Buy 'Hands' - my new recording with Dave Binney, Tom Rainey, and Chris Guilfoyle!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Boston or Berlin?

And so I gingerly set foot in the shark infested waters of the topic of American and European jazz. The title of this post, “Boston or Berlin?”, refers to a classic question asked of any Irish government of the last 30 years — do they lean more towards America, a traditional ally with deep historical ties to Ireland,  or to mainland Europe with which Ireland has been allied since entering the EU in 1974. This could equally be a question that’s asked of any young jazz musician in Europe -  do they identify more with American jazz, or do they take European models as their starting point? The same question probably couldn’t be asked of a young American jazz musician, since while young European jazz musicians are aware of what’s going on in the US, it’s rarely the case that their young American counterparts have any knowledge of jazz outside of the United States.

And why should they? After all, in the recent Jazz Journalist’s Awards only one European (Toots Thielemans for ‘Instruments Rare in Jazz’) made it into the winner’s enclosure, and only two, (add Evan Parker), even made it into the nominees list.

Of course the focus on American jazz by American jazz journalists is completely understandable – but I think it’s a shame that they are so insular. Not only are they missing out on a lot of great musicians and music, they’re also not really doing the right thing by their readers – which, if anecdotal evidence is to be believed, comprises largely of musicians. Yes, musicians who do the European touring circuit are more aware of the wide variety of jazz activity in Europe  - but for those who are not lucky enough to get on the European gravy train, and who ply their trade solely in the US? Well they’re certainly not going to learn about European jazz activity from the US jazz scribes.

I originally considered writing this post a while ago while reading the ’Can Jazz Be Saved?’ controversy in the US. Terry Teachout used NEA figures to posit that jazz was in danger of disappearing, which prompted a firestorm of reaction from all quarters in US jazz blogdom. What was interesting to me as a European jazz musician, as I sit on the edge of a Continent that supports a huge amount of jazz activity – festivals, recordings, big bands, tours, clubs etc. - was the implicit suggestion in this discussion that jazz exists only in the US, which of course isn’t true. I feel that a more accurate title for that controversy would have been ‘Can Jazz Be Saved in America?’. Because jazz in Europe, relative to the US at least, is in rude health. Of course the same recent economic travails have affected the music in Europe too, but there’s still a huge amount of activity, young audiences, and money (less then there was, but there nevertheless), to support jazz activity of all kinds.

And it’s not just European musicians who benefit from this activity, In fact it’s true to say that over the past thirty years at least, that for many American musicians, making a living in jazz has only been made possible by the vitality and economic clout of the European jazz scene. Jazz - at least as a viable way to make a living for many American musicians – was ‘saved’ decades ago by the European tax payer!  Even the biggest names depend on Europe for a large part of their work – just having a quick look at Brad Mehldau’s upcoming concerts for example: From the list of 65 listed on his website, 39 are in Europe. So Europe accounts over 60% of Brad’s upcoming concerts – a statistic that tells its own story.

So while I can understand the concern over the music’s travails in the land of its birth, to carry on a debate about the economic woes of jazz, and the possibility of its disappearance, without once mentioning the vitality of the European jazz scene, and its impact on keeping the music alive and economically viable seems a bit blinkered to say the least.

But American jazz journalists ARE a bit blinkered when it comes to this topic. I’m not in the slightest bit interested in the US vs European jazz wars bullshit, this is much more about the fact that serious jazz writers are not checking out some very good music and bringing it to the attention of their readers.

