Music: Obscure notes on the undeath of jazz

The little bio on this blog claims I write occasionally about jazz. This is very close to never true any more. I have almost stopped attending live jazz concerts over the past decade. Most of the music I listen to these days is classical, and while I do still listen to jazz, very little of it is recently recorded. After covering the Montreal International Jazz Festival 17 years in a row, I paused for logistical reasons in 2006 (I was writing a book) and have essentially never bothered to return. This is not because I’m angry at that festival for programming music that isn’t jazz; it’s that I was starting to feel that too many of the jazz musicians were wasting audiences’ time.

It’s hard to explain why that’s so. I don’t blame bad faith; I know too many earnest jazz musicians for that. I’ve wondered whether I should write down my thoughts on today’s jazz, but didn’t want to bother a general audience. So when Dan Wells (no relation), the editor of the literary journal Canadian Notes and Queries, asked me to write an article for their special music issue, I was happy for the chance. CNQ is famously ornery. I’m proud that the article I’ve meant to write for some time appears in their latest issue.

But for whatever reason, there’s no link to that article on the main CNQ page. It’s on the website but kind of tucked away. Here’s my article, A New Tradition: On the Afterlife of Jazz.  An excerpt:

Almost no educated lay listener can name even a half-dozen jazz musicians active today. Most of the names they would mention – singers like Diana Krall, Nikki Yanofsky, Michael Bublé, even instrumentalists like the pop-jazz trumpet player Chris Botti – would not normally be mentioned in positive terms by most jazz fans. The names fans do get excited about – the trumpeter Dave Douglas, the saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Chris Potter, the guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel – could not mean less to a general audience. And frankly they’re not missing much.

Well, that’s harsh. All the musicians I just named are clever improvisers. They keep finding inventive little things to do. This season electric keyboards are big. Last year, or perhaps it was the year before, it was turntable DJs in otherwise straight-ahead acoustic bands. For several years before that, pianists were banished in favour of guitars as the main chording instrument in a band. The constants have been odd time signatures and long, intricate vamps. It’s a little dry, but they all seem to be concentrating mightily while they play. Everyone’s playing is so clean and tidy you could eat off it. And if a half hour later you’re hungry again, because by God you will be, there’s always more of the exact same on offer.

In a tiny little corner of the culture, these are fighting words. I know most readers will be less interested, and to some extent that’s what this article is trying to explain to the few who still are.