Is Jazz Dead?…The Tragedy of Jazz, And Its Reawakening

Text by Dawoud Kringle

Photo by Helge Øverås

Photo by Helge Øverås

“Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.” Thus spoke Frank Zappa.

According to Nielson’s 2014 Year End Report (, jazz & classical combined accounts for 1.4% of music consumed in the US.

So, what happened?

It’s arguable that when the soulless corporations started promoting (and probably designed) smooth jazz, the final nail in the coffin was poised and ready to be driven in. Personally, I can’t imagine anything more horrible than what that genre did to music (two examples I heard on the radio: some pitiful jerk who twisted “Take Five” into a dreary 4/4 so people’s intellects would not be challenged by a groove in five, and some demented eunuch who’s merciless emasculation of “Round Midnight” doubtless has Monk spinning in his grave fast enough to generate electricity). Once, at some music conference, while Diane Reeves was being discussed, a corporate drone was actually quoted as saying “I think she’s emoting too much, and that could be bad for the music.”

These are the kind of people who seek to control our musical destiny. And we’ve allowed it to happen.

Allowing people like this to take control of both the creative and economic aspects of jazz was a fatal mistake. And we must not blame them: these people have no souls and their nature is anti-musical. We shouldn’t have expected any less from them. Yet they took jazz away from us while we watched and did nothing. We practically handed it to them on a silver platter. Combine this with the indisputable dumbing down of America, and we have a recipe for disaster.

Which now begs the question of what can be done. And the answer to this falls squarely upon the musician’s shoulders.

Be honest (and I’m just as guilty as anyone): how many times did we do gigs where we walked away with nothing after playing our hearts out? Or worse, suffered the embarrassment of telling the guys/ladies who busted their asses playing our music in our bands that we couldn’t pay them, or paid them $3.00 or some other insulting amount?

This is clearly the result of two factors: 1. an obsolete and unworkable business model, and 2. the dominance of a working business model that cannot function by promoting music of real value. Take power away from music/entertainment corporations, and set up our own independent and autonomous business models.

We should explore alternative venues for our performances. A lot of controversy is being generated by the struggle to get clubs to work in the musician’s favor. Relying on them and expecting justice and fairness is a mistake. They will never work in our favor as long as the possibility to make a greater profit by cheating and exploiting us exists. Legislation is useless, protests are useless. Seizing power is the only answer, and an independent and autonomous business infrastructure is the only means to do so. Controlling our own venues will make our involvement with them unnecessary.

Legally, musicians who perform in clubs are categorized as independent contractors. Some on the scene feel the way to insure fair pay for fair work is to categorize musicians as employees. The idea being that employees have legal rights. While this could be a workable model, I’m not sure it’s always the way to go. Musicians need to be equal to the owners and management of venues; not subordinate to them (unless it’s one of those gigs where one agrees to these conditions, such as playing as a sideman with someone else, or playing in a restaurant). These details are negotiable, and changeable depending on the situation. The most important thing is this: if the club/venue wishes to work with us, they will have to treat us as equals, not poor struggling musicians with our hats in our hands, howling for better pay and equal rights.

Nona Hendryx once told me that it’s essential to develop oneself as an artist and businessman, and keep them separate. Yusef Lateef once told me “Always get your price.” No more playing gigs where nobody makes money. The promise of playing free gigs because it’s “good exposure” is a lie. It always has been, and always will be.

The DIY model of recording is a good model. Taking advantage of modern technology to produce, promote, and distribute our recordings places power in our hands.

We need to put more effort into promotion, marketing, and publicity. Find ways to do this not only outside the mainstream, but to use the existing mainstream for our own purposes. Do this in such a way that we don’t need anyone else’s help or approval. Their statistics, polls, etc. will be irrelevant. Every truly successful artist has essentially torn up the rule book, and rewrote it according to their own individual needs.

