Friday, November 9, 2012

The End of Jazz is Greatly Exaggerated: A Response to Benjamin Schwarz's Atlantic article " The End of Jazz"

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 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, , 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.


  1. It sounds to me like both Goia and Schwarz make valid points and that both may be equally right (leave either-or thinking to Tea Partiers and reductive politics). Journalists have to make a few generalizations or hyperbolic overstatements with headline potential for the sake of catching readers' attention (all the more so with the gradually disappearing hard-copy press). All Schwartz is doing is putting into perspective what was an age distinguished by unusual creativity, a period lasting no more than 4 decades (at most). (I think his real point is that we can't afford to take the flourishing time and its creative accomplishment for granted.)

    I too would have to question "Lush Life" as some sort of landmark or quintessential composition. Ahead of "All the Things You Are" and "Body and Soul"? For one thing, "Lush Life" presents little opportunity for improvisation. Moreover, it feels a bit like cheating. 32-bar song form might be thought of in terms of the 14 line, iambic pentameter sonnet form, which produced Shakespeare's, and the English language's, greatest poetry. Had Shakespeare added a bunch of extra lines to those poems, I suspect their singular place would be threatened at best.

    Anyway, everyone has their own list of favorite composers. When I did a countdown of the top baker's dozen on a radio show, I had Ellington/Strayhorn in 6th place. The top spot was a close call between Cole Porter and Rodgers/Hart/Hammerstein. But like John Coltrane, I was finally compelled to give it to Richard Rodgers ("Have You Met Miss Jone"="Giant Steps"; "Sound of Music" = "My Favorite Things." Rodgers and Coltrane shared a common obsession: the scale. Bird was more like Gershwin, since bebop is a language of individual "cells," or formulae and motifs.

    My final list, I now realize, was highly flawed. For one thing, I forgot to include Harry Warren, the guy you mention. (I did get Jimmy Van Heusen, however, which would have pleased, above all, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Bill Evans.)

    Both writers clearly must accept a fact that seems to be lost on many, including those who bestow grant money and contribute to Ken Burns documentaries: jazz and the American Songbook have always had a symbiotic relationship. You wouldn't have had one music without the other. It's time for Burns to do a 20 episode (minimally) series on the Great American Songbook and the composers (primarily Jewish-Americans) who are responsible for it. It would no doubt be as compelling as his previous series on jazz 12 years back.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful response Sam. I know it takes a little hyperbole to make people read anything these days, but I respectively disagree with Mr. Schwarz's simplified conclusions. Your idea about a documentary on the Songbook and its composers is one that has a lot of appeal especially in this day and age when reading anything over 200 words is considered an egregiously unproductive waste of one's time, but that is grist for another mill.

  3. Al H was unable to post so here is his comment that hopefully further illuminated the conversation :

    As a consumer of the music, far less educated then Ralph or Sam, I have to say I agree with Ralph. The Songbook contains brilliant pieces and I still derive immense enjoyment from listening to modern and older interpretations of these songs. Like all good art, the composers wrote words and music whose message is timeless. Like all good art, however, jazz has evolved and continued to grow. It is far from dead. Sadly, the audience for this art may be smaller then it was 30 or 50 years ago but that is not inconsistent with other niche entertainment options as our choices for consumption of entertainment content has exploded over the past 15 years or so. Perhaps, interpreting the “new songbook” of more modern classics, as Ralph suggests, is part of the answer. The 2009 Herbie Hancock work, The Imagine Project, where modern classics by Dylan, Lennon and others interpreted in an accessible fashion is a case in point.

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