A Video History of Jazz, Part 12: What’s Next?

I don’t have much to offer by way of predictions. Most of the time I have given to thought about jazz has been spent reflecting on past achievements, not analyzing the current state of affairs or looking forward to the next phase.

If my attitude is typical of a modern musician, then it may contain a clue that jazz will not see another major movement. It has reached a point of equilibrium, at which its spirit of progress is counterweighted by its attachment to tradition. A musical style grows and changes during the period in which it is defined, but once it achieves an identity, it becomes self-limiting.

In conversations with friend and bassist Carl Johnson, I used to lament the fact that jazz combos cannot find decent audiences, and often have trouble even finding places to play. I blamed the listening audience. Live music of any type is dying, largely because the average club-goer doesn’t seem to value the experience of watching live performances; this is made no better by the fact that most club-goers are not likely to have any active interest in jazz. Carl challenged me with the question, “If the average person thinks jazz is self-indulgent wanking, then what are jazz musicians doing to show them otherwise?”

A few months of this back-and-forth, and I became quite convinced that jazz may be as irrelevant as we fear. We may continue listening to it and performing it, and there will still be a small audience for it, as there is for every style ever created. But its vitality is on the wane, and looks to remain so indefinitely.

Jazz isn’t the only type of music that seems to stagnate as it becomes more self-reflective. Classical music sustains itself entirely within the confines of academia. And metal, as young as it is, even seems to have reached a point where its most die-hard proponents are scratching their heads, wondering, “What now?”

Those of us who still love America’s greatest art form might as well not stress ourselves over the failure of others to share our love. We continue to enjoy new artists as they come. Currently, I’m a fan of Kurt Rosenwinkel and Brad Mehldau. And some new acts even manage to give us something truly new.

The Bad Plus are a trio of piano, bass, and drums — the most fundamental combo in jazz. Their instrumentation creates sonic textures that are undeniably reminiscent of jazz throughout history, but their creative approach is something I have not seen. They are known for their reworkings of rock hits like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Iron Man,” and their original compositions are jerky, polyphonic head trips. Pianist Ethan Iverson has a gift for extreme right/left hand independence, and applies it in creating solos that are never mere strings of bebop passages, but explorations of texture. I can think of no better sign-off to my series on jazz than this selection from their debut album. Stop everything for a few minutes and just listen.

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