Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby

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Gary Giddins: is there a ‘jazz gene’?

I haven’t actually read Gary Giddins’ book Jazz, co-written with Scott de Veaux (yet), although I have had recourse to quoting a segment from it that featured in Jazzwise a while back. This was entitled Looking Forward to Looking Back, and floated the idea of ‘historicism’ - “we live in an age of homages and interpretations. In the 1950s and 1960s; jazz musicians strove to create new and original works of art; today musicians are as likely to perform or pay tributes to those same works”. Historicism falls into three categories - a) the revival of entire idioms, e.g. swing, bebop b) original music that celebrates music of the past, which can take the form of tributes or parodies c) modernist interpretations of the past; (which John Zorn and Anthony Braxton are masters of). I touched on these issues in Convergences, Divergences & Affinities, and dated their emergence to as far back as the early 1970s.

There are several Gary Giddins pieces on YouTube, a particularly good one being about Cecil Taylor’s recordings. He is an urbane conversationalist, and, being a non-musician, keeps it brisk and untechnical. He is a jazz critic made for the digital era. One interview on the Tube, which has him answering a set of questions, is called Big Think, and I commend it to your attention. In it, he stresses the continuity of jazz, and being ‘in the tent’ with the masters, Armstrong (in particular), Parker and Coleman, and seems to support the particular version of history which sees the music developing through a series of hero-innovators, although he also seems to opine that there haven’t really been any significant ones since Coltrane. The best he can come up with in the present era is Jason Moran. Giddins relates all this to the gradual academicisation of the music over the past decades, and he seems to feel that “discrete movements are a thing of the past” (apart from micro-distinctions). “We are looking for the individual who is expressing himself”, another citing of the ‘major figure’ theory, but which seems to have got itself stuck with the ascendancy of Wynton Marsalis, who appears to think that all the major figures need to be six foot under (just as they do in the classical tradition).

In the ‘what’s next for jazz?’ section, Giddins remains doughtily optimistic about the future, and places his hopes in ‘fusion’,a form (or is it a concept?) to which he proudly devotes two chapters in his and deVeaux’s book. Is this the ‘jazz gene’ then? Has fusion always been the mainstay and consistent feature of jazz’s development? One could easily say the same thing about rock music. He quotes Dexter Gordon as saying: “jazz in an octopus, it will take whatever it can use and and it will work with it”, making it a kind of predator form. Now this is hardly original thinking, but is it accurate to suggest that jazz is ultimately an ever-giving, ever-receiving plurality, a container for all sorts of micro-genres? And is it true to suggest, as Giddins does, that the genre of ‘improvisation’ is slowly gaining ascendancy, while ‘jazz’ relegates itself, through historicisation, to becoming as hidebound as ‘classical’ music (or, more properly, ‘romantic’ music?).

I asked my wife, ever ready with a handy quip, to define ‘modern jazz’, as I value her non-insider perspective - ‘difficult, abstract black music’ was her instant reply, which gave me pause to think about which of these three words I agreed or disagreed with. I think that the word she missed out was ’improvised’.

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