The Group: Presentation Notes

These were my notes for a presentation to The Group, an ad hoc "left-leaning" women's group in Wichita, KS. I was the middle speaker on a November 27, 2011 program on Jazz and Politics organized by Alice Powell. Up first was jazz singer Ruth Olay, who played and talked about a couple of her 1960s records. Following me was Craig Owens, a music professor at Wichita State University and president of Wichita Jazz Festival. He played two tunes with saxophonist Bill Campbell, talked about the history and future plans of WJF, and tried to drum up some money.

I ad libbed from the following notes, redoing the intro completely, reading and sometimes expanding upon the second section. Alice cut me off before I could get to the third (or, more precisely, rescued me).


I want to briefly cover three things here:

  1. Who I am, and what I'm doing here talking about jazz.
  2. A very brief outline of the history of jazz.
  3. A few thoughts on the current state of jazz.

I have no background in music. I've never played an instrument. I was a straight C student in music up to 8th grade: I couldn't sing -- in fact, kids used to threaten me if I did anything more than lip synch -- and I hated everything about classical music. I bought some rock records, but was at most a casual consumer until I got to college around 1971-73. There, I edited an underground paper, and people kept bugging me to write music pieces -- most were terrible, but I found myself enjoying the research to tear them apart. After I dropped out, I stopped reading philosophy and such and read nothing but rock criticism for a couple years, as my own LP collection grew by leaps and bounds. And I wrote some of my own. In particular, I wrote a review of a book by Robert Christgau where I basically said: anyone can review rock records -- look, even I can do it. On a lark, I sent some of that stuff in, and Christgau wrote back and asked me to write for his paper, The Village Voice. I wrote a few reviews, moved to New York, wrote a few more, but never made an effort to make a career out of it. By 1980 I was done, but by then I had expanded into blues and jazz and country and reggae and even a little 20th century post-classical (minimalism and electronics), and I was starting to get interested in African and Afro-Latin music.

In the early 1990s I started to go back and systematically fill in the holes I had missed. This was partly because everything old was being reissued on CD at the time, and partly because I didn't care for decade's new waves: grunge and gangsta. I dug into record guides, bought whatever looked interesting, and most of that was jazz. I had picked up some 900 jazz CDs in 1996 when Christgau asked me to review some jazz compilations. I probably had more than 2000 in 2004 when Christgau asked me to write a quarterly Jazz Consumer Guide column. After that, labels started sending me records, and it's gotten ridiculous. I've written 28 of those columns over the last seven years, totalling 1000 records, but I've probably listened to four times that many records -- so much more that I do a weekly Jazz Prospecting post on my blog to document the whole sorting process. I also keep a database of all the records I've heard and rated: 700 blues albums, 1105 country and bluegrass, 613 rap, 465 Africa, 298 reggae. The jazz total is 9984, and the overall total is 19049.

So, the main reason I'm here is because I've listened to an awful lot of records.

The following is a very schematic history of jazz:

