By Joel Francis
In 1958, Danny and the Juniors sang “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay.” Although the genre was only seven years removed from the its birth on the “Rocket 88” single and three years from its explosion into the mainstream with Elvis Presley, Danny White was right. Sixty years later, it is hard to imagine American culture without rock and roll.
It is also hard to imagine what the malt-shop teens and leather jacket hoods of the Eisenhower administration would have thought about auto-tune, power pop and nu-metal. Although the seeds of today’s rock were planted in the 1950s, the resulting flora has blossomed into hybrids that bear little resemblance to the original crop.
Picture how different today’s musical landscape would be if anything that varied from the pre-British Invasion strains of rock and roll were bastardized. If songs bearing the touch of John Lennon and Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were decried as impure for straying from the “true” roots of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. Or if anything after the summer of punk and the rise of synthesizers was kept at arm’s length and segregated from the great Rock Cannon.
Would we expect our children to dig out old Bill Haley and Beach Boys albums if this were the case? Teach them “Fun Fun Fun” and “Maybelline” as historical exercises? Of course not. They would shrug, pay us lip service and invent their own confounding strain of music. The ties to existing music would be obvious – nothing emerges in a vacuum – but nothing we couldn’t dismiss as the impure follies of youth.
Why, then, do we place the same parameters around jazz and feign surprise with then inevitable occurs?
It seems every year a new study comes out showing the median age of jazz listeners climbs while attendance drops. The latest is a National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts conducted through the U.S. Census Bureau. Predictably, the self-appointed Guardians of Jazz like Wall Street Journal columnist and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout are freaking out. But all this hand-wringing is like an ordinary bicycle enthusiast fretting while the chain-driven model populates the streets. The vehicle is still very much alive, it’s just been modified and influenced by culture.
Too many jazz museums and concert curators suffer from WWWS: What would Wynton say. Would Wynton Marsails, the genre’s most prominent performer and steadfast caretaker, approve of their exhibit or event? While Marsalis is a talent trumpet player who deserves every bit of his fame and credit for bringing jazz to the masses, he is conservative and traditionalist to a fault. Museum directors and concert promoters should be following their own muse and vision, not looking to someone as restrictive as Marsalis for tacit endorsement.
The growth of jazz from Dixieland to big band to bebop is celebrated, but somewhere along the line – about 1965, shortly before John Coltrane’s death, when free jazz and fusion started to creep into the mix – a line was drawn. In shorthand, acoustic Herbie Hancock playing with Miles Davis and recording for Blue Note is “good” jazz; synthesizer-rocking Hancock’s best-selling “Head Hunters,” though, is “bad.”
If directors and promoters must get the thumbs-up from a Marsalis, could it please be Branford? Although a lesser celebrity, the tenor saxophone player and older brother of Wynton has equally distinguished jazz pedigree. He’s also allowed jazz to grow, branching into pop with Sting, serving as musical director for the Tonight Show and working with hip hop artists.
If the stodgy stylistic caretakers turned up their noses when jazz artists, the highest pedigree of musicians, started dabbling in rock and funk, they have completely ignored most jazz performers slumming with rappers in a genre oft-maligned for possessing the lowest level of musicianship.
The elitists are missing the point. At their best, jazz and hip hop are better together than chocolate and peanut better. The improvisational aspect of jazz fits the free-flowing poetry delivered by a great MC. The swing of the instruments matches the swagger of the beats. Dig the way DJ Logic’s turntable work complements Medeski, Martin and Wood’s “Combustication” album, how Mos Def and Q-Tip’s rhymes soar over Ron Carter’s live basslines, or how Roy Hargrove’s trumpet pushes and accentuates Common’s poetry.
Teachout and Wynton Marsalis’ simplified stances ignore the long history of jazz in popular culture. The enduring standard “Someday My Prince Will Come,” was plucked from Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Although both Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong released albums of Disney material, it is doubtful Wynton Marsalis would record a song from a children’s cartoon.
The Chicken Little jazz forecasts don’t show that jazz is less popular or interesting today. The news they bring is even more disturbing: hard evidence that the standard-bearers of the genre are increasing ignorant to how their beloved music has grown, changed and been embraced. They’re the ones missing the party, but don’t worry – their numbers are dwindling.
(Below: More Ornette Coleman with the Roots for all the alarmists. Note how well the musicians play together despite being from the disparate worlds of jazz and hip hop. Surely this is a sign of the apocalypse.)