Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has it Moved to a New Address) – Stuart Nicholson (Book)

The short answer is no and then yes. Easily the most perceptive and stimulating critique of jazz for a very long time indeed. Nicholson argues convincingly that jazz has ossified in the states under the iron grip of the neo-cons of jazz while away from home it has blossomed and flourished

The first half of the book is taken up with a closely-argued critique of the twin pillars of the neo-con world of jazz: the Wynton Marsalis dogma and the teaching of jazz. Since Marsalis came to prominence in the 80s with his dubious claim to be the only one playing real, unadulterated jazz, he and academic Stanley Crouch have successfully redrawn the definition of jazz away from innovation and expression and instead installed ‘technique’ as the defining quality of what is or is not jazz. And technique is further defined as technical aptitude for the playing of be bop and pre be bop styles.
Which would have been a fun debate were it not for the installation of Marsalis at the powerful Lincoln Center and the subsequent collapse of public funding for other jazz outlets. Effectively, you play the Marsalis way or you pretty much don’t play in the US (or at least you don’t make enough money to devote yourself to jazz). Happily for the graduates being pumped out of the many jazz courses in the States, being young, technically adept and a be bop clone was just the ticket for a while at least.
The longer-term impact has been less rosy with older musicians squeezed out and the buying public losing interest in new jazz and preferring to just buy reissues of classic records rather than endless new versions of a closed cannon.
In contrast to the very sorry state of much US jazz, Nicholson looks to countries with strong public sector support for innovative and original jazz like Norway and he looks at scenes such as the one in London which has seen jazz, hip hop and dance endlessly recombined in interesting ways.
As a polemic, this is incendiary stuff and broadly on the money. To be fair though Nicholson possibly overcooks his case at least in regard to jazz in the US. At the top level, he is devastatingly sharp but he ignores the grass roots level of innovation, which carries on in pretty much the same way as described in the 60s by Leroi Jones’ ‘Black Music’. Underpaid, ignored and rarely in the name clubs, an underground system is still there and a fusion crowd are busy at work too but their outlets are labels like Ubiquity.
Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has it Moved to a New Address) is published by Routledge
ISBN 0-415-97583-2

7 thoughts on “Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has it Moved to a New Address) – Stuart Nicholson (Book)

  1. jazz is alive…perhaps, faint in the united states…prophets cannot exist in their own land…jazz is jazz…unfortunately, the jazz snobs leave it to debate…jazz is more than music…it’s a way of living…a rhythm of life…an attitude…a way being…a flair for speaking…people don’t have time to listen much anymore…not many have an appreciation for improvisation…that would detract from the homogenous trends which seem be called “culture”…


  2. a must read though mr Nicholson – in my personal view- overexposes the Nordic Tone and moreover regrettably underexposes the Dutch delights (he refers to Kevin whitehead’s book though) and luz del mediteranneo…Italy, Spain.
    Nevertheless…without any doubt the BEST book on jazz of this decade!!!!!


  3. Ruud, I think that’s fair criticism and could go further to African jazz and beyond. There is also the more subtle effects of jazz elements and influences being suffused into all kinds of music throughout the world. Nevertheless, the big dragons that Nicholson sets his sights on are slain and the exposition of the ideas is compelling and exciting to read.


  4. Jazz is alive, there are still many of the old greats playing such as Ornette Coleman or Yusef Lateef and they are teaching a new generation.


  5. Jazz dead? as long as there’s an audience for any type of jazz then it isn’t dead. Nicholson just wants/needs to be heard so he writes silly articles and books with titles that are guaranteed to pique the interest of any jazz lover.
    His put down of American jazz just proves how out of touch he is, there is so much creativity going on there and everywhere else for that matter. He makes a point about the stale US scene; thats funny because jazz’s origins stem from harsh financial, racial adversity. Just look what happens when you get ‘ strong public sector support’ you end up with stale self indulgent music/art. There is no social welfare in the US as far as I know, so its more of a survivalist mentality and you have to be able to play your instrument to eat, not wait for a cheque from the arts council.


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