Jazz 101: The 1970s

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Today we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“, with a look at the era of the 1970s. After free jazz dissolved in the 1960s, jazz was pushed to the margins of popular music. We’ll see how the rise of rock and roll affected this.

Last time, we talked about the era of free jazz that came about in the 1960s. Free jazz brought a wealth of variety to jazz, and resulted in a splintering of sub-genres. Experimentation ran wild, and some of the most unique composers found their place during this time.

The 1960s culture bled into the next decade. Propelled by rock and roll and the 1969 Woodstock Festival, the culture was leaving jazz behind. Jazz was seen as old, less chic, and even tired. But from out of the stagnation of jazz, there were several new names who brought a buzz back.

The 1970s

One factor that undoubtedly contributed to the waning influence of jazz was the fading presence of the old masters. “Ellington and Armstrong had passed on, Monk was no longer performing; Miles Davis was in the midst of changing directions yet again; and the death of John Coltrane in 1967 had taken away the most visible and most admired figure in the new jazz” (p. 251). These big names left a vacuum in their wake. A vacuum that was filled by a new trend in rock artists to adopt some of the excitement of jazz.

With more new music than ever on the rise, record companies and clubs were adapting to the new music of the youth. Jazz clubs closed their doors or converted into disco or rock joints. Those left in the jazz world felt a compulsion to return to past glories. “Three or four jazz repertory bands were created, and though all of them were underfunded and ultimately disappeared, it was the first step toward establishing the jazz tradition as a living performance art” (p. 252).

Even so, new jazz continued to develop. While it was still mostly ignored by the press, it included musicians willing to honor the jazz tradition. “Much as in jazz of the mid-1950s, these new musicians were following a generation of great improvisers, and they continued to search for an appropriate compositional framework in which to place these new forms of improvisation” (p. 252). But a lot of their efforts went unnoticed by mainstream society. Older jazz styles weren’t hip anymore, and the new jazz didn’t fit into an acceptable image.

Anthony Braxton

Anthony Braxton is an outlier when it comes to jazz in the 1970s. He was one musician who made a breakthrough and rose to fame, despite jazz living in the margins. “The buzz was that he was a new kind of jazz musician, a polite, thoughtful conversationalist, a man notably unconcerned with hipness…And for those who felt jazz was in the doldrums and had no interest in jazz-rock, Braxton was the man” (p. 255).

One of the things that set Braxton apart was not only his image, but his method for composing. Braxton’s compositions provided a way to generate improvisation while being framed orchestrally at the same time. He intended that any part he wrote could be played by any instrument in an ensemble. “Furthermore, he intended that any composition he wrote could be put together with any of his other compositions and played at the same time, making for literally millions of combinations” (p. 256).

Although many people criticized Braxton for not keeping in with the jazz tradition, no one could deny his talent or ability. Some labeled him an experimental European composer, as if that were enough to end the discussion. But Braxton was carrying the jazz tradition in its most pure form. He was giving his individual players more freedom than ever.

“Even in his most strictly composed materials he had opened up the forms to new possibilities or changed the fundamental meaning of the form” (p. 257).

Final Thoughts

Anthony Braxton was just one example of the new kind of musician that was beginning to appear on the forefront of jazz. Musicians who were also scholars and theorists. Ones who would not let anyone set a limit on what their music could be. “Their models were players or entire bodies of musics largely ignored by the mainstream jazz musicians and fans” (p. 257).

From 1970, the ongoing tradition of jazz continued, while simultaneously shaking off the bonds of traditional thinking. But it couldn’t stop the train of rock from picking up jazz inspiration and dumping it into the mainstream. That’s where we’ll end things today.

Next time, we’ll look at the substyle of jazz-rock led by a younger generation of jazz musicians.

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