When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.
And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.
In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.
Martin Luther King, opening notes for the Berlin jazz festival 1964
If it is true that music reflects the times, what can we learn about the times when listening to today’s Jazz music? Or what can I learn about these times when listening to my generations music? Or what can I learn about myself when listening to my music? As a young, German, Jazz pianist based in Switzerland, the following words, are my personal take on where I see Jazz in our time, what we musicians can do with it and what it is expressing today.
The times have changed for sure. Jazz is as global as ever. The world wide web connects musicians all around, informs them, opens opportunities and puts us all in competition. Economic pressure is high, due to the increasing number of young jazz musicians trying to make a living through music. And with it comes the ever-growing field of jazz education that is at a peak, yet to grow. Inevitably, jazz programs, schools and colleges are as influential as ever.
If you want to know who you are, you must know about your roots. As a jazz musician, you want to know about African American music. You want to know about the history of the community that formed the legacy you are standing into. Now, as Europeans we have different roots, yet the history is entwined which creates some identification problems.
In this sense, I hope other European jazz musicians can resonate with the ideas expressed in here. However, I also write this with my American friends in mind, who love their cultural heritage and are reflecting about the future of it.
I studied at Manhattan School of Music in 2013/2014 for one year. New York and the people I met there, changed my life. I can’t imagine what it is like to be a jazz musician and not knowing the city.
New York is a center of today’s jazz world and the history of this music. So, whatever happens in New York can change the world. New York musicians are being heard all around the world especially in Europe. One of the things you quickly realize as a European jazz musician though, is that New York musicians hardly know anything about the scene in Europe.
Things in the big apple have changed too. The unsurpassed number of musicians creates great competition and a scene in which musicians play mainly for themselves and their peers. Also, the young generation of jazz musicians are almost exclusively college graduates or students, which forms a dynamic in which American musicians tend to come from a wealthy background.
Speaking of colleges: Jazz education in the US tends to focus on the history of pre-60s jazz. So, while students are very informed about Bebop, Hardbop and earlier Jazz styles, they are less informed about free jazz, the rise of avant-garde and the AACM. There even seems to be a notion among a big part of young college students, that the music of the 60s, free jazz and everything associated with it, is hard to access or even “weird”. Over in Europe however, the music of that time formed the main source for its jazz history. The Ideas and the spirit of that time fascinated musicians in postwar Europe and inspired them to follow the lead. The music of that time was heavily connected to what was going on politically and socially. The civil rights movement and the search of African Americans for a new cultural identity is what formed the music of that time. Now: Rights exist to defend the demands of minorities in a functioning democracy. They therefore form a threat to authorities who try to push through the will of the majority. The civil rights movement was a democratizing movement and the individualism that it stood up for, transcended the music of that time.
However, does the music presented by todays jazz college graduates still demand for this individualism? Listening to young Jazz from New York these days you will have a hard time searching for the remains of that spirit. You will have a hard time finding subjects like concepts of free playing, shamanism, ethnicism, fascination for nonwestern cultures in general etc. that flourished during the time of the civil rights movement. What you will hear though is an ever-strong influence of the jazz education body. Players are very informed harmonically and melodically. They use technical expertise to play very virtuously and execute it with a strong use of abstract concepts. The aesthetic of these days really sounds like a fusion of advanced bebop with modern day pop and rock music.
With notable exceptions, of course. These tendencies apply to a part of a young upcoming generation of jazz musicians in the city, not to its scene at a whole.
But, back to the beginning question of what we can learn about the times when listening to today’s jazz music, in this case in the jazz metropole of the world. The answer is that young jazz represents the values taught through jazz education and since college education in the US tends to be for the wealthy exclusive, it represents the values of upper class America.
And to dare to go a step further, if the music reflects the times you must ask: “Has the will and call demanded by the democratizing movement of the 60s been fulfilled in America?”. Facing modern days political situation, the gap of upper and lower income classes, the prison industry, the influence of establishments from the finance and industrial sector on politics and the situation for African Americans in the US in general the answer must be no. And as long as Jazz represents upper class America, you will not hear the spirit of the 60s and you will not hear the will and call for change in the music.
So, who am I to take a stand on this? If you are an American musician reading this, you might ask yourself in what way this matters to me. As European jazz musicians, we notice quickly that people in the states are not aware of the scene in Europe the way Europeans are about the scene in the US, especially in New York. Studying at Manhattan School of Music, I also felt a sense of inscrutability for European Jazz. Now, since European Jazz finds its roots in free jazz and the 60s this inscrutability and unawareness turns out to be the same notion of “weirdness” described earlier towards the music by American jazz musicians associated with free jazz. Now ironically, to all those notable young American musicians who are aware and in love with the American music of that time: You might find this legacy to be carried on in Europe today!
Europe, scattered observations
However, I have noticed Americans having a hard time trying to access the scene over here. A lot of young players in Europe have troubles identifying with American Jazz music, swing, bebop, jazz standards. The result is that a lot of players, who are “qualified as jazz musicians” are not really playing Jazz. A lot of times the jazz scene isn’t as easy to separate from other genres as in New York, where you can find clear “jazz communities”. Plus, language barriers and no clear meeting points can often make it hard to get in touch with people.
In any way: This generation of European jazz musicians is in large numbers. The future of this music will strongly depend on what’s happening over here.
I ‘localize,’ which is to say that I think always in “a given space”. I rarely think of the whole of a solo, and only very briefly. I always return to the small part of the solo that I was in the process of playing.
Going through a Jazz program in Zurich, Switzerland I realized, that there are some differences in musical aesthetics to what I was used to from US jazz education. Different musical parameters became weight, others weren’t emphasized as much. One thing that I quickly realized was, that Jazz musicians over here (in Europe in general) kept talking about “sound”. “Being aware of your sound” seemed to be extremely important. This phrase very much comes to term with “being in the moment” or “being in the moment with sound”, which is something that I had heard in New York from musicians from the “improvised music scene”. What this really refers to is your state of awareness, or so to speak what you focus on while playing. When playing Jazz (and hopefully improvising) one can be aware of the larger form and structure of his or her playing which is an intellectual, abstract notion. Or he or she can be aware of what is happening “in a given space”. To arrive in this “given space” one must use his or her senses which has a lot to do with presence and intimacy.
Or to put it in Keith Jarrett’s words: “Jazz is about closeness to the material, a personal dance with the material, not the material itself. (…) As a soloist in Jazz you have the responsibility to have a strong quality of affection”
So, breaking with the chains of our modern day, western society and digging to the core values of human necessity, back to the spirit of the 60s: This Notion of awareness of sound carries through a lot of young European jazz, which makes me see this demand for freedom and love, rooted in the African American dream of the 60s, shimmering through.