US remains jazz central

Jazz is global, but its most ambitious players still flock to the US to soak in its roots and prove they’re part of the scene. Tonight a Parisian septet called Fractale wraps up an eight-gig tour of the States at the Drom in the East Village, after stops in New Orleans, Cleveland and Chicago. From December 3 to 6 Spanish pianist Chano Domínguez & his Flamenco Quintet bring its commissioned “The Flamenco Side of Kind of Blue” to the Jazz Standard to assert that the Barcelona Jazz Festival (in which they premiere the work on November 12) has something to do with the Big Apple. Next February the Portland Jazz Festival explores the theme “Is Jazz Dead (Or Has It Moved To A New Address?).” But incontrovertible evidence suggests that however far the sound has spread, those who matter know where jazz calls home.

The Portland Fest’s theme, meant to introduce a slew of Norweigan artists to a northwest audience, is taken from British author and academic Stuart Nicholson‘s dumb book purporting that our vernacular idiom-turned-art form, born some hundred years ago from America’s urban cultural mix of blacks, whites, yellows, browns, oranges and zebras, has faded away due to the neo-conservative aesthetic of Wynton Marsalis dominating American jazz education. Nicholson’s ridiculous premise was backed up by no visit to the U.S., no note of the many streams of jazz issuing from this country that have nothing to do with Marsalis, and the author’s determination to ignore the continued sway of American jazz icons living or dead upon anyone seriously interested in making a mark on the evolving tradition. In fact, tonight Wynton Marsalis will become a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, accepting the prestigious recognition of civilian merit established by Napoleon in 1802. Say what you will about Marsalis’s music, he has done his utmost to represent American jazz in every land on Earth.
While a glance at this week’s New York Times jazz listings reveals a marvelous array of music derived from sources as disparate as Chilean singer-songwriters, Afro-Cuban rhythms, Brazilian samba and tropicalia, South Asian heritage, Belgian gypsy swing and Icelandic pop divas, there can be no doubt that the two dozen acts Nate Chinen has highlighted (a fraction of what’s happening here this weekend) could only be found performing over the course of one non-festival week in New York City, New York State, USA, North America.
Why do jazz musicians look to the States for validation? Ask alto saxophonist-composer-bandleader Julian Julien, who spent six months planning the visit of Fractale, which lists among its main influences Frank Zappa, Moondog, Keith Jarrett and Tom Waits. I had a hard time catching up with him — no one traveling with the band could understand my English over the phone — so we resorted to email exchanges. He wrote:

US have been instinctively way more open to Fractale music and the idea of having us perform in their clubs, whereas in France, it is a little slower for them to go for it and book us…American people (professional, the audience, local bands…) are very kind, open and welcoming. We even jammed with some of the musicians that we met, it was delightful. There are a lot of interactions; we met a lot of new people. That’s what we like about this country.

What surprised him most about the U.S.?

The fact that everything is so much bigger than in France and the warm welcome we had everywhere we went.

Does he want to come back?


I have never encountered a musician playing jazz or anything like it from outside our borders who doesn’t care about acceptance here. Every jazz festival the world over wants coverage in US periodicals, inviting writers and photographers from the States to enjoy gracious hospitality so that we will bring news of their musical activities back to the people in the place where it all began. That the 41st Voll-Damm Barcelona International Jazz Festival, which comprises essentially one concert a night in various venues from October 31 through November 27, sees fit to book Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Cobb, Cassandra Wilson, Joe Lovano, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Bela Fleck, Omar Sosa, Maria Schneider, Brad Mehldau, Marcus Miller, Allen Toussaint, Joel Harrison-Christian Howe, Tortoise, Chick Corea and Gary Burton as its headliners demonstrates the allure of American music and the depth that what’s so loosely called “jazz” sustains on American soil. That the Barcelona fest believes it needs to schedule Chano Dominguez and his Flamenco Quintet into a Manhattan barbeque restaurant-bar-music room in order to make a splash shows that no, jazz isn’t dead and its address is just like always. 

Maybe some near-sighted pundits have misplaced the contact numbers, but musicians, fest organizers and aficionados all over know where to look for the heart and soul and DNA of the music. Jazz can be taken out of America — it can go on international voyages, start foreign affairs, put down stakes, breed, establish communities abroad, evolve to match local conditions, root itself so that other countries have their own creative geniuses and prospering scenes.  But you can’t take America out of jazz.
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  1. says

    Hi Howard
    I certainly wouldn’t want to take America out of jazz and I know that you recognise the contributions that non-Americans are making to today’s jazz. But I thought that you might be interested to hear about something I posted in my blog at about a Jazzwise magazine article by Stuart Nicholson on some Norwegian musicians.
    He cited a newspaper article as evidence that ‘They [Wesseltoft and Molvaer] even caused reverberations in the home of jazz itself, ‘Europeans Cut In With a New Jazz Sound And Beat’ said a major feature in The New York Times in 2001.’
    What he didn’t get around to mentioning was who wrote that piece. A search of the NYT archive confirmed my feeling that it was, and I’m sure you can guess, Stuart Nicholson himself.
    Keep up the good work