  • Jazz was originally one of several strains of Afro-American music, along with blues, gospel, and minstrelsy. But jazz was different in that it revelled in the greater freedom of the city, whereas the other forms were rooted in slavery and/or sufferance.
  • Jazz initially developed out of New Orleans, which was not only the largest Afro-American city in 1900 but had a peculiar history of having been settled by the French and ruled by the Spanish with a more lenient slave code: one result was a much higher share of free blacks and creoles before 1860; another was the influence of Spanish forms via Cuba -- the "latin tinge" Jelly Roll Morton declared to be an essential element of jazz.
  • During the 1920s jazz spread from city to city, especially to Chicago and New York as southern blacks moved north. Kansas City had a famous scene in the 1930s; Detroit, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles became important in the 1940s. But with the development of the record industry in the 1920s jazz spread everywhere, even to Europe.
  • Jazz was popular music, rooted in everyday uses ranging from dances to funeral marches, and it almost instantly crossed racial barriers: whites had been listening to and imitating blacks since before the Civil War. The most popular acts were white -- Paul Whiteman in the 1920s, Benny Goodman in the 1930s, Glenn Miller in the early 1940s -- and I don't wish to disrespect them, but virtually every innovation in jazz up to 1970 was the work of Afro-Americans.
  • This was because jazz was the one arena where Afro-Americans could advance by pure merit -- most clearly in the cutting contests which pitted one musician against another: every trumpeter had to stack up against Louis Armstrong, every pianist to Art Tatum. This competition spurred innovation, and ultimately split jazz into various factions.
  • Jazz split into two major streams in the early 1940s: one kept innovating through bebop and into the avant-garde, becoming more complex, trickier, and esoteric -- this brought us Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor, the giants of modern jazz; the other never lost its popular pulse, with Louis Jordan and Ray Charles evolving from small group swing to rhythm and blues to rock and roll.
  • Jazz was out in front of the civil rights movement. The first major American institution to be integrated was Benny Goodman's band. Congress wouldn't legislate against lynching, but Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" ended the era. Jazz at the Philharmonic was integrated from its first concert in 1944. Louis Armstrong went on strike as America's Jazz Ambassador to force Eisenhower to send troops into Little Rock. Charles Mingus followed with "Fables of Faubus," and Max Roach with "Freedom Now!" Jazz was also quick to embrace Black Power in many variations, ranging from Archie Shepp to the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
  • Jazz lost popularity in two big thumps: in the late 1940s when bebop split from swing, and circa 1970 when rock became hegemonic and most major jazz labels collapsed. Ironically, at the same moment Miles Davis emerged as rock star with his fusion brew of funk, electronics, and piercing trumpet. Some jazz musicians imitated him, but most scattered into niches, surviving on obscure, mostly European labels.
  • One niche led to rap, starting with jazz-based spoken word artists like the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron.
  • Another niche was formed in academia, where George Russell was the pioneering figure -- probably the most influential jazz musician you've never heard of. By the mid-1990s the universities supported hundreds of important jazz musicians and turned out many students who were fully trained in classical music but see jazz as their creative pathway. This vast increase in the number of working jazz musicians has led to a general artistic renaissance, but not much popular attention.
  • As for smooth jazz, it is another niche that mostly spun off in the 1980s. It enjoys a substantial market including radio support. I've written about it as some length: wound up calling it "anti-jazz" because it's so programmed it eliminates any chance for surprise.

A few words about the current jazz scene, as I've been able to observe it since I started writing Jazz Consumer Guide in 2005.

  • As near as I can figure out, there are about 2000 new jazz records released each year, plus at least 1000 compilations of older jazz. I've been able to sample about a third of the new releases. Close to half are self-released, which is very easy to do these days -- some of those can be dismissed as vanity projects, but many eminent jazz musicians run their own labels. Virtually all of the rest are on small labels, at least half based in Europe.
  • I've yet to run across any jazz musicians from China, but they come from virtually everywhere else. They are very cosmopolitan, and it is fruitless to make assumptions based on nationality, gender, or anything else. Fewer than half are American: many of those are based in Europe (which does a better job of supporting artists), and many Europeans live (or have lived) in the US.
  • Jazz has gone postmodern: there is no direction to the avant-garde, but rather everything that has ever been done is being refined in all sorts of ways -- sometimes interesting, sometimes not. (I tend to blame academia for the latter.) Moreover, any combination of musics can be fused and improvised upon.
  • Guitar has become one of the major instruments in jazz -- both as a lead and in many cases replacing piano for chordal accompaniment -- with no predominant style.
  • There are a lot of would-be jazz vocalists, but they split up into at least a half dozen types, ranging from cabaret singers to variants of classical art-song.
  • Despite the tremendous musical wealth in jazz today, sales are miniscule -- I'm reminded that Christmas music outsells jazz, which only adds to my bah humbug mood. Some of the music is difficult and takes forbearance to sort through, but much of it is accessible, if only, that is, one can find out about it. The small labels get no distribution and little press. The names are unfamiliar. There isn't much radio, let alone TV -- wonder why in a 999 channel world that should be? -- and print sources are drying up. People still buy old jazz -- in any given year the best-selling jazz album is likely to be Kind of Blue. So one thing I've tried to do is to identify new jazz records that have some kind of breakout appeal. I've been able to find 50-70 each year, plus many more that are worth hearing if you're in the mood.


On my website: