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Is Jazz Dead? A Jazz Dialogue

David Berger

[10 or 15 years ago, my buddy, bassist and composer Chuck Israels was in
New York for a few days visiting. We discussed writing a book about
jazz. We sat around my coffee table in my living room one afternoon and
turned on a cassette recorder. I’ve divided the conversation into 6
parts to make it less imposing, or as Groucho Marx said, “Just the
right length to take into the bathroom .”]

Part I


Chuck Israels: You asked me the other day if I thought jazz was dead, and I thought that it was a good place to start, since in the late 60s, when I was deeply involved in the jazz life and my finger was on the pulse of the music, I wrote an article about that. I gave it to Gunther Schuller who pooh-poohed it as “another one of these ‘jazz is dead’ articles,” but I knew intimately what was going on; I felt a change – a sea change – taking place in the popular culture of the country.


David Berger: Can you explain that? What was different that wasn’t there two years before?


Chuck: The audience that had been listening to popular music that was associated with the jazz language was beginning to listen to another kind of popular music that had almost none of the sophistication and none of the nuances and none of the connection with the history of music that the preceding fifty or so years of popular culture had had.


David: Basically you’re saying music - that new music rose out of hillbilly music and country music, folk music, and music aimed at teenagers, that would be purposely unsophisticated and that teenagers (my generation) who saw Frank Sinatra and that sort of popular music and jazz as being sophisticated and the music of our parents, whereas this music that is purposefully unsophisticated, is our music; it expresses our teenage angst.


Chuck: Yes, of course that’s true, but the first three categories that you mentioned – hillbilly music, country music and folk music – all had a core connection with musical history (at least most of them did). And the disconnect happened when even the elements of musical form and grammar that music had were abandoned in order that naïve people without even the training that’s necessary to understand and perform that music -


David: Or a connection with that culture.


Chuck: Right. They became involved in creating some kind of communication among themselves, a communication which did not require the language and grammar of musical history, even in its most simple, basic form. But let’s think about for a moment what you and I have talked about many times. I have brought an article that describes the population explosion of baby-boomers reaching adolescence and the enormous expansion of adolescent population, the enormously increased enrollment in colleges and universities, and at the same time, that article happened to be about Timothy Leary and drugs and the tune-in, turn on, drop-out culture, which was also an element of this.


David: Yes, but you also had the Vietnam War in the sixties and the whole feeling of anti-culture; anti-American youth wanting to fight the older generation.


Chuck: Against any kind of the established control system, and music culture became part of that.


David: Right. Folk music was very highly politicized. You had people – it was polemics – it really wasn’t music, it was polemics.


Chuck: And that brings up another issue, the function of musical polemics “agit-prop art” which, in my experience, is inevitably preaching to the choir and ineffectual – an ineffective way of creating social change. I think it’s rather more a flag being carried by the people who are making the social change than a propellant to the social change.


David: I agree, for the most part, that that type of music fails, but we also had Eroica (although Beethoven did change his mind when Napoleon turned into an emperor) but at first Beethoven saw that as “Ah, we’re gonna finally destroy the monarchies in Europe and here’s the guy who’s gonna do it.”


Chuck: Sure, I get that. Though there’s an enormous difference, and that is that Beethoven’s musical intentions were in no way diminished by his sense that he was including an extra musical message.


David: Well how about the 1812 Overture?


Chuck: What about it?


David: Well, you know, using the French national anthem, do you feel that that diminishes that piece?


Chuck: Not necessarily.


David: It was overt, what the piece is about, and I think successful. But I’ll agree with you – most times propaganda music is not successful.


Chuck: Right. I grew up with Mark Blitzstein’s music as a young man, because it was basically red-flag-waving music in my home, which was a left-wing politicized home, espousing ideas and political points of view that I embraced. But I heard Mark Blitzstein’s music, and the thing that prevented me from recognizing it as music, was that it was hammering cartoon-like messages at me; they were political cartoons. What I didn’t recognize at the time, and what I do recognize now, is that it was in fact – is in fact - better music than the cartoon-like message that it contains. It’s better than I thought it was.


David: Let’s just say: the music is better – but we’re turned off to the music because the message was too overt.


Chuck: That’s right.


David: And that’s the real danger of involving politics in one’s music.


Chuck: Yes.