One of the main reasons jazz’ popularity diminished is that it allowed itself to become frozen in classical forms. It’s not much different than European classical music in that it’s elitist attitude allows no evolution and no creative venturing into new realms. Can you imagine how rock music would have survived if it hadn’t progressed beyond “Johnny B. Good” or “She Loves You?” It wouldn’t. It would have become a mere novelty that people would take out on occasion, dust off, admire it as a relic of a bygone era, and put it back in its glass case without a second thought. Ask yourself if jazz hasn’t suffered a similar fate. How many times have we attended a jazz performance, only to be confronted by yet another version of “Autumn Leaves,” where, after the singer sings a few choruses, the sax, piano and bass take solos (in that order), the drums trade fours, they do the chorus, and end? Same thing, year after year, decade after decade. And when you’re in these venues, look around you. Who are in the audience (if there is an audience) and what is their reaction?

If jazz does not demonstrate, in theory and practice, that anything is possible, then it’s not jazz, and it’s corpse has become embalmed and put on display in a museum or temple of false idols. We must allow jazz to grow and evolve. Push out the “bebop Nazi” mentality that makes jazz an elitist museum music. Take the idea of incorporating elements from non-jazz music, like Yusef Lateef, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Miles Davis showed us, into realms it’s never been. Jazz musicians rarely progressed any further than what they did. Miles’ last release was a hip hop album. I can’t think of more than a handful of people to picked up that baton and ran with it. Who says we can’t take something like, say, gamelan or psytrance, and transform it into a new sub genre of Jazz? Why limit instrumentation to the usual horns, bass, piano, drums, and occasional guitar? Put other instruments in the music: Chapman stick, raita, oud, sarangi, laptops with Ableton, er-hu, didgeridoo, synthesizers, theremin, etc. Who says they can’t contribute to and expand the voice of jazz? Aren’t we creative enough to achieve this?

Art Ensemble Of ChicagoWe could incorporate elements of theatrics. By this, I don’t mean cheap, empty sensationalism. We don’t need tweaking or whatever other idiotic shit people sell to the masses. Make the theatrics work as part of the musical statement and spirit. If nothing more, dress well, or at least in an interesting manner, when performing (how many of us look like bums when we take the stage?) and actually speaking to the audience in an engaging and interesting way (how many of us have no skills at public speaking?) It will help. It all worked for Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

It’s working for that rich and famous trumpet player who works for Lincoln Center.

How about music videos or even short films? Who says jazz videos have to be nothing more than just pointing a camera at whoever is soloing, or slapping some quasi-documentary interviews in there as an afterthought? Is our creativity so limited we can’t apply jazz concepts to what people see? What about other art forms; including ones yet to be invented? And why shouldn’t we be the ones who invent them, or collaborate with those who do?

Permit me to put out another idea. One that threatens to shatter almost everything I wrote here; and which brings about an idea we may be uncomfortable to face, but may be inevitable.

Bruce Lee Tao of Jeet Kune DoIn the book The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee said “Jeet Kune Do is just a name. If it dies, let it die. Don’t make a fuss over it.”

I wonder,,, is “jazz” just a name? Was it always nothing more than a name? Or perhaps the thing that made it special and gave it its spirit and unique qualities cannot be frozen in a name or genre. Maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way. I always tell people I am not concerned with styles and genres, but only with the psychoactive properties of music. Is “jazz” a genre that is destined to die, as all things must? Perhaps it’s the inner essence of music itself we should be primarily concerned with.

I was watching a documentary on Netflix about the concert promoter Arthur Fogel. One of the people in the documentary, Lady Gaga, whose “music” is, granted, unfit for human ears, nonetheless said something spot on. She said that as far as promotion, what works today won’t work three years from now. We need freedom, but we also need the means to support and protect that freedom. We need to be ahead of the curve, in control of our own affairs, and to lead the way. Nothing else is acceptable.

This article had focused on the negative. Sometimes this is necessary to shock us out of our complacency. But the situation is not hopeless. There are many who are emerging from the shadows whose work is propelling the music to new heights and new realms of creativity and even spirituality. You, who are reading these words, may very well be among the new vanguard. It is inevitable: our spirit cannot be destroyed. It will come back again, renewed.

The Phoenix is waiting to rise from the ashes.

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