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Friday, April 13, 2007

American jazz: still not dead

Posted By on 04.13.07 at 05:49 PM

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An essay by British critic Stuart Nicholson caught my eye as I was leafing through the March 2007 issue of the British jazz magazine Jazzwise. It suggests that the days of American jazz musicians riding Europe’s gravy train may be coming to an end. Many American jazz musicians rely on the European circuit to make a living, but with the growing popularity of the European scene, which has forged its own take on jazz over the last couple of decades, Americans are finding fewer gigs, and promoters are beginning to balk at the fees demanded by their booking agents (to cover travel expenses and so forth).

Nicholson is the guy who ruffled a lot of feathers (and prompted a withering comeback by Kevin Whitehead in this paper) back in 2001 with a New York Times article (registration required)—which he also spun into a his contribution to the book The Future of Jazz—that essentially declared that American jazz was dead and that the future belonged to Europeans mixing electronica and jazz. So I paid my ten bucks and picked up the mag to read the new piece . . . which goes on to rehash his claim that virtually all American jazz is a nostalgic retread of hard bop. That irked me enough that I finally read his 2005 book, the ludicrously titled Is Jazz Dead (or Has it Moved to a New Address)?

The two of them together make me surer than ever that Nicholson—a veteran writer with nearly ten books to his credit—is a clueless hack. He’s been regurgitating this Europe vs. America spew for at least seven years now--just about every quote in the Jazzwise piece was from the book. The frequency of egregious factual errors in the book would be enough to discredit him: he says the great German bassist Peter Kowald was Dutch, he identifies French musique concrete pioneer Pierre Schaeffer as Paul Schaeffer, and he claims Chicagoan Ken Vandermark won a “Guggenheim Genius award” (meaning his MacArthur grant), among others.

Nicholson has created this trans-Atlantic battle using selective evidence, and his certainty that Europe is winning is bolstered by his deep ignorance of what’s really going on in the US. He prattles on about the negative consequences of Wynton Marsalis’s doctrinaire take on jazz and the homogenizing effects of American jazz education—both fair, if tired points—but he presents nothing else to support the idea that we're in a tailspin over here, and citing groups like the where-are-they-now jazz-house group St. Germain and the vacuous Swedish trio E.S.T. doesn’t exactly help his case that Europe is on fire. His conclusion is that American jazz is doomed unless the government starts subsidizing it, stat!  Since we know that ain’t gonna happen, we’ll just have to cross our fingers. America has managed to support a creative musical engine for a century without subsidies, and though I'd love to see piles of money given over to the arts, I think we’ll continue to manage OK without it. 

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