Jazz 101: The 1980s and 1990s


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 direction taken by jazz since the 1980s, and its shape in the 1990s.

Last time, we talked about the sub-genre of jazz-rock that came about in the ’60s and ’70s. We saw how a new generation rose up to embrace it, while the mainstream media largely ignored it. And even though some of the great names in jazz like Miles Davis flirted with jazz-rock, the sub-genre failed to garner a large following.

Now we’ll take a look past the ’60s and ’70s into the following decades. In Szwed’s book, he adds a disclaimer at the beginning of this chapter, underscoring how difficult it can be to understand the directions jazz took during the ’80s.

The 1980s and 1990s

Szwed offers up a summary of the various factors that went into muddying the waters of clarity when it comes to the ’80s.

“The continued diffusion of various jazz styles, the disappearance of regular reviews in most newspapers and magazines, an economic slump in the record business, the shift of some of the most vital recording activity to small recording labels and to oversees, the confusion that followed the change in record formats from vinyl to CD, all contributed to the difficulty” (p. 269).

All that being said, not even all of these factors could prevent new and interesting music from being made. There were three improviser/composers during the 1980s who Szwed highlights as standouts of the decade. Those were alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill, pianist Anthony Davis, and clarinetist John Carter.

“These three composers have never received the attention they deserve, and most of their records have long been out of print” (p. 271). Despite this fact, Szwed asserts that they were responsible for some of the finest music ever played or composed in the history of jazz.

During the 1980s, the media was pivoting on their coverage of jazz music. Reviews were disappearing. And without a finger on the pulse of jazz’s heartbeat, misinterpretations followed regarding the state of jazz.

“A straw man was being constructed in theĀ Times and elsewhere in the press, a myth of the imminent death of jazz which ignored the continuing life of earlier jazz styles, since new mainstream players or traditionalists had continued to appear since the ’60s and ’70s” (p. 271).

Wynton Marsalis

As we’ve seen throughout this series, there have been many distinct and diverse personalities that helped move the evolution of jazz forward. With such a long history of unique musicians, it was hard to believe that another trumpeter could bring about a new sound. But this is what Wynton Marsalis did.

Marsalis was born in a strong New Orleans family, went to Julliard, and toured with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. “He was a jazz musician with an uncommonly beautiful sound and elegant ideas, as well as a classical musician with exceptional taste and ability” (p. 272).

But Marsalis also had larger things on his mind than just producing music. He wanted to empower jazz, and help steer the ship of its evolution. “Once he was appointed artistic director for the new program of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, he was in a unique position to shape the direction of the most powerful effort made to turn jazz into an institution” (p. 273).

Final Thoughts

With the way that jazz dissected and diffused into different styles, tracing its trajectory can be hard. Newspapers were more interested in charting the death of jazz than anything else. From the outside, most people would assume that jazz was indeed disappearing. Only the musicians still carrying on the jazz tradition knew better. Musicians like Wynton Marsalis, who shaped the direction of jazz to come.

That about wraps up our discussion for today. Next time, we’ll look at jazz in Europe.


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