[Dixielandjazz] Is Jazz Dead? A British View via "The Financial Times"

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Mon Dec 5 18:00:44 PST 2005

Interesting . . . especially as they mention, the new popularity of the
Coltrane/ Monk Carnegie Hall Session CD, made from a long forgotten tape.
Why can't the current crop of jazzers (including us) generate that kind of
interest? Again, as the article says, perhaps because jazz today lacks the
resonance of its pioneering days.


>From the "Financial Times":

It's not dead, it's resting By Peter Aspden December 2 2005

Off to the House of Commons, no less, a place where one is advised to
steer clear of any mention of culture. Politics today, more than ever,
is anti-cultural: shrill, superficial, laughably confrontational; an
arena in which blandness and facility with Play School language are the
keys to a thriving career, and intellectual complexity is regarded as an
unfortunate handicap. On the rare occasion that a Member of Parliament
reveals some kind of cultural hinterland, he or she is lauded as some
kind of playful maverick fatally afflicted with a weirdness that will
ultimately prove the obstacle to them reaching the highest office.
Kenneth Clarke? Excellent man, would have made a great leader. But those
suede shoes; and doesn't he love jazz?

He does indeed. But so do a number of Right Honourable groovers. My
drink at the House last month was provided under the auspices of the
All-Party Jazz Appreciation Society. You can always tell when an art
form is in crisis: a telling staging post is the formation of an
appreciation society. Its members know that the art form in question can
no longer reliably be expected to produce sufficient spontaneous energy
to keep it fresh and relevant, so they dutifully roll out the membership
application forms, and hold meetings in unlikely settings to impress
upon onlookers their cultural virility.

Then there are the speeches. I have never come across any jazz occasion
that does not feature someone earnestly exhorting that jazz is not dead,
nor does it even smell funny. This desperation to establish jazz's
vitality (there is always a dull mention of "young people") is a
giveaway. The bunker mentality is palpable.

We hear all kinds of arguments: look at the recent successes of Jamie
Cullum (a charming and talented young man, but merely a throwback to the
age of intelligent crooning); count the number of live gigs (featuring
bands playing mostly 50-year-old material); revel in the success of the
current British jazz boom (yes, there are some lively bands around, but
they have singularly failed to capture the popular imagination - how
many have you heard of?).

I partly blame the performers themselves, who (with the honourable
exception of Cullum) give pitifully little thought to presentation or
stagecraft, preferring to noodle introspectively in a quiet corner with
a taciturn intensity (let's call it Boys in Their Bedrooms syndrome)
that does nothing to make their music accessible. The opening concert of
this year's London Jazz Festival featured the highly rated Tord
Gustavsen trio, a group that played with such pretentious quietude, all
melancholy ripples and tinkles, that the only thing missing was a
complementary aromatherapy massage. Jazz is out there, its adherents
keep telling us; but it is deep, deep in here, say too many of its
practitioners, curled semi-autistically over their pianos and saxophones.

To be fair, that has always been a tension inherent in even the best
jazz music. It is an art form that is full of contradictions: in its
smooth, highly polished mode, it is the ultimate background music:
inoffensive, mellifluous, cool. But in the hands of some of its tortured
protagonists, there is no sound more pregnant with emotional upheaval.
There is Ella and there is Bird: both intensely musical, but coming from
opposite parts of the human soul, the languid and the lacerated.

There is one indicator that jazz is currently as relevant and popular as
ever. I went to buy a new CD release some weeks ago, but couldn't find
it at any of my favourite discount shops in Soho, which had sold out.
Over to a major chain store, and the CD, available at full price,
proudly topped the album charts. Which would have been nothing to remark
upon, if it hadn't been recorded a thumping 48 years ago. The CD
features two of the jazz greats, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane,
performing live together At Carnegie Hall, as the title states. Not the
least interesting thing about Blue Note's release is the discovery of
the original tape, which was made earlier this year by a jazz specialist
at the US Library of Congress. Here was an authentic masterpiece,
gathering dust in a vault somewhere for nearly half a century:
popular-culture archaeology - no, not an oxymoron - of the most romantic

The performance is a highly charged document of two virtuoso performers
at the peak of their game. Coltrane, who had been fired by Miles Davis
earlier in 1957 for his drug-addled unreliability, had just kicked
heroin cold turkey. He returned to New York full of hope and energy, and
got together with Monk, who was on the cusp of achieving mainstream
success. Their five-month engagement at the Five Spot was a spectacular
success, and led to their benefit gig at Carnegie Hall for the
Morningside Community Center in Harlem. The evening was a triumph, and
is presented here in all its promise of greater things to come: round
the corner were Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, Monk gracing the cover of
Time magazine.

It was jazz's golden age. We put the CD at the top of the charts in
acknowledgement of that. Perhaps it is an exaggeration to say that jazz
is in crisis. It tootles along perfectly respectably, but inevitably
lacks the resonance of its pioneering days. The same thing has been
happening, for a couple of decades, to pop music too. The early 21st
century has other wonders, so we should not worry unduly. An
appreciation society is as good a way of saying it as any: this music is
a magnificent part of our cultural history. Let us not be ashamed of
looking back, and revelling in it.

More information about the Dixielandjazz mailing list