And what is a shame about this is that many people are missing out on learning about great music and great musicians. This is especially a pity for young American jazz musicians who have absolutely no idea of the existence of great players on their instruments. For example -  if you are young trombonist you HAVE to know about Nils Wogram, certainly one of the greatest players on the instrument today. If you’re a bassist and you like Scott Colley for example, you are definitely going to like Anders Jormin. If you’re a pianist who likes Brad Mehldau you are definitely going to find great things in Stefano Bollani and Enrico Pieranunzi, if you are a drummer and you like Ari Hoenig then check out Chander Sardjoe. If you like that whole M-Base scene then check out Stéphane Payen or Franck Vaillant. If you’re an improvising string player you’ll find killer and very original players in Europe like Dominique Pifarely, or the cellist Vincent Courtois. Is there a more original guitarist anywhere than Marc Ducret? What about Christy Doran? Nguyen Le? You like virtuosic legato lyrical playing? Try Julian Arguelles. And as for an unclassifiable original, how about Mederic Collignon? If you’re into composition, how about Django Bates? And there are many many more.

While all of these musicians are influenced to a greater or lesser degree by American musicians, they all bring a European sensibility to their playing and writing – a different approach that is definitely worth checking out, and worth listening to.

And there are great things going on between Americans and Europeans at the moment too. And not just the kind of ‘American star with local rhythm section’ thing that used to be the most common form of European/American interaction, but genuine artistic triumphs that represent the collective backgrounds of musicians from both sides of the ocean. For example Enrico Pieranunzi’s trio with Marc Johnson and Joey Baron, or Tim Berne’s ‘Big Satan’ with Marc Ducret and Tom Rainey and Carlos Bica’s ‘Azul’ with Frank Mobus and Jim Black. And I’ll even risk the charge of being self serving by mention MSG, the trio I’m in with Rudresh Mahanthappa and Chander Sardjoe. These are all examples of groups producing great music which reflect a combination of American and European approaches to contemporary improvisation.

There is a whole continent out there with a lot of gigs, festivals, musicians, ideas, tours and creativity going on. Europe provides a financial lifeline for many American musicians, as well as the opportunity to collaborate with their European colleagues (and also gives Europeans the chance to collaborate with their US colleagues too of course). European musicians themselves are producing vital original music all the time. And of course though I’m just mentioning European jazz here, because there are also great musicians in other non-American environments too – Brazil, Canada and Australia immediately spring to mind. Yet as far as the JJA Awards are concerned, and most American jazz writers, anything east (or North or South) of the US just doesn’t exist.

In terms of what’s really going on in the WORLD of jazz, it makes their writing and by extension their awards quite parochial. It’s like having a major American newspaper that doesn’t have a Foreign News desk.


  1. Well Ronan nice blog post. I'm constantly leaving messages all over the American (jazz) internet about their insular behaviour. Somehow I don't think it's going to change in the near future for many reasons to complex and wordy to go into here.

  2. I agree entirely wih your analysis, but I don't think it will be accepted in America.

    I had a discussion on this subject a couple of years ago with a group of American musicians, some of whom were living in Europe. They completely accepted the talent and quality of the European musicians (actually in the discussion we talked mainly about British musicians such as John Taylor, John Surman and Tom Arthurs).

    However, in a very American view of the world they dismissed them as talented but unimportant because they had never tested their talent in the competitive market place of the USA.

    Their view was that until a musician has tested themselves and proved successful in the US market, their talent was just talent - unproven. And of course success in the US market is what leads to the big tours and the big bucks, and I imagine leads to the sales of magazines.

    Its difficult to think that musicians might choose to rate other artists based on market acceptance - but its clear that some do.

  3. Hey Ronan! Great playing with your MSG trio. Your points here are well put. As small as the world has become, there are still great divides in jazz-world geography.

  4. I think there are long cycles at work in the US/Europe jazz relationship.

    SInce the late 19th century, we've thought of ourselves as the prime movers of popular music-evolving it from earlier European folk or classical forms.

    We know (and mostly admit, I think) that Europeans were early lovers of jazz and, in certain respects gave it more respect than we did. For US musicians, Europe had the reputation of spawning a few geniuses, but was seen more as an escape valve for those who found the US a drag (racially, especially).

    There' been cross-fertilization for many years, but with the view that we in the US were the masters and Europeans had to scramble to catch or keep up.

    I don't think US musicians and critics are happy about the idea that our scene, compared to that in Europe, is slightly moribund and that our socio/psychic primacy in this music is in doubt.