All what jazz?

With another Brecon Jazz announced (you can’t keep a decent festival down), I’ve been pondering the nature of these good-time events. Jazz takes so many forms these days that it’s a wonder the old keepers of its essential purity aren’t drowned out. Let me re-phrase that. So much variety passes itself off as jazz (and is written up in jazz magazines) that one wonders if a definition is any longer possible. Beginners in philosophy are taught how its lines of inquiry became so specialised that they separated into biology, mathematics, physics, psychology, anthropology and others. Even logic, the basis of philosophical consideration, is now virtually a science in its own right. But this proliferation hasn’t drained pure philosophy of its reason for existence. Philosophy still asks the same questions and comes up with a myriad of answers, none of them necessarily conclusive.

The analogy can be made with jazz in a different way. In all the forms of the music widely accepted as such and derived from what had preceded them (not evolved in the strict sense – that would imply improvement), there is some common, easily-recognised element. Don’t ask me to spell out what it is. To paraphrase Louis Armstrong, if you can’t identify it instinctively you’ll never be taught to do so. But whereas philosophy is still an immoveable subject and continues to deal with subject-matter destined to be hived off into specialism, jazz has no pure, definitive character – unless you want to adduce its polyphonic, orchestral New Orleans form and the elements which gave rise to it as such. Do you listen to that and eschew everything else? Of course not.

Jazz at the start of the 20th century was not something that could be prevented from changing, unless a musical dictator (with a committee) assessed every outgrowth and allowed it to flower or sliced it off at birth. That would be a nonsense, and the old schism dividing traditional from modern was a silly species of it. However, the fractious factions had a point similar to the one employed by holders of brand copyright. Parma ham can only be called that if its production conforms to officially-agreed criteria. They can be easily stated, even if there is temporary debate over details. Of course, this would be an issue of concern only to people making money out of Parma ham production and seeking to protect themselves from unfair competition or fake items.

Surely jazz is above this low material issue. I recall a fatuous spat in the 1950s when one ‘trad’ band introduced a guitar and an alto sax as well as the de rigueur banjo and clarinet. Their critics were idiots who knew nothing about how kaleidoscopic jazz was before it was given a name; in fact, it wasn’t an entity, it was a bunch of discrete elements. Instead of buttressing some silly, rigid definition they should have embraced change. A slice of Parma ham that doesn’t quite meet set bureaucratic standards can still taste just as good and may even be regarded by some as an improvement.

I’m half-tempted to say that the issue in jazz is all to do with labels. If we didn’t expect a style of music to conform to some vague description, we wouldn’t be so prejudiced about it. But dropping the label opens the proverbial floodgates. We’d then have to assess whether or not we were listening to an acceptable offshoot of something genuine and basic rather than accept or reject by offering a template. Everything ‘new’ must come from something ‘old’ or ‘older’. And that’s the real difficulty.

As a classical music critic as well as a jazz correspondent (more labels), I’m intrigued by the lack of partisanship at symphony concerts and how it compares with differences of opinion about what is and what isn’t jazz. ’Classical’ is a precise term in music, loosely circumscribed by date and historical period. But a concert of Bartok, Walton and Stravinsky is still described as ‘classical’. There is a division between ‘classical’ (in its narrower sense) and contemporary, between old and new. However, no-one describes Harrison Birtwistle’s music as not belonging to some pre-ordained category, even if it is beyond the listener’s love and understanding. It’s not rejected because it doesn’t conform; it’s rejected because – for the moment – it doesn’t sound right. This is a subtle difference that may be lost on many, but it’s relevant. It may be something to do with milieu, the concert hall, the reverential nature in which music is listened to in silence by people dressed conservatively for an occasion.

‘New’ in jazz began, if that’s the right verb, in the 1940s. Anyone with only a slight grasp of musicality could see where it had arisen. Be-boppers broke away from something and took elements of the old with them, even if what resulted eventually seemed miles away. Here we are talking not about change per se but about its abruptness. We can’t do anything about that, though no doubt our dictator and his committee would. In every decade since, the ‘new’ or the ‘new-ish’ has appeared as part of the innate avoidance of stagnation. You can’t go on playing in the same (old) way unless you want to perpetuate a past style in live rather than recorded form. To do that you have to be good, as Scott Hamilton and others are good. Not that new modes are new because they need to be (that also) but because they arise naturally from what’s gone before.

Even these admittedly liberal views have in the past few years run up against a plethora of acts that make me think again about the old categories. I don’t mean jazz festivals that cynically include non-jazz players but new acts who are proclaimed as jazz musicians yet perform in what is to me an unrecognisable jazz style. It can’t be a case of their having rushed to be included under the jazz umbrella knowing they don’t deserve shelter by any definition; there are easier ways of making money in the music business than through jazz. Post-modernism might be to blame – the idea that anything goes; or rather, anything should go and it’s up to jazz fans to elasticate the boundaries they once thought fixed. I’m inclined to be charitable and say that we are being asked to look harder for jazz content on the assumption that something wouldn’t be presented as jazz if its wasn’t. This year, my patience has been tried. Perhaps jazz now applies only to the sort of music on re-issued records and one is forced to recognise a long-gone heyday. I hope not, because a lot of the new stuff is eminently worthy. The old jazz has been madly spawning. Who will rescue it, strip it of its predicates, and be philosophical about its integrity?

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