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mike zwerin

Jazz: The Future Is Not What It Used To Be

By Mike Zwerin


PARIS, 15 April 2001 - Jazz is in the process of becoming the musica franca, the one language spoken everywhere, a glue in the global village, the musical common denominator; like English. It will not necessarily remain "America's only native art form" forever.

The music is changing and being changed by the music of the world around it. Maintaining cultural exclusivity is difficult with today's fast-moving information technology where everybody everywhere is able to hear everything right - now. As somebody said, "The future is not what it used to be."

The momentum is there, the race is on, a new reality is being talked about in many places - all over the place. The marriage of jazz and the ethnic musics of the world can be seen through many windows.

Bill-topping Turkish percussionist Burhan Ocal revels in what is still seen by many to be political incorrectness. "I am not classical, or folk, or rock or jazz," he is proud to say. "I am just following my instincts." The former Ornette Coleman bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma has teamed up with Ocal to make an album called "Groove alla Turca," a title to be taken literally. It features shuffle beats, funk, odd-metered rock and bebop trumpet mixed with Turkish vocal techniques, a specialty of Ocal's. The music fits Ocal's on-stage outlaw charisma - a sort of cross between an Anatolian rocker and a Swiss gangster (he's been living in Zurich). Tacuma puts it mildly: "Many varieties of ethnic music are in the process of making themselves known to jazz."

Thanks to jazz, musicians from Brooklyn to Capetown and Shanghai, no longer divided by their own individual ethnicities, are able to communicate with each other. More and more non-Americans are studying it. Close to 50% of the students at the largest and most prestigious jazz conservatory, the Berklee College of Modern Music in Boston, were born on foreign shores. There are now university level jazz programs in Istanbul, Porto (Portugal), Lexington (Kentucky) and Paris. And there are jazz schools in Trondheim (Norway) and in Hanoi. The International Association of Jazz Educators conducts larger and more culturally inclusive conventions each year.

Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava has recorded excerpts from the opera "Carmen." Another Turkish percussionist, Ocal's mentor the veteran Okay Temiz, has formed a band he calls "The Black Sea Jazz Orchestra." French guitarist Nguyen Le combines jazz with the traditional music of his native Vietnam. The Russian saxophonist Vladimir Chekasin, who can run chord changes worthy of Cannonball Adderley, blows two reed instruments at the same time like Rahsaan Roland Kirk. At the same time, he avoids uttering the word "jazz" as though it were some sort of contagious disease. Voted the most popular jazzman in the USSR in the 1980s, Chekasin now says "I still do everything the same - but different."

In the future, a film-maker like Ken Burns will no longer be able to justify the subtitle "The Story of America's Music" for a documentary called Jazz. Not that its history will become, in the American sense of the word, "history;" meaning forgotten. With African ancestry and some European elements added, the music has remained African American from Jelly Roll Morton through the Marsalis brothers. That foundation will remain while the superstructure moves and evolves. So be it.

As a strictly "American art form," jazz is beginning to grow fat. Other continents and colors are insisting on a say. There are many more good people playing it now in many more places, but less great ones. Direction is lacking. The fight defending the image of jazz as the smartest branch of popular music around is getting tougher. There's competition, and a brain drain. Talented, motivated young instrumentalists learn to play Brazilian, African and Indian music, among others, as well. Conventional jazz formats - play the line, solo, take the line out - are getting seriously tired.

Americans now learn how to play in the odd meters common to the music of the rest of the world. (Even a waltz used to be "foreign.") While the rest of the world learns altered chords and Miles Davis lines like "Donna Lee." So, although more people are learning how to play it, it sounds different. Record producer Manfred Eicher describes it as "music from the edge. From the Far East or the Far North, for instance." His company ECM Records has been releasing music from the edges of jazz for many years: "Then the edge moves to the center where there are people with good antennas, and it becomes a new central fact." The success of the process is not so obvious to Rafi Zabor, author of the PEN/Faulkner prize-winning jazz novel The Bear Comes Home: "Who knows if the worldwide fluidity of communication will create amazing new opportunities or simply dissipate the essences already preserved in different forms?"

