Dispatches From the End of the Jazz Wars

Dispatches From the End of the Jazz Wars

Darcy James Argue

We’ve heard it all before: Classical music is dead. Punk is dead. Hip hop is dead. Jazz is dead. Whatever the musical genre, you can be sure that someone somewhere is saying it’s dead. Apparently, musical death is, like death in superhero comics, both ubiquitous and impermanent.

That’s not to say that a marginal art form like jazz doesn’t face special challenges in this brave new post-music-industry era. Online sales of classical music have been surprisingly robust, but jazz has not seen a similar spike to help compensate for free-falling CD sales and a market share that’s currently hovering around two percent. EMI, home of the Blue Note Label Group, is in especially dire straits. There are countless organizations that primarily serve the interests of classical music and classical musicians. Jazz had only one such dedicated organization, the International Association for Jazz Education, which recently declared bankruptcy and disbanded. IAJE was also involved in presenting two major awards for jazz composition: the Gil Evans Fellowship and the ASCAP/IAJE Commissions. Their future is uncertain. Record fuel prices are causing groups to curtail their touring. Jazz musicians are accustomed to scrabbling, but dwindling freelance opportunities plus disappearing venues, scuttled ventures, and changing music policies have all contributed to a scene where it’s not uncommon to see world-class jazz musicians fiercely competing for the privilege of playing pass-the-hat gigs.

But if there’s a silver lining to be had, it’s that the Jazz Wars of the past few decades are now officially over. You remember the Jazz Wars? One side—the traditionalist faction—was spearheaded by Wynton Marsalis and his consiglieri, writer, and critic Stanley Crouch—both tireless defenders of the essential virtues of swing, blues, and standards, both deeply suspicious of outside influences, especially those they saw as coming from popular culture or “modern European concert music.” The other side, a ragtag coalition of those left excluded by this narrow view, lacked a unifying figurehead of comparable stature and influence, but they are perhaps best described as “those who don’t think Miles Davis was a sellout for going electric, and who don’t think Cecil Taylor’s whole style is merely derivative of the European avant-garde.”

By far the biggest and most visible skirmish of the Jazz Wars was fought over Ken Burns’s 2001 PBS documentary miniseries Jazz, which hewed closely to the Marsalis/Crouch line. (Indeed, Marsalis and Crouch were both involved as advisors to the documentary and are featured prominently onscreen throughout.) The final episode of the 19-hour epic—the only installment to deal with jazz since 1960—sparked the fiercest controversy. It is scathingly dismissive of Davis’s genre-defying hybridization and Taylor’s intensely personal abstractions, and does not deign to mention any of the music that flowed from those wellsprings. Instead, it presents a highly selective alternate narrative: that jazz “went away for a while,” until Marsalis himself came swinging into the ’80s, a fiery young fundamentalist preaching salvation through a return to traditional jazz values.

In recent years, though, Jazz at Lincoln Center—the House That Wynton Built, the official headquarters of the Jazz Establishment, the Borg-like institution that’s often accused of sucking up scarce funding dollars and consuming all the oxygen in the room—has quietly embraced détente, presenting concerts that would have been unthinkable at the height of hostilities. JALC’s 2006-2007 season included a concert called “Fusion Revolution” featuring Joe Zawinul, one of the key figures in Miles Davis’s electric transformation and co-founder of the massively popular electric jazz supergroup Weather Report, a band that went unmentioned in Burns’s series. (Sadly, this proved to be one of Zawinul’s final concert appearances prior to his death the following year.) Later that season, JALC audiences were treated to “Outer Limits!”, a double bill pairing Cecil Taylor with Downtown provocateur John Zorn. Stanley Crouch, while still a fixture at the Village Vanguard, has not written regularly about jazz since his controversial 2003 dismissal from JazzTimes magazine. (He is working on a book about Charlie Parker.) But last year, he surprised many of his allies in the traditionalist camp by defending The Bad Plus—a group that has come under fire for their irreverent rock covers—saying, “to me, the conception of The Bad Plus is actually derived from the way Coltrane and his band played ‘My Favorite Things.'” And Wynton, who once had a notorious feud with his elder brother occasioned by Branford joining Sting’s band, has just released a collaboration with Willie Nelson called Two Men With The Blues. (It’s a fun record.)

