The Group: Presentation Notes
These were my notes for a presentation to The Group, an ad hoc
"left-leaning" women's group in Wichita, KS. I was the middle speaker
on a November 27, 2011 program on Jazz and Politics organized by
Alice Powell. Up first was jazz singer Ruth Olay, who played and
talked about a couple of her 1960s records. Following me was Craig
Owens, a music professor at Wichita State University and president
Wichita Jazz Festival. He played two tunes with saxophonist
Bill Campbell, talked about the history and future plans of WJF,
and tried to drum up some money.
I ad libbed from the following notes, redoing the intro completely,
reading and sometimes expanding upon the second section. Alice cut me
off before I could get to the third (or, more precisely, rescued me).
I want to briefly cover three things here:
- Who I am, and what I'm doing here talking about jazz.
- A very brief outline of the history of jazz.
- A few thoughts on the current state of jazz.
I have no background in music. I've never played an instrument. I was
a straight C student in music up to 8th grade: I couldn't sing -- in fact,
kids used to threaten me if I did anything more than lip synch -- and I
hated everything about classical music. I bought some rock records, but
was at most a casual consumer until I got to college around 1971-73.
There, I edited an underground paper, and people kept bugging me to
write music pieces -- most were terrible, but I found myself enjoying
the research to tear them apart. After I dropped out, I stopped reading
philosophy and such and read nothing but rock criticism for a couple
years, as my own LP collection grew by leaps and bounds. And I wrote
some of my own. In particular, I wrote a review of a book by Robert
Christgau where I basically said: anyone can review rock records --
look, even I can do it. On a lark, I sent some of that stuff in, and
Christgau wrote back and asked me to write for his paper, The
Village Voice. I wrote a few reviews, moved to New York, wrote
a few more, but never made an effort to make a career out of it.
By 1980 I was done, but by then I had expanded into blues and jazz
and country and reggae and even a little 20th century post-classical
(minimalism and electronics), and I was starting to get interested
in African and Afro-Latin music.
In the early 1990s I started to go back and systematically fill
in the holes I had missed. This was partly because everything old
was being reissued on CD at the time, and partly because I didn't
care for decade's new waves: grunge and gangsta. I dug into record
guides, bought whatever looked interesting, and most of that was
jazz. I had picked up some 900 jazz CDs in 1996 when Christgau
asked me to review some jazz compilations. I probably had more
than 2000 in 2004 when Christgau asked me to write a quarterly
Jazz Consumer Guide column. After that, labels started sending
me records, and it's gotten ridiculous. I've written 28 of those
columns over the last seven years, totalling 1000 records, but
I've probably listened to four times that many records -- so
much more that I do a weekly Jazz Prospecting post on my blog
to document the whole sorting process. I also keep a database
of all the records I've heard and rated: 700 blues albums, 1105
country and bluegrass, 613 rap, 465 Africa, 298 reggae. The jazz
total is 9984, and the overall total is 19049.
So, the main reason I'm here is because I've listened to an
awful lot of records.
The following is a very schematic history of jazz:
- Jazz was originally one of several strains of Afro-American music,
along with blues, gospel, and minstrelsy. But jazz was different in
that it revelled in the greater freedom of the city, whereas the other
forms were rooted in slavery and/or sufferance.
- Jazz initially developed out of New Orleans, which was not only
the largest Afro-American city in 1900 but had a peculiar history of
having been settled by the French and ruled by the Spanish with a
more lenient slave code: one result was a much higher share of free
blacks and creoles before 1860; another was the influence of Spanish
forms via Cuba -- the "latin tinge" Jelly Roll Morton declared to be
an essential element of jazz.
- During the 1920s jazz spread from city to city, especially to
Chicago and New York as southern blacks moved north. Kansas City
had a famous scene in the 1930s; Detroit, Philadelphia, and Los
Angeles became important in the 1940s. But with the development
of the record industry in the 1920s jazz spread everywhere, even
- Jazz was popular music, rooted in everyday uses ranging from
dances to funeral marches, and it almost instantly crossed racial
barriers: whites had been listening to and imitating blacks since
before the Civil War. The most popular acts were white -- Paul
Whiteman in the 1920s, Benny Goodman in the 1930s, Glenn Miller
in the early 1940s -- and I don't wish to disrespect them, but
virtually every innovation in jazz up to 1970 was the work of
- This was because jazz was the one arena where Afro-Americans
could advance by pure merit -- most clearly in the cutting contests
which pitted one musician against another: every trumpeter had to
stack up against Louis Armstrong, every pianist to Art Tatum. This
competition spurred innovation, and ultimately split jazz into
- Jazz split into two major streams in the early 1940s: one kept
innovating through bebop and into the avant-garde, becoming more
complex, trickier, and esoteric -- this brought us Charlie Parker,
Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor, the giants of
modern jazz; the other never lost its popular pulse, with Louis
Jordan and Ray Charles evolving from small group swing to rhythm
and blues to rock and roll.
