Text: Jukkis Uotila
What will happen to the tradition of jazz music in the future?
Noticing the cultural changes in the global music world in recent years, I’ve often wondered what will happen to the precious values of the African–American music tradition, namely the music we call jazz.
European musicians and pedagocic music institutions have already for years mixed their jazz with influences from a variety of ethnic music styles, mainstream popular music and classical music. These often visionary combinations of musical influences have been able to interest new audiences in a way that the traditional American jazz has unfortunately not, almost creating a demand for a new definition for the musical style. The phenomenon is somewhat questionable. The resulting musical expression usually borrows only the superficial elements of each style and simplifies the expressive devices down to the lowest common denominator. My personal concern is that we have crucially given up some of our precious values and diluted the essence, the African-American element, in the process.
The tradition of jazz music, the very substance of it, is an incredibly rich and multi-layered weave of musical elements, highly sophisticated techniques and expressive devices that embodies a rare cultural treasure in the history of humankind. Jazz musicians have in time developed a highly advanced and unique language of improvisational communication, a tradition that does not exist in any other musical style. I feel that by giving validity to simplified, almost naive, ways of musical communication within the jazz idiom, we have opened the door to populistic phenomena that I fear will eventually wipe out the whole tradition off the face of the earth. Mastering the art form of jazz requires many years of practice. Who would want to deepen his or her expression any further, if universal appreciation, fame and fortune can be achieved for less?
A large part of the music, that today is labeled jazz, bears no resemblance to the way I define the word. The sound of jazz today seems to be largely devoid of the rhythmic synchronisation and musical communication of the styles of the past. Young musicians usually only scratch the surface of the knowledge of Charlie Parker’s tradition, they’re not in command of the tonal jazz language and their expressive concept does not remind me of the African sensuality that’s so essential for the music. Many of my American colleagues express this concern by simply saying: ”Nobody swings anymore!”
It’s obvious that many European jazz musicians would disagree.
The sound of Jazz in Europe has been radically different since 1960s. The requisite and definition of swing have always been different here. As we approached the 1970s, it really seemed like there was a valid style, sort of a new dialect of the jazz language developing in Europe. Some musicians have later been known to have acknowledged the validity of a new European improvisational musical style without calling it jazz. I think this is very unethical. First of all, I don’t feel a new musical style really exists, because the substance of what all European improvising musicians do still comes more or less from the tradition of jazz music. Adding new elements to a value base does not necessarily alter the quintessential substance that should be recognised for what it is. And, second, I almost feel that the renunciation of the obvious black African-American root element in the expression that all of us jazz musicians use can be seen as a form of neo-colonialism perhaps even a form of racism?
Despite our very different personalities and stylistic emphasis in our jazz, there is no denying the tradition of black music in all you and I do. The rhythmic expression, the phrasing, the multilevel understanding of time-feel synchronisation and the musical communication that we use all stem from the African-American musical background. Even the melodic-harmonic concept, that we express ourselves with is uniquely a jazz innovation. European classical music was an important source for harmony and form, yet the concept of tonality in jazz music is totally unique in its design. There is no way around these facts. However, the European institutions and media pay very little attention to this. Why shouldn’t we give credit where it’s due?
I think European jazz musicians of the present era have seized the opportunity and jumped the gun a little bit. The inevitable global dilution of the original African-American jazz values has opened the door to the kind of expression that the European musicians find more natural. This has led to a stronger presence of the European artists in jazz, a very positive phenomenon from our perspective. Some European musicians may feel it as a relief that the black tradition is not a required trait in jazz anymore. But people can get carried away with this. I recently saw a musician interviewed in a TV documentary where he named the country’s folklore as the strongest influence in his music. He then went on to describe all kinds of visions of the landscapes and moods. But when he started to play, the sound that came out of his keyboard and sampled loops bore more resemblance to a watered down copy of Herbie’s Headhunters in the 70s! Where does the need for this false pretense come from? Who encourages it? Why can’t musicians admit the influence of the black tradition? Do the media and fans want to hear them say that they invented it all themselves? What is this?
The need to be recognised is an intrinsic trait in all artists and some degree of calculated self-promotion to achieve that recognition is understandable. My feeling, though, is that the creative jazz artists globally have gone too far in their need for attention, and may have lowered the standards in their haste. I see this happening on two different levels; first, trying to please people by jumping in on short-sighted populistic trends and second, trying to get respect from other music contingents (classical, ethnic music) by mixing in elements from their genres. I do give credit for the innovative fusions of different styles (let’s not forget, that’s what jazz originally is!), but what I have a problem with are the performers without substantial background who are claiming acceptance by adding just enough of jazz to their modest work. Popularity aside, as these factions have gained respect from the jazz community, they’ve become empowered and have gradually started to change the general aesthetic. In other words, it’s suddenly OK to sound mediocre, because the community is afraid to take a stand in fear of being left out of the bigger picture. I know this may sound like the old jazz police talking, but I’m truly worried about the future of the art form I so dearly love. I think that teaching the tradition to our students and demanding the high level of artistry and communicative skills from our peers, are important ways to keep the music and our musical values alive.
Like all arts, there is no denying that jazz music has always been an elitist form of expression. There is not a way in this day and age that we could make it fully accessible without losing an integral part of the artistic substance. We simply can’t can compete with popular music on an equal footing because our music requires a much more detailed understanding and concentration from our listeners. There was a campaign in Finland some time ago, titled ”The arts belong to everybody”. As a general humanistic idea, this sounds wonderful. But the fact is that art can only belong to those who are willing to approach and digest the artistic experience. And art can be created only by artists who have the necessary skills and vision to create something that can be considered an artistic statement. A mere craftsman or an enthusiastic amateur will not qualify. If we lower ourselves to create ”art that can belong to everybody”, we’ll simply become entertainers and clowns. I’d hate to see our music come to that. The big crowds can be a dream, sure, but at the risk of being called elitist, I still hope that jazz musicians will retain their respect for the rich jazz tradition. I’m convinced it’s the only way we will have a future for this music.
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The writers' thoughts and opinions are personal, and do not represent those of the Finnish Jazz Federation's Board, employees or member organizations.