Has Jazz Lost Its African-American Core?

OK, I have something I want to talk about.

Over the past five or six years, I’ve noticed a marked change of direction in many young jazz pianists. Please keep in mind that for the purposes of this article, I’m only referring to jazz pianists, but in many ways it includes other instruments as well.

I guess the place for me to begin is to define the word “jazz”–well, I’m not going to tackle that one just yet.

You see, there seems to be a moving away from swing and spontaneous improvisation. I recently spoke with Billy Childs about the issue and he feels, as I do, that it is a musical movement of players leaning towards European elements and not traditional African American elements.

It seems that the feeling of the blues has been diminished and many of these young players in reality sound more like classical players. In listening to various solo piano performances, this is quite apparent.

Now don’t get me wrong, I LOVE classical music. But when it comes to jazz, it seems to me that somewhere in a performance one needs to acknowledge it’s heritage either directly or indirectly.

Now jazz at it’s core is a brothel music, it was born in the whore houses of New Orleans. The music was upbeat, fun, danceable and at the same time technically challenging, but most importantly it was born of a free spirit!

Now this is important, because many young jazz pianists sound like they have rehearsed everything down to the last sixteenth note. And even if they haven’t, it feels that way. Most of the playing I’ve heard is virtually mistake free.

But something is missing! I have to look hard to find that free expression of emotion, living on a tight rope, experimenting, trying difficult passages and maybe not totally executing it correctly but making the attempt.

I’ve always felt that Miles Davis’ blown notes were part of his musical canvas. If he played all the notes spot on, would his music have felt the same–I doubt it!

And if that’s true, then perfection must be overrated, at least as far as jazz is concerned.

Yeah I know, I can hear it now–“the pursuit of perfection is a noble quest for any artist.” That’s true –but when technique becomes more important than telling a musical story or surfing the wave of spontaneous thought, then I believe it is a misguided quest.

Technique is and always will be a means to an end and not an end in itself! Technique is important in allowing an artist to more easily express ideas, giving flexibility of thought and the freedom to execute more difficult and complex passages. BUT THE TECHNIQUE IS NOT THE MUSIC!

So, it’s a long way to come from playing in an early, raw New Orleans environment to Carnegie Hall –and jazz being recognized in that way is a great achievement. But back in the day, even at Carnegie Hall, the players did not forget where they came from and were not afraid to keep it real and pay respect to the blues.

Now I’m not saying that this trend towards Europeanism (is that a word?) is necessarily wrong, I’m just making an observation and wondering why?

I realize that trends in jazz will change –that’s the essence of what jazz is, and change and inclusion are what a creative musician uses to create an environment. But why the move away from traditional African American musical values?

Now at times I’ve heard some of these players play the blues, and it’s quite apparent that they don’t have a clue how to do it. The blues is a feeling and attitude. In my playing it is at the core of everything I do, so when young players abandon that, it’s almost like they are abandoning a large part of what I love about jazz.

I guess it’s where I personally would like to see the music go or not go. To move more towards European Classical elements, while a noble endeavor, leaves me feeling that jazz may go the way of Classical music and only be heard in symphony halls or used as elevator music or melodies in pop tracks or only heard and loved by a small group of admirers.

The blues at its’ best (like gospel) is raw and free, and mad technical expertise has little to do with it! On the other hand there is nothing I love more than a beautiful melody played very eloquently, but somewhere that rawness, or as Quincy Jones calls it–those grits (that hot sauce–that bacon grease) –have to make an appearance on the stove.

This year I toured mostly with Stanley Clarke. Every night we ended the show with a blues. The blues is important! Along with its’ counterparts work songs, gospel and spirituals, the blues is what got black people through a horrific time in history.

You know maybe that’s it. Even though I didn’t experience slavery, my mom and dad did, so I had that direct connection to the gut feeling of the blues and its’ musical predecessors–in reality it is a direct connection to the past through a musical tradition. For me, that feeling tells the story and displays the soul of my people.

