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Sound American 8 : What Is Jazz? | Ken Vandermark - musician & composer

Sound American 8 : What Is Jazz?

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Joe Morris: We’ve both spent a lot of time studying what has happened and studying what can happen. In both cases I think of you as someone who is always very respectful of every part, and concerned with precedent, originality and invention in all aspects of this. So I feel that you see so-called jazz as a larger thing. And, in that way your view is the same or very close to how I see it. I decided that Jazz, as a term was limited and had been co-opted and made to mean a more exclusive thing than I think the music has always been, and so I stopped using it. As you know I call it all Free Music. Meaning that it is made by musicians who are not concerned with abiding by any linear tradition, or obligated by any institutional, critical, or industry oversight; people who do whatever they want to do. I also feel that all of it is made with intent, and rendered in operational methodologies that are based on synthesis, interpretation and invention. I feel that renaming this, and defining it by the what, why and how of it I can include whatever I want. To me whether or not you agree with the above, you certainly operate as if you do. You are a Free Music musician. So, I guess to move the conversation along, what does that mean to you as an artist? And is that the same as playing jazz?

I guess what I mean more directly is that I believe that what has been called jazz all these years was a collection of inventions made by a large group of very creative musicians. There has always been an interpretive side to jazz, but the inventions are what moved it forward. As those inventions became less and less about harmony the situation changes. As those inventions started to come for non-American places the situation changed. As those inventions became less about one particular aesthetic, or kind of sound, or approach to expressing pulse the situation changed. Eventually the term “jazz” seemed to aggressively omit these inventions—something that it did before of course, but this time it has a kind of Death Star institutional power behind that omission of invention. So now the term means the things that are not omitted, those that are considered to be correct to a very orthodox and limited point of view. It’s a narrow interpretation of the history of inventions made by musicians. And it’s because of that that I don’t use the term jazz to describe what I do. I accept that the battle was lost and they won. I just call it something else and that gives me license to include more instead of exclude more.

Ken Vandermark: I’m in agreement with your point of view Joe, that the term jazz has been appropriated and turned into a cultural brand with very specific parameters and aesthetics; one that does not represent my firsthand experience with the music as a listener or as a performer either. If you remove a specific agenda from the term jazz- whether artistic, economic, educational, or political- the history of the music has clearly expressed a wide ranging series of approaches to composition and improvisation that cannot be contained within the current simple, and salable, definition. This is a fact that can be demonstrated time and again with a straightforward look at artists that are generally be agreed to represent jazz through their music: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus (to name just a few); though all of these artists used certain principles of organization in their music which had common ground (written themes, improvisation, chord structures, and a rhythmic pulse), if you compare how each of them would perform the same jazz standard, the range of possibility within real jazz can quickly be demonstrated.

As you state Joe:

As those inventions became less and less about harmony the situation changes. As those inventions started to come for non-American places the situation changed. As those inventions became less about one particular aesthetic, or kind of sound, or approach to expressing pulse the situation changed.

But, in actuality, the situation only changed from the standpoint of people who had an agenda and need to define jazz as a specific thing. The invention and directions of the music were going to continue, and still continue, after the introduction of creative perspectives that moved outside tonal harmony and conventional pulse, work that came to the fore by the 1960s, a half a century ago. In 1960, if John Coltrane suddenly stated that jazz was only authentic if sounded like King Oliver, he would have been laughed off stage. Yet, the arguments being made today in certain quarters for limiting the music to a very controlled set of elements, which are equally absurd, are considered relevant to the discourse.

Jazz is an art form, not a style; it is a creative method that is inclusive, not exclusive. The multi-million [dollar] marketing, programming, and education campaign organized on an annual basis to appropriate the term jazz and brand it as a very specific cultural concern does not have room for the complexity of art or the artists who create it. The term jazz has always been problematic, but in the past, aside from minor arguments about what it was and wasn’t that cropped up each time a new generation brought the music to someplace different, this problem was connected to cultural issues attached to the horrible politics of racism, and the fight for self definition and fair economic compensation for equivalent work.

Now, whatever discourse formerly existed about the music has been eradicated because the term jazz is a dead one; it became too limited to breathe in the real world of creative music and artists. Joe, your solution to find a new and open-ended term for where the music has gone in the last decades is wise. Free Music describes what it is, but the challenge is to find a way to create an understanding of the term Free Music so that it correlates in the minds of artists and listeners with what it’s about. Is Free Music a term to replace what you and I consider jazz to be as an art form? Or does it include music from other genres as well, such as rock, funk, certain aspects of contemporary composed music, all of which can have elements of improvisation in them? One of the former benefits of the term jazz, before it was completely codified and commodified, was that audiences and artists had a sense of what was being heard and discussed. I’ve made the analogy with painting- a person may not like a certain painter but they recognize that they paint. Someone might not have appreciated the work of Pee Wee Russell, but they used to know that he belonged to the world of jazz.

I think that if we agree that the fight to keep jazz free to be an art form with its own life and course of activity has been lost, then the fight to be faced is the one of self definition, for a term and/or set of terminology that explains to those who care what is really being made with the music in question as we move further into the 21st century.

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