece as he did "You've Got to Be Modernistic," mixing fidelity and independence.
    2. Including "You've Got to Be Modernistic" suggests a historical approach while "Planet Rock" suggests a fusion approach. At the same time, Moran's openness and originality cut across both pieces.
    3. Moran's use of techniques parallels Bambaataa's and included one that he continued to use in his later work, that of duplicating speech patterns on the piano. He also used dubs and reversed tapes to expand rhythmic effects. Use of these techniques illustrates how diverse sources can be used for creative jazz.
  11. Jazz Tomorrow
    1. No one has been able to predict the future of jazz. What we can say is that it will continue to thrive because it attracts creative musicians who can connect to music lovers.
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