David: It should be subtle; let the music do the talking – as Duke would say, “Too much talk stinks up the place.”


Chuck: We agree – both of us agree on that – and I think it’s worthwhile to explore how it might be possible to make political and social points through music. Both of us have a sense that less overt politicizing will be more effective, artistically and politically.


David: In my Windows On The World there’s a political message. One of the movements has words, and I originally was going to write some narration for the entire suite, but, no matter how much I disguised it, it was too political.


Chuck: Yes.


David: And so I wound up keeping only one movement with lyrics and trying to not make that political reference.


Chuck: Okay, why is that a problem? The problem is because it pulls away from the abstract effect of the music, which is…


David: Words do that in general.


Chuck: Right.


David: In general, music is ethereal and abstract, and words are earthly and…


Chuck: And immediate.


David: And…


Chuck: Concrete.


David: Getting back to what we were saying, the folk music was highly political, but the pop music of the day was about teenage angst.


Chuck: Yes. I need to get back to the question of musical life and death, and what constitutes a living music. I have no experience and I’m not enough of a historian to have a deep understanding of who constituted the audience for The Magic Flute or Fidelio for example – just to pick two examples.


David: Aristocrats – rich, educated people.


Chuck: Okay. Is it possible to compare that with a popular music in any way?


David: If you go further in history with opera, we can go to Puccini – everybody in Italy knows Puccini and Verdi; modern-day Italians could sing you all those arias.


Chuck: Okay, then in some way they’re better examples for what I’m looking for, because we do have this sense that this is both fine art and accessible, popular art that reached a broad audience.


David: It was, in its day, considered popular music. Only later on it was realized that, “Oh, this is beyond that”.


Chuck: Both of us have the sense that that is the circumstance – jazz’s circumstance – as well. So when you ask, “Is jazz dead?” we know that it continues to exist, but that it is not alive in the sense that it was when I was growing up, and shortly after, when you were growing up with it. [Chuck was born in 1936, David in 1949].


It is both as alive and as dead as Verdi and Puccini are now. Both Italian opera of that particular class and jazz require a special educated audience and subsidy beyond normal market commerce for their continued existence. Both of those things seem to me to be relatively stagnant compared to the time in which they were being created.


Is jazz dead? It is a hydroponic plant or a hot-house flower; it’s disconnected from its roots because for many years, since the time in the late sixties when I felt it to be what I called “dying,” disconnected from its popular music roots and from the audience that could understand it because of its association with the music that they heard in more casual circumstances – more everyday circumstances – when that disconnect began to happen, the normal flow of nourishment into jazz was cut off.

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  • Lou Caputo on

    Many years ago when I was still a teenager I read that a famous musicologist said that “….jazz will live only as long as people hear it throuh their feet”………..I wonder if that isn’t the truth….Someone asked Basie whats your music about his answer was " tap you foot"……..too simple an answer maybe.

  • Hans Jacobs on

    If the jazz music niche – where jazz means what?….swing? bop? etc.? – has become so small that we are asking if it is dead, maybe it has lost too much momentum to survive. Musicians who play “note salad” solos should get some of the blame for that, as well as arrangers who assumed that audiences would understand and appreciate excessively complicated music.

  • Bill Crow on

    When people ask me if jazz is dead, I answer, “Is chess dead? Jazz is a great game, and somebody will always want to play it.” It isn’t jazz that is dead, it’s the pop music business. I asked the manager of my local Panera, “Why do you always play such mournful music on your system? Everything is in a minor key, there is endless strumming of one or two minor chords, and the lyrics, when you can understand them, are all mournful. Why is that a good accompanimnet for delicious food?” He had no answer.

  • Charley Gerard on

    So Berger and Israels are bemoaning the influence of teenage angst music? Or rock n roll? If so, it is surprising to hear this point of view in the 21st century.

  • john fass morton on

    A very, very worthy discussion to have. I’d say no. It’s out there, but as a music form has had to compete with many others since, say the early 60s. Now the contemporary sound is all about rhythm as opposed to melody or modalities. I believe when taste returns toward a hunger for melodies, then jazz will come back into its own in some sort of new fusion. Whether it will capture a mass market, I shan’t predict. I believe that would have a lot to do with the future economics of popular music, the technologies and the delivery systems to the ear. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. JFM

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