On the other hand, I don’t believe one necessarily needs to personally experience the American black scenario in order to enjoy, understand or play the blues! One just needs the interest, gift and effort put forth to learn what makes it work. I’ve seen BB King play in Europe to an all white audience and believe me, they eat it up! I’ve also seen white players from Holland play the bottom out of a blues. There is a huge audience for the blues in Europe–now did they experience slavery?

I guess what I’m saying is I’m feeling a historical disconnect between these new crop of young jazz players and their predecessors. Maybe I’m just getting old and beginning to sound like the older musicians I encountered when I was a pup.

But still in the end, it’s up to the individual jazz musician –there just doesn’t seem to be the interest in that type of feeling anymore or they would learn how to play it and include it in their arsenal. Maybe they feel that it is too simplistic or commercial. But to the contrary, that tradition is FAR from commercial, in fact it is the exact opposite.

What makes and made jazz was the combination of African American and European elements. To me the music works best when it contains both. In affect it is integration. When the elements are segregated, neither work as well under the umbrella and definition of Jazz.

So now, what is Jazz?

Stanley Clarke and I had a talk about this. As Stanley sees it, jazz is an undefined term. It was fairly definable early on, but has since become whatever the musician, listener, concert or radio programmer defines it to be.

I personally subscribe to the Duke Ellington philosophy, “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” As far reaching as Duke’s music was, he loved the blues and understood its’ importance to jazz. Keep in mind that when I say “the blues” I’m not referring to a song form, I’m referring to a long succession of musical feelings and ideas dating back to Africa.

So again, what is Jazz–I know what it ain’t!

I do know that jazz is an attitude that has the blues at it’s core. It is at it’s best mostly spontaneous. That is what separates it from other music. Jazz musicians are spontaneous composers versed in the art of theme and variations, counterpoint wizards, rhythmic voodoo doctors, melodic swans, harmonic oceans, creating what has yet to be created, constantly searching, assimilating and birthing a new music child.

So, in the end whether these young players are really playing jazz based on this definition is debatable. Whether they are good players is undeniable. Whether it matters is also a point for discussion.

Now I’ve been accused many times of not playing jazz and that’s probably true from a narrow traditional standpoint –I’ve been dismissed as a player by many major jazz publications and critics for this very thing. However, compared to these new breed of “classical/jazz” players, I don’t know about that!

Whether I play straight ahead, funk, r&b, latin, pop or gospel–styles are irrelevant–the majority of my music has jazz elements: spontaneous, mostly improvised, and has the blues and gospel at its’ core. On that level, I’m more of a jazz player than many I hear today!

In case you think I’m being too hard on these guys, let me tell you that I’ve heard some incredible young jazz pianists who really know how to play and are doing it, what I feel, is the right way.

And I’m not trying to control jazz, the mere idea is a ridiculous notion. Jazz was born of a free mind and hopefully will remain that way!

And in the end that is my main concern–keeping the freedom in the music!! The real musician needs to be free to create what needs creating.

I could care less what this critic or that critic says, what this publication or that publication says. Though I believe that many want to, they don’t control the music, the musician does!

There are too many non-musicians deciding what musicians should do. In a nutshell that’s what’s wrong with the business! And even worse, these musicians are listening to these folk.

In many ways, I think this is what’s happened to many of these young pianists –they’ve been influenced by non-musicians. Now it’s OK for these business people to offer an opinion, but it seems to me, especially in jazz, that the musician must be given the final right of refusal.

But, as fate would have it, the musician has given up too much power and as result there is too much music being made today that is contrived and totally controlled. The internet has become a great equalizer in this fight.

It’s wonderful to have a medium that cherishes musical freedom. That is what I always loved about jazz and what I don’t want to see lost in its’ evolution.

As I said before, style of music is irrelevant! The important message is the freedom of creativity and thought. Building on what came before and taking that idea to new levels. That’s the only way the music will truly evolve and become an extension of what came before.

Yeah, I know this is a wide open subject with a lot of opinions on all sides. I just thought I would put it out there-what do you think?

GEORGE DUKE is a jazz/funk/R&B keyboardist. His most recent cd is In a Mellow Tone (Bizarre Planet). He can be reached through his website: http://www.georgeduke.com/corner.html