dirty four-letter words.
In writing some program notes for a March 19th Merkin Hall performance by pianist-composer Vijay Iyer (duets with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, tabla player Suphala, and pianist Amina Claudine Myers), I clicked onto Iyer's website, which led me to an essay he'd written for www.allaboutjazz.com.
The allaboutjazz site is notoriously uneven, regularly blending real criticism and news with posts by paid publicists (they really ought to distinguish one from the other, don't you think?) but, as for Iyer, his writing is as consistently honest, rhythmic, and deep as his music. And though this piece gets a bit misty-eyed toward the end, it's full of thoughtful and personal considerations of some stuff that's been on my mind for a long time (some excerpts follow, but try reading it in full):
...most of us on the jazz 'scene' actually inhabit multiple scenes, with varying relationships to what is called jazz....
Not long ago, I went through a phase when I was ready to jettison the term entirely. I'd heard none other than Abbey Lincoln remark, "A lot of musicians on the scene now think they're playing jazz. But there's no such thing, really." (cf. Fred Moten, In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003, Univ. of Minnesota Press), p. 22-23) I found myself entertaining that very possibility and said so in public. But after receiving some sharp feedback from certain individuals whom I hold in high regard, I began to realize what the stakes were and was led to rethink my rejection of the word....
Eventually I understood Ms. Lincoln's statement not as a dismissal, but as a strategic oppositional stance. Needless to say, there is a vast legacy of knowledge associated with jazz, which we in this community understand and cherish more than anyone else; and meanwhile, jazz history is entwined with American race politics, a fact that gets whitewashed in the music textbooks (as if there were "no such thing"), but is vividly conveyed through oral histories (see, eg, Art Taylor's Notes and Tones (1982/1993), Da Capo Press). Ms. Lincoln's utterance captures the tension at the heart of jazz' legacy.
I keep finding more people unreasonably eager to circumvent the word "jazz", its associations and the entire history that it represents. Young musicians with jazz-school pedigrees proudly label their work as punk, emo, soul, classical, experimental, electronica, funk, hiphop, shoegaze, screamo--anything but jazz. Established venues, labels and publications grow resistant to the genre and refuse to touch it. Suddenly jazz starts to feel like a bad word. When and how did this music become something to get beyond, around or away from?
Iyer's piece reminded me of one I wrote a few years ago for The Village Voice, at the urging of the beloved and sorely missed Bob Christgau, on the idea of "crossover" as applied to jazz.
I'll miss Iyer's Merkin show, as I'll still be here in New Orleans, trying to get my head around traditional jazz and jazz tradition and the ongoing story of an American city that birthed both or nurtured them in formative stages at least or something like that, anyway.
I've been thinking lately that, between the sorts of things Iyer addressed in his essay essay -- the musical, interdisciplinary, and entrepreneurial creativity flowing in New York and elsewhere -- and the ways in which I'm seeing traditional jazz marshaled in the service of political opposition and activism in New Orleans, there really may be a meaningful way to come anew to the term "jazz" and what it can mean today: The existential and semantic dilemma Iyer discusses in his piece is one that has puzzled and intrigued me for more than a decade now, and I'm only recently trying to deal with again (part of the reason I quit a very good editing gig was my fundamental ambivalence toward a magazine whose masthead contained the word "jazz" in any construction - its signification, as well as its insignificance to the larger culture).
There's more to say on that... but not now, not yet.
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