Jazz 101: What’s Next?


Today we’ll be finishing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“. It’s been a long journey, pouring over all thirty-one chapters of it, but hopefully some of you out there who learned a thing or two to take with you.

Last week, we looked at three distinct sub genres of jazz: acid jazz, drum ‘n’ bass, and neo-swing. While we don’t see these popping up much nowadays, in their time, they were on the forefront of breaking new ground in jazz.

Now that we’ve extensively covered the history of jazz, from New Orleans to Chicago, the West Coast to Europe, Szwed’s final chapter asks what comes next for jazz.

It may seem like a rather small, and perhaps unimportant question in today’s age, when we have so many other pressing problems to deal with than to be concerned about a genre. But jazz has cultural importance. It’s a part of the very soul and identity of America.

What’s Next?

There are a few different possible directions for jazz to head in the future. Given the frequent and unpredictable twists and turns jazz has taken over the years, it’s almost impossible to predict how its future will go. But we can always speculate. A stab in the dark is better than no stab at all.

In order to make an educated guess about the future of jazz, we need to look at the directions being taken presently as clues. But here is where we hit our first snag. It’s a philosophical one, brought to our attention by Szwed early on in this chapter.

“The weight of jazz tradition sometimes seems oppressive — its heroes beyond reach, their accomplishments suffocatingly exalted, the golden age of jazz retreating rapidly. How do you perform melodies that invidiously evoke their own eras? How is it possible to not live in a world of remakes and tributes?” (p. 290).

This concern is one that seems to be spreading throughout our culture, regardless of medium. We see constant remakes in film and television, remixing old stories to be spoon-fed to the next generations. In music, the pop world is much the same. A new artist dishing out formulaic track after track, until the artist as a person of interest becomes more important than the music.

Despite this quagmire of stagnation, there’s still hope for new and interesting things on the horizon. Szwed presents a few possible answers himself.

What is Next?

One answer that Szwed finds is the postmodern one of making the new music seem hard-bought and freshly earned by the new generation. “You can hear this in some sampler or electronics-based groups, as well as among some young jazz musicians when they approach older compositions. The original melodies are retained in skeletal form” (p. 290).

Szwed then goes on to note that these methods have already been used by jazz greats like Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, among others.

Another answer Szwed poses is that jazz follow the path of classical music. “One is to go backward, to become classical, accept greatness, enshrine a pantheon, create a canon, and elevate the music” (p. 290). This can mean playing in the manner of older musicians, or playing transcriptions of works. Both methods have of course, been used in jazz repeatedly over the years.

Szwed then admits that another possibility is for jazz to go pop. To surrender the traditions and standards of the past, and yield to the overwhelming tide. But still, another possibility is for jazz to go forward, innovate, change, and break rules.

Final Thoughts

The final point Szwed makes, is that jazz has always done all of these things. And so, the state of jazz today is not really so different. It may be hidden from the view of the mainstream for now, but nothing lasts forever.

“Max Harrison once remarked that jazz can neither repeat its past, nor escape it: it constantly adds, and thereby modifies, everything that has gone before. Such a music cheerfully escapes definition and prognostication alike. And such a music is always scandalous” (p. 292).

I’ve had a wonderful time writing this series. Before I started, I knew very little about jazz. My goal was to learn what I could, while providing value to others who may be interested. I hope I managed to do that.

Next week, we’ll be back with a brand new series to dig into. Isn’t learning the best?

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