Jazz is Dead, Again?; Jazz & Colors Festival; Wayne Shorter Returns to Blue Note

Planet Jazz: Notes From All Over 

Jazz is dead. What, again? Say it ain’t so!

At the end of a partially admiring review in The Atlantic of jazz critic Ted Gioia‘s comprehensive book “The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire” (Oxford University Press), Benjamin Schwarz makes a bold, brave declaration, one never previously issued.

Schwarz, the magazine’s literary and national editor, says, in short, that jazz, because it’s not rooted in or inspired by the popular music of its day (or of recent decades), is no longer relevant. Moreover, it simply can’t be. The genre is kaput, out of gas.

Here’s the relevant quote from the article, accompanied by the headline “The End of Jazz”:

“The Songbook, a product of a fleeting set of cultural circumstances when popular, sophisticated music was aimed at musically knowledgeable adults, was the crucial wellspring of jazz. Both jazz and its progenitor are worthy of radical—indeed, reactionary—efforts to preserve them. But despite Gioia’s ardency, there is no reason to believe that jazz can be a living, evolving art form decades after its major source—and the source that linked it to the main currents of popular culture and sentiment—has dried up.”

Sure, the body of music collectively known as the Great American Songbook served as a “wellspring” for jazz musicians from the early swing era to the late bebop period and beyond. And many of those works continue to inspire gigging jazzers on all levels, from your neighborhood restaurant with the piano-and-bass duo to the Blue Note in NYC.

But there were and are many, many forward-thinking jazz musicians whose playing and compositions are not directly tied to the Songbook. The new music may not be tuneful in the manner of older jazz standards, and may not “swing.” Yet it builds firmly on the jazz tradition, and by nearly any definition would be called jazz.

I won’t name artists’ names here — because, inevitably, I’d leave out too many — but tens of thousands of high-profile and lesser known musicians around the globe are actively writing, performing and recording jazz of the highest order. For evidence, check out the heavy hitters topping readers and critics polls in the Village Voice and the major jazz magazines.

For anyone with big ears, attuned to the breadth and depth of what’s happening in the jazz world, the continuing viability and vitality of the music is not so difficult to understand. It doesn’t take a jazz purist to know that jazz is very much alive. Then again, taking to a highly visible national platform and declaring that jazz is dead is a quick and easy way to attract a lot of attention — for a demonstration, check today’s music blogosphere, or your Twitter feed.

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It’s not just writers for national general-interest magazines who have difficulty seeing the big picture, when it comes to jazz.

One writer in one market, “explaining” why a recent jazz festival was so light on jazz, complained about “purist jazz fans” who “griped” that half of the event’s four headlining positions were filled by artists who clearly fell into the categories of blues and Americana/indie.

“We’re not living in a jazz world anymore. Sorry, but that’s the truth,” he wrote, stating the obvious, in a defense of the fest that sounded like an apology.

And then this: “If this were a pure jazz-only event, you have to wonder if it would have made it 33 years at that size, at that venue and with that clout and reputation.”

Reality check: Hundreds of high-profile jazz festivals in the U.S. — Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Monterey — and internationally remain heavily focused on high-quality jazz, and have successfully done so for years. Nobody, “jazz purist” or otherwise, imagines that jazz is a commercially lucrative genre — it’s hardly a quick route to immense wealth or superstardom. And yet, that doesn’t mean jazz festivals shouldn’t focus on, you know, jazz, rather than rock, pop, blues, rap or other music.

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Jazz is dead, and no longer fit to attract crowds to festivals?

Then someone better tell Peter Shapiro, whose company, Dayglo Ventures, is producing NYC’s upcoming Jazz & Colors Festival in collaboration with the Central Park Conservancy.

The free-admission festival, slated to be held Nov. 10 from noon to 4 p.m. on stages throughout Central Park, will feature  small groups and big bands, name artists and newcomers, each playing two sets.  Brice Rosenbloom, founder of the increasingly more influential Winter Jazzfest in NYC, picked the 30 acts, and the programming offers a neat twist: All of the musicians have been asked to play music relevant to the setting and the calendar, including the likes of “Autumn in New York,” “Central Park West,” “Nature Boy,” “Blue Train,” “Nostalgia in Times Square,” “Scrapple From the Apple,” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

The impressive, eclectic lineup: Bob Stewart Quintet, Chris Dingman Quartet, Claire Daly Quartet, Doug Wamble Quartet, Gregoire Maret, Jacques Schwartz-Bart Quartet w/ special guest Stephanie McKay, Jason Kao Hwang Trio, Jason Marshall Quartet w/ special guest Hilary Gardner, Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, JC Hopkins Quintet w/ special guest Jazz Horn, JD Allen Quartet, Joel Harrison Quartet, Kahlil Kwame Bell, Kevin Hays Trio, Kimberly Thompson Quartet, Knuffke Stacken duo plus Bill Goodwin, Lakecia Benjamin And Soul Squad, Marc Cary Quartet, Marika Hughes & Bottom Heavy, Mike Mo Quartet, Mitch Frohman’s Latin-Jazz Quartet, Rockjazz pianist ELEW, Roy Campbell Tazz Quartet, Sharel Cassity Quintet, The Jamie Baum Quintet, The Klezmatics, The Mingus Big Band, The Wayne Escoffery Quartet w/ special guest Carolyn Leonhart, YES! Trio w/ Aaron Goldberg, Omer Avital, Ali Jackson, Yosvany Terry Quartet.

For more details, visit the Jazz & Colors site.

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If jazz is dead (2), then someone better tell Blue Note, who just re-signed Wayne Shorter. The great saxophonist, composer and bandleader is returning to the label after more than four decades, having last recorded for Blue Note in 1970, for sessions released as the albums “Odyssey of Iska” and “Moto Grosso “Feio.” He’s since led sessions for Verve, most recently with 2005’s “Beyond the Sound Barrier,” and Columbia.

Shorter, 80, yet another one of those artists still making immensely creative, high-caliber jazz largely built on non-Songbook originals of his own making, will be accompanied by his longstanding quartet members — pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Brian Blade — for “Without a Net,” due for release Feb. 5.

As Jeff Tamarkin writes in Jazz Times: “Without A Net is a nine-track album, all but one of which were recorded live last year in Europe. That exception is “Pegasus,” a 23-minute piece described as a “tone poem” and recorded with the Imani Winds at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The album features six new Shorter compositions, as well as new versions of his tunes “Orbits” (from Miles Davis’ Miles Smiles album) and “Plaza Real” (from the Weather Report album Procession). The set also includes the title song from the 1933 musical film Flying Down To Rio.”