- Jazz was out in front of the civil rights movement. The first
major American institution to be integrated was Benny Goodman's
band. Congress wouldn't legislate against lynching, but Billie
Holiday's "Strange Fruit" ended the era. Jazz at the Philharmonic
was integrated from its first concert in 1944. Louis Armstrong
went on strike as America's Jazz Ambassador to force Eisenhower
to send troops into Little Rock. Charles Mingus followed with
"Fables of Faubus," and Max Roach with "Freedom Now!" Jazz was
also quick to embrace Black Power in many variations, ranging
from Archie Shepp to the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
- Jazz lost popularity in two big thumps: in the late 1940s
when bebop split from swing, and circa 1970 when rock became
hegemonic and most major jazz labels collapsed. Ironically,
at the same moment Miles Davis emerged as rock star with his
fusion brew of funk, electronics, and piercing trumpet. Some
jazz musicians imitated him, but most scattered into niches,
surviving on obscure, mostly European labels.
- One niche led to rap, starting with jazz-based spoken word
artists like the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron.
- Another niche was formed in academia, where George Russell was
the pioneering figure -- probably the most influential jazz musician
you've never heard of. By the mid-1990s the universities supported
hundreds of important jazz musicians and turned out many students
who were fully trained in classical music but see jazz as their
creative pathway. This vast increase in the number of working jazz
musicians has led to a general artistic renaissance, but not much
- As for smooth jazz, it is another niche that mostly spun off in
the 1980s. It enjoys a substantial market including radio support.
I've written about it as some length: wound up calling it "anti-jazz"
because it's so programmed it eliminates any chance for surprise.
A few words about the current jazz scene, as I've been able to observe
it since I started writing Jazz Consumer Guide in 2005.
- As near as I can figure out, there are about 2000 new jazz records
released each year, plus at least 1000 compilations of older jazz.
I've been able to sample about a third of the new releases. Close to
half are self-released, which is very easy to do these days -- some
of those can be dismissed as vanity projects, but many eminent jazz
musicians run their own labels. Virtually all of the rest are on small
labels, at least half based in Europe.
- I've yet to run across any jazz musicians from China, but they
come from virtually everywhere else. They are very cosmopolitan, and
it is fruitless to make assumptions based on nationality, gender, or
anything else. Fewer than half are American: many of those are based
in Europe (which does a better job of supporting artists), and many
Europeans live (or have lived) in the US.
- Jazz has gone postmodern: there is no direction to the avant-garde,
but rather everything that has ever been done is being refined in all
sorts of ways -- sometimes interesting, sometimes not. (I tend to blame
academia for the latter.) Moreover, any combination of musics can be
fused and improvised upon.
- Guitar has become one of the major instruments in jazz -- both as
a lead and in many cases replacing piano for chordal accompaniment --
with no predominant style.
- There are a lot of would-be jazz vocalists, but they split up into
at least a half dozen types, ranging from cabaret singers to variants
of classical art-song.
- Despite the tremendous musical wealth in jazz today, sales are
miniscule -- I'm reminded that Christmas music outsells jazz, which
only adds to my bah humbug mood. Some of the music is difficult and
takes forbearance to sort through, but much of it is accessible, if
only, that is, one can find out about it. The small labels get no
distribution and little press. The names are unfamiliar. There isn't
much radio, let alone TV -- wonder why in a 999 channel world that
should be? -- and print sources are drying up. People still buy old
jazz -- in any given year the best-selling jazz album is likely to
be Kind of Blue. So one thing I've tried to do is to identify
new jazz records that have some kind of breakout appeal. I've been
able to find 50-70 each year, plus many more that are worth hearing
if you're in the mood.
On my website: