The Future of Jazz

September 17, 2012

Address to the Juilliard Winter Jazz School at Trinity College

By Richard Finch

As someone who likes to haunt the jazz clubs of Melbourne I frequently receive emails telling me who is performing where, on which night.  A recent email from Megg Evans, the manager of Bennetts Lane contained a joke which went something like this:

A man told his friend that he had just read a science fiction novel which was set five hundred years in the future

 His friend asked him:  how did it portray the jazz scene in the year 2500 A.D?

 To which his friend replied: there wasn’t any jazz in the novel

 Why was that, asked his friend?

 Because – said the man – it was set in the future.

I laughed at the joke, but it also made me feel a little sad, a little unnerved.   Jokes sometimes harbour truths, or at least half truths, and I was concerned that this witticism might somehow signify the demise of jazz.

Was jazz dying?  Did it have a future?  What would prompt the manager of a club to include such an unsettling aside in one of her emails?  Was she feeling despondent because she had hosted too many occasions at which exceptionally talented musicians performed to too few people?  I, myself, have been at gigs where the members of the band have almost outnumbered the members of the audience – and as the fractious rhythms of piano and drums merged with raucous squeaks and squawks of the brass section, filling the room with a joyous, glorious, rapturous, polyphonic sound, I have wondered:  Where is everybody?  Why are there so few people here to experience this magic?

Upon reflection, however, I dismissed these musings as being overly gloomy.  After all I had also frequented events which were well attended.  Recently, Melbourne hosted its annual jazz festival.  The throng assembled, the theatres and halls filled, the clubs heaved, the musicians played. The event was deemed to be an overwhelming success.

Then another thought occurred to me.  Maybe the concerns of the club manager were more of an artistic nature.  Jazz is sometimes referred to as the preeminent art form of the 20th century.  Maybe she was worried that jazz was – and could only be – a 20th century art form!  That it was resolutely chained to its past.  That weighed down by its great heritage it was condemned to recycle the glories of a bygone era.

Then it struck me!  My fears were unfounded.  The joke was just a joke!  Nothing more, nothing less.  Jazz is not – and could never be – a decaying art form entrapped within a mouldering time capsule; for the future is – as it were – hardwired into the DNA of jazz.  Jazz is essentially forward looking.

In jazz repetition is equated with failure.  A great solo is one in which the player never repeats an idea, never falls back on a stock phrase, never resorts to cliché.  When a player is truly inspired – when they are worthy of their calling as a jazz musician – there is a constant outpouring of new ideas, the audience is enchanted – again and again – with freshly minted delights.

Legend has it that Charlie Parker never played the same idea twice.   No doubt this story is apocryphal.  Nonetheless it is illuminating since it emphasises the value that the jazz fraternity places on originality, on the undiscovered.

The forward directedness of jazz can also be seen in Miles Davis’ commitment to innovation and progression.   In his restless search for the new, in his refusal to revisit his past, to celebrate his illustrious achievements,  Miles Davis resiled from any attempt to consign jazz – as he put it – to the museum.

Even when jazz musicians do look back, they are simultaneously looking forward.  When a jazz musician plays a standard – like Body and Soul – they are not trying to recreate the 1930s or 1940s, they are not trying to replicate – note for note –  Coleman Hawkins’ famous interpretation of the piece.  What would be the point!  What they are doing – to quote the contemporary Australian pianist Paul Grabowsky’s liner notes from On a Clear Day, his album of standards with the saxophonist Jamie Oehlers – is moving to a “common ground”: a place where together with their fellow jazz musicians they can explore the countless possibilities, the limitless variations, contained within these harmonic structures.

Indeed, over the last twenty or so years there seems to have been a growing recognition on the part of jazz musicians that change can be incremental; that the careful, methodical exploration of aesthetic forms can be as rewarding as the wholesale overthrow of existing musical structures.  This artistic medium has suchdepth, the choices available to its exponents are now so great, that a patient examination of its terrain will unearth an abundance of hidden treasures.

Revolutions are important.  Sometimes they are necessary.   They do away with complacency.  They combat stagnation.  Sometimes – sometimes – though, evolution can deliver more enduring achievements, can yield richer rewards.

So of all the celebrated innovators of jazz who do I rate as the greatest.  Whose contribution do I prize the most?  Who is my favourite jazz musician?


Is it Louis Armstrong?  One of the founding fathers of jazz, a man who redefined popular singing, and put the soloist front and centre of the band.

Or is it Duke Ellington?  An aristocrat who ranks amongst the greatest composers of the 20th century.  Whose wondrous use of colour and tone set the standard for jazz orchestration.

Or Charlie Parker – gunslinging bird – a self destructive genius who showed instrumentalists a new way to get from here to there.  Whose bebop experimentations opened up a new universe of musical possibilities.

Or Thelonious Monk?  A musical eccentric whose jagged angular lines, stop/start approach, and deafening silences pointed to a strange otherworld of sound, residing between the notes.

Or Ornette Coleman?  A revolutionary who in his desperate quest for freedom, threw out the rule book and tore down the house.

Or maybe it is a contemporary musician like Brad Mehldau?  Who in moving back and forth, from the old to the new, has endeavoured to expand our understanding of what the jazz standard is, and can be.  Who in traversing the boundaries of classical and jazz has sought to enlarge the tonal topography of the genre.

Or an Australian musician like Barney McAll?  Who has integrated elements from other cultures into his sound, without them seeming foreign or alien; something other than jazz.

So which of these giants is my favourite jazz musician?  None of them are.  Do you want to know who my favourite jazz musician is?

Do you!

Do you!

You are!   You, the students!  You are my favourite jazz musicians.   Why?  Because as someone who loves jazz I – like you – am committed to the future.  And you are the jazz performers, the jazz composers, the improvisers of tomorrow.  You are the future.  You will perpetuate change.  You will keep this magnificent art form moving forward.  You will show me the next big thing.


2 Responses to “The Future of Jazz”

  1. Uri Shavit said

    Beautiful writing ! made me smile 🙂

  2. Uri Shavit said

    Reblogged this on @Uri Shavit and commented:
    Such a beautiful piece about Jazz and the REAL future of it.

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