As a long time subscriber to the Atlantic monthly, I have often read articles or reviews of books written by their literary and national editor Benjamin Schwarz His observations have been generally well thought out and cogent. His book reviews have offered evaluations on the worthlessness or value of a newly released book that are often consistent with my taste. So when I read his most recent diatribe provocatively titled
“The End of Jazz,” a subject of great interest to me, I was greatly surprised and disappointed by Mr. Schwarz’s spurious conclusions
The article was supposed to be a book review of the recently published book “The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire” by the scholar Ted Goia from Oxford Press. Mr. Goia was my editor in chief at the now defunct web-based jazz magazine jazz.com. where I was a regular contributor. He has written several authoritative works on jazz, including “The History of Jazz” and his fine “West Coast Jazz.,” to name a few, and his opinions carry some weight in the community. I have always found Mr. Goia’s work to be well researched, informative and eminently readable.
Candidly I have not yet read Mr. Goia’s recent offering, but I understand it to be a collection of some two hundred and fifty songs that he has deemed to be essential to any working jazz musician’s book-a repertoire of songs that are generally accepted as standards that any jazz musician should know. In delineating his choices, Goia takes a valiant stab at codifying what he considers essential to the jazz canon. He uses the frequency of play as his chief criteria for inclusion with some other more minor criteria being factored into this equation. His list, by its nature, becomes a declaration of taste, popularity and substance that transcends time.
In reviewing this book, Schwarz seems to tacitly agree with Mr. Goia’s unequivocal praise for Billy Strayhorn’s poignantly bitter masterpiece “Lush Life,” which Goia lauds as his choice for the single most important song from the twentieth century ( the cover picture of the story is of Strayhorn and Ellington at the piano) . But as anyone who knows the music is bound to do, Schwarz does take the opportunity to air his own taste. He mentions some songs that he feel Goia has unfairly left off his list. These songs include Rodgers and Hart’s “Where and When” three by song-smith Cole Porter “In the Still of The Night” , “Begin the Beguine “and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” All worthy entries and all clearly part of what is known as “The Great American Songbook,” a group of songs that were written predominantly between the 1920s and the 1950’s, and have become a wellspring of inspiration for jazz musicians as a vehicle for improvisation. The choices also say a lot about where Mr. Schwarz’s musical mind has been quagmired, offering a clue to how he has drawn his own personal conclusions about the state of jazz.
The predominance of these songs, from this bygone era, create a moment of careful reflection for Goia, who freely admits to the dearth of contemporary compositions in his version of the repertoire. But where Goia sees promise “…the jazz idiom [is] a vibrant present day endeavour ”, Schwarz uses this fact as a raison d'entre for his controversial and misguided assertions. He states “The Songbook, a product of a fleeting set of cultural circumstances when popular, sophisticated music was aimed at musically knowledgeable adults was the wellspring of jazz.” He continues " “…there is no reason to believe that that jazz can be a living, evolving art form decades after its major source-and the source of that linked it to the main currents of popular culture and sentiments- has dried up. Jazz, like the Songbook, is a relic- and as such, in 2012 it cannot have, as Goia wishes for it, an “expansive and adaptive repertoire.” "
Here is where Mr. Schwarz has gone completely and perilously off the tracks. Does he truly believe that there are no longer, any " musically knowlegable adults" listening ? Or perhaps he believes that the music no longer speaks to the audience because it no longer "links [them] to the main current of popular culture and sentiments..."? True enough that some modern jazz requires "work" by the listener before it can be fully appreciated. Does that automatically un-link it to the main stream of popular culture or does it just expand the culture ever so slightly, breathing new life and vitality by daring to be adventurous?
Admittedly the Songbook is an invaluable resource and the basis of many of a jazz musician’s book, but it is not the only resource. Just as the Magna Carta of 1215 AD was the cornerstone for the subsequent U.S. Constitution, which was written over five hundred years later, the Great American Songbook, is a particularly important part of the the jazz tradition but not its only part. It is certainly premature to claim that reliance on this admittedly dated mother lode of inspiration is the death knoll for future creativity and advancement in the art of jazz.
It cannot be denied that the Songbook has become the cornerstone of the jazz repertoire, but new music from cabaret, theater, films, world and popular music arenas have always provided a rich vein of new compositions for the jazz musician.
In Its function as a template, the Songbook has become a living, breathing monument to tradition. It is not calcified and decayed, but is constantly being infused with new vitality through repeated explorations. In an interview with Goia on Mark Myers fine blog, www.jazzwax.com , Goia recalled talking to 82 year old saxophonist Bud Shank in 2009 before he passed. Shank told him that even after fifty years of playing the standard “All The Things You Are” he felt that he still hadn't exhausted all the possibilities that a song like that could provide to a sufficiently curious musician. Like the torch carrying the never extinguished Olympic flame, the Songbook is continuously providing the spark that illuminates the way for future generations of musicians while serving as a link to the origins and development of the music. As such it can never be considered a "relic" as Schwarz asserts.
Modern music is constantly evolving and its inclusion into the jazz canon is a process that will occur naturally over time. It may be frustrating for some that the listening public have become inordinately attached to these classics of yesteryear, but it is unwise to characterize the art form as being on terminal life support because its audience is slow to accept change. Jazz does not have a monopoly on the public's resistance to change. Monk was derided for much of his lifetime as a man whose music was curiously out of tune, Even his fellow musicians and critics had trouble with the demands of his compositions. Few musicians or critics today would deny the brilliance of his musical legacy and many of his compositions have become an integral part of the repertoire.
Time is a great healer. Jazz as a distinct art form is barely one hundred years old. Why is it so hard and potentially damning to fathom that the Songbook is still such an important element in its repertoire?
The listening public must be connected to the music if it is to survive and thrive. It is the modern jazz musician, who as he becomes more daring in his approach to bringing new material into the lexicon, will make the repertoire grow organically. The music of Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, Sting, Lennon & McCartney or Kurt Cobain, is certainly more relatable to younger audiences and needs to be included in the conversation; explored for its nuances and adaptability to the improviser’s art.
It has happened in the recent past with artist like Miles Davis and George Benson introducing songs by Cyndi Lauper and Leon Russell and is happening now with artists like Brad Mehldau , George Colligan and Ethan Iverson, who have introduced the music of contemporary artists like Thom Yorke, Michael Jackson and The Beatles to the repertoire. Other musicians like Robert Glasper, Dave Douglas, John McLaughlin and Rudresh Mahanthappa have successfully attempted to bring soul, hip-hop,fusion,techno and world musicical influences into the pantheon of jazz. Who knows when these influences become a permanent part of the repertoire? Far from being mummified and interred as Mr. Schwarz suggests, jazz is morphing, replicating and mutating.
Perhaps Mr. Schwarz does not embrace this change, perhaps he is stuck in the afterglow of songs by Porter, Gershwin or Kern, but to the declare “The End of Jazz” and to relegate it to the status of a “relic” is an uninformed and just plain wrong and its assertion does little to enlighten the conversation.