The Tunisian lute virtuoso Anouar Brahem has been teaming up with the jazzmen Dave Holland and John Surman, both British by the way. Listeners in Brahem's own country, however, do not know what to make of his syncopated, 20th century neo-African chamber music. Many Tunisians feel that he is not respecting tradition enough, while he is sure he is extending it. "The Arabic lute tradition had remained basically unchanged for centuries," Brahem says. "Other elements of our culture have been changing very quickly, like everywhere else. People have been forced to adapt to many new things. They want to hold on to some part of their identity. In the past, traditional music has been at least one thing they thought they could count on."

The future of the music is growing out more than up. It may or may not be getting better, but it is getting everywhere. Growth is horizontal more than vertical. There appear to be no more Coltranes on the horizon - no giants with the required combination of humility, strength and intelligence to lead a movement are emerging. On the other hand you can now go to just about any city in the developed world and hear a world-class rhythm section. (Thirty years ago there was only one outside the US, in Paris, and that had an American drummer.)

Carlos Nunez is from Galicia, a region in the northwest corner of Spain. Galicia has an ancient Celtic culture like Scotland, Ireland and Brittany. Nunez plays bagpipes that are cousins to the pipes in those countries. He puts Galician music together with the blues and with flamenco, Arabic, Gypsy and Jewish music from southern Spain. His albums sell platinum, 100,000 copies in Spain. Nunez may be closer to rock than to jazz - one critic wrote that he "plays the pipes like an electric guitar" - but the term "world music" is expanding to become a widely-defined reality as well as an over-simplified marketing tool. "I love it when music is old and modern at the same time," Nunez said. "Isn't it strange how all music is connected somewhere along the line?"

Founder and owner of the independent California-based record company Water Lilly Acoustics, Kavichandran Alexander has produced collaborations between Third World musicians and such extended-definition jazz names as Bela Fleck and Jon Hassell. Putting two new edges together, Alexander, who is of Tamil origin, produced what he described as "the first recording - ever, of Indian and Chinese classical musicians playing together." He also produced one with Iranian and Indian classical musicians together for the first time, ever. Creating this sort of new reality "has more meaning to me than winning a Grammy."

New boundaries are being crossed, and erased. Some ethnic fusions go back to Bela Bartok. There is currently a klezmer revival. Jewish immigrants brought this 400 year old Eastern-European traditional music to America, along with the Yiddish language. Klezmer was born in Odessa, which has been called "the Russian New Orleans." Improvisation plays a central role with klezmer (as it does with jazz, of course). For a time you could dance to both. Benny Goodman was a working klezmer musician before he came to be called "The King of Swing."

Everything is fusing with everything. At the same time, it is important to remember that all branches of what we call Western popular music can be traced back at some time or another to Africa. From tango to rock 'n' roll to flamenco. The complexity at the moment is such that Africa is importing African-based music, re-processing it and re-exporting it. Roots become branches, and the branches grow into new roots.

The well-known American jazz pianist and composer Randy Weston said: "What I like about Africa is its variety. Africa does not start south of the Sahara. There is as much African spirit in Ghana as in Morocco." Weston has concertized with the Moroccan master musicians of Jajouka, and with Gnawas from the southern Sahara. He was invited to a Sufi festival in Egypt, and then he went to Aswan to "spend some time with the Nubians." An enthusiastic supporter, he relates to Africa as though it's all one big home-town: "African music is an enormous tree. It is our past as well as our future. African music is more present in our lives than ever. Blues, samba, calypso, reggae, salsa, jazz - Africa is everywhere."

Music plays an essential social role in West African village life. By the age of seven, Richard Bona was playing weddings, funerals and feasts in his native village in Cameroon on a self-made guitar. When he was 14, he heard that a Frenchman in the nearby town of Douala wanted to start a jazz club. Although he knew next to nothing about jazz, Bona, a fast learner, was recommended. He learned enough listening full-time to the Frenchman's large LP collection to open in three weeks. Later he moved to Paris and, playing bass-guitar now, toured with an international assortment of veteran players like the American Brecker Brothers, Sadao Watanabe from Japan, and Austrian-born Joe Zawinul. Eventually, Bona moved to New York. Occasionally he tours Cameroon. Jazz is everywhere.




Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.


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