The truth is that while a lot of critical ink was spilled on both sides of the Jazz Wars, few musicians actually took up arms themselves. Many of those who work far outside the traditionalists’ idea of the jazz tradition have nonetheless expressed great admiration for Marsalis’s musicianship—John Zorn has said, “I think there’s a lot of what Wynton is doing that’s great….This guy can play his ass off.” The jazz press loves to cast Zorn’s Masada bandmate, trumpeter Dave Douglas, as the “anti-Wynton,” a role Douglas explicitly rejects: “That’s ridiculous. Music isn’t a war. It’s not a competition.” (In fact, Douglas and Marsalis shared the stage at a JALC gig a few years back.) And when The Bad Plus’s Ethan Iverson blogged about the records from jazz’s “lost era”—the ’70s and ’80s—that were most important to his musical development, there were two Wynton Marsalis records on the list—Black Codes (From the Underground) and Live at Blues Alley.

Perhaps the fissure between neoclassicists and progressives doesn’t seem as pressing when jazz itself is on the ropes—unity in the face of adversity. Or perhaps it’s that those divisions were never really all that relevant in the first place. Kenny Garrett is a case in point—he’s a fearsomely prodigious saxophonist who first rose to prominence with Miles Davis in the ’80s, a time when Miles was alleged to be putting the final nail in his legacy’s coffin by covering songs associated with Michael Jackson and even (gasp!) Cyndi Lauper. But in his post-Miles solo career, Garrett went on to record his own searing version of a Wynton original, “Delfeayo’s Dilemma.” Garrett’s most recent album, Beyond The Wall, brings together legendary avant-garde saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and former Marsalis bassist Robert Hurst. Hardliners might be flummoxed, but Garrett doesn’t so much bridge the divide between the two camps as he makes you forget why the divide ever seemed important in the first place.

Garrett, while brilliant, is hardly unique in that regard—there are countless jazz musicians today who move effortlessly between hard-swinging chord-changes-based improvisation, angular abstraction, intricate multidirectional interplay, and propulsive vernacular grooves. The days when the jazz mainstream was exclusively focused on “swing, blues, and standards” are long gone. In fact, that’s an inadequate description of Wynton’s own body of work, which includes formally complex works with hip odd-meter sections and turn-on-a-dime metric modulations. The conservatism of his public pronouncements tends to give a misleading representation of his actual musical output.

The neoclassicist case for preserving the sanctity of swing rests on the idea that jazz can never be combined with music from other (lesser) traditions without compromising its essential virtues, and that’s an argument that few musicians are buying these days—not even those in Marsalis’s inner circle. Ali Jackson, current drummer for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Wynton’s working quintet, has also recorded and toured with Kurt Rosenwinkel, a contemporary-minded guitar player whose music is built on straight-eighth grooves and pop-inflected melodicism. And the pianist on Rosenwinkel’s most recent release, Aaron Goldberg, is also a veteran of the LCJO and Wynton’s small groups. I doubt either of these players sees any inherent conflict between playing “Marsalis music” and playing “Rosenwinkel music.”

The truth is that the ground has shifted. Even at the height of the Jazz Wars, there was a new mainstream consensus emerging, consisting of musicians who were interested in improvising over chord changes and song structures, but unafraid of Cecil Taylor’s challenging chromaticism and unashamed of Miles Davis’s late-period electric excursions. They cut their teeth on swing, blues, and standards, but aren’t constrained by neoclassical ideas about what’s jazz and what’s not. Rosenwinkel and his longtime associate, saxophonist Mark Turner, are probably the leading exponents of this movement, which they honed over the course of a legendary long-term run at the club Smalls during the ’90s. Many of the others who exemplify the new jazz mainstream have come out of bands led by Marsalis’s peer Terence Blanchard and second-generation “young lion” Joshua Redman. They include drummers Brian Blade, Eric Harland, and Kendrick Scott, pianists Brad Mehldau, Robert Glasper, and Aaron Parks, and guitarist Lionel Loueke. If you ask students enrolled in conservatory and college jazz programs which contemporary jazz players they listen to the most, these are some of the names you will hear.

So if the Jazz Wars really are over—if we are finally ready to accept a jazz pantheon that celebrates the greatness of Louis Armstrong and electric Miles, Duke Ellington and Cecil Taylor (which, I should add, is a view most working jazz musicians have long embraced)—where does that leave us? Well, we might begin by notifying the conservatories. Most college jazz programs uncritically regurgitate the misleading “jazz went away” narrative, pointedly ignoring the vitality and diversity of developments in jazz since the ’60s—which, at this point represents more than half of jazz’s recorded lifespan. But you won’t hear much about post-Miles developments in rock-influenced electric jazz or the post-Cecil avant-garde at most leading conservatories or in college jazz studies departments, where young players hone their craft. There are, of course, exceptions (CalArts, the New School, my own alma mater), but for the most part, the jazz education industry remains fixated on training students in the bebop-based musical vocabulary that prevailed for a very limited period of jazz history (from about 1945 to 1960 or so), to the exclusion of practically everything else. Prior to IAJE’s untimely demise, the organization largely promoted a similarly parochial view of jazz, much to the frustration of progressive-minded musicians.

The modern jazz educational establishment is in many ways a product of the Jazz Wars. Wynton’s own credibility as a formidable classical performer and recording artist played a huge role in helping to legitimize jazz in the eyes of the conservatory—it’s doubtful that Juilliard’s Jazz Studies program would exist today without Marsalis’s influence. And the museumification of the jazz tradition he and Crouch advocated was comforting and familiar to a classical establishment largely distrustful of radical shit-disturbers and anything that smacks remotely of popular culture. But the jazz education mainstream, now-entrenched, has been slow to react to the facts on the ground. For the most part, conservatories and college jazz programs are acting like Hiroo Onoda—still fighting a war they don’t realize ended years ago. The AACM School of Music, the School for Improvisational Music, the Jazz and Creative Music Workshop at the Banff Centre for the Arts all provide an invaluable corrective to the prevailing curriculum, but to say that these unaccredited programs lack the resources and prestige of a place like Juilliard, for example, would be to understate the case somewhat.

The educational establishment would reply that they are merely focusing on fundamentals—by which they mean a bebop-based approach to swing, blues, and standards. But this is a straw man. Nobody thinks young jazz musicians should be deprived of the opportunity to learn to thread changes on “Cherokee.” The question is whether the leading jazz programs are also going to give a fair and accurate account of what has happened in jazz since the ’60s, or whether they are instead going to continue to perpetrate the fiction that “jazz went away for a while.”

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe jazz really is dead. Or perhaps Frank Zappa’s diagnosis was correct, and it merely smells funny. Call me a cock-eyed optimist, but I happen to think the outlook is good. Jazz musicians of all stripes have spent the post-Jazz Wars era forging ahead with smart, visceral music that is reaching a new audience—our grounding in jazz fundamentals actually makes it easier for us to reach across genre barriers and engage with the wider musical culture, as jazz musicians have been doing throughout the music’s history. The wounds inflicted during the Jazz Wars are already healing, and I suspect we will survive the current economic crunch as well. But even if the doomsayers are right, and jazz has, at long last, shuffled off this mortal coil, then let’s at least have the decency to give her an honest autopsy.


Darcy James Argue is the ringleader behind Secret Society, an 18-piece steampunk big band that performs his original works. The group plays regularly around New York City—highlights from their recent performance at (Le) Poisson Rouge will be available this fall at Secret Society, which is also the home of Argue’s regularly updated interweb pamphlet.

In addition to Secret Society, Argue’s works have been performed by members of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Cologne Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, and Los Angeles’ Symphonic Jazz Orchestra. He is also a founding member of the New York composers’ federation Pulse. Originally from Vancouver, British Columbia, Argue was mentored by legendary jazz composer Bob Brookmeyer, and has also studied with Lee Hyla, Randall Woolf, Maria Schneider, and John Hollenbeck.

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