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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Old World, New World


This post is a response to an interesting blog by the great American pianist George Colligan on the subject of jazz in Europe. To get the most sense out of this one, you should read what he has to say  by clicking here

Jazz is absolutely an American art form in its origins, and like any musical art form, if you go to the source country from which it emanates you are always going to get powerful music. There is much great music coming from the US, as befits the country from which the music first sprang. No America, no jazz – period.

However the power of jazz is, (and was from its very beginnings), the universality of its message, which goes beyond the borders of the US. There’s a message for all mankind in jazz, which explains why it went all around the world almost immediately. A consequence of this was non-Americans playing, or trying to play the music. Usually they were poor copies of the American model, (though not always – Django Reinhard wasn’t too shabby for a European!), but as the decades went on, Europeans, (and Australians and Canadians etc), raised the standard of their playing, and then began to develop their own regional dialects of the music – music that sounded different to the original American model, but contained the essential elements of it.

Nguyen Le

 I say ‘dialects’ here, because for sure the way jazz is played in Italy is, (in general), quite different to the way it’s played in Scandinavia. The same would be true of Germany and Ireland. There is no ‘European Jazz’ as a single entity, any more than there is an ‘American Jazz’ entity. There’s a huge difference between the music of  Steve Coleman and Bill Charlap, between the music of Tim Berne and Brad Mehldau, yet they are all American jazz musicians. Similarly there’s a huge difference between the music of Lous Sclavis and Enrico Pieranunzi, or between Nguyen Le and Bobo Stenson.

So, in my opinion, George’s statement:

 I question whether the music being called "Jazz" in Europe is actually Jazz’

is a sweeping approach which doesn’t take into account the sheer variety of approaches going on in Europe. To ascribe the same stylistic qualities to all European jazz is as narrow as assuming that Wynton Marsalis’ approach to jazz is the one followed by all Americans. Yes the origins of jazz are in the US, and the bulk of the greatest innovations and recordings have historically emanated from the US, (the majority of that coming from the Afro-American community of course). But to deny that non-American jazz musicians can produce jazz of value and originality is like claiming that because the great composers of classical music were European, then the music of Steve Reich, John Adams or Leonard Bernstein has no importance or value.

But while asserting that Europe has many creative world class jazz musicians, I would never subscribe to the argument that jazz in Europe is more creatively vibrant than that being created in the US. Conversely I don’t think the reverse is true either – that America has the monopoly on innovation and creativity. They’re both generalisations, and both arguments can be dismantled in a matter of minutes by even a brief examination of the music being created on both continents. The truth is that there is great music being created on both sides of the Atlantic, by both American and European musicians. 

John Hollenbeck

And to the interested student of the history of the music (such as myself), I think we’re currently in a wonderful period in which jazz musicians from Europe and America are collaborating as never before in creating great music together. There are more European jazz musicians living in New York than ever before (Lage Lund, Jean-Michel Pilc, The Moutin brothers), and a bunch of Americans living in Europe, (John Hollenbeck, Gerry Hemingway, Kurt Rosenwinkel), and I don’t think there have ever been more bands with mixed European and Americans in them than there are currently. Which is tremendously healthy, and shows that this artificial division between European and American jazz is exactly that – artificial. Musicians on both sides of the Atlantic are producing amazing music, and both can, and do, enrich the other.

One thing that George talks about that is definitely true is that jazz is much more subsidized in Europe than the US, which is incredible if you think about it. Jazz  - the amazing art form that America gave to the world, should be feted, celebrated and supported by the US, in the same way that Irish Traditional Music is supported in Ireland, Flamenco in Spain and Taiko drumming in Japan. 

 Vanguard Jazz Orchestra

Jazz is an American national cultural treasure and I find it extraordinarily sad that most people in the US, and the local and Federal governments in particular, couldn’t care less about it. How often do we see the US big gun orchestras, such as the NY Philharmonic, touring in Europe, playing European music to Europeans? Why isn’t the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra sent out instead? At a time when the US often has a poor PR image abroad, jazz is one of the great good news stories to come from the US in the past 100 years – the Americans should be out celebrating it and being proud of it all over the world……… But American taxpayers are not big on paying for culture of any kind, and so the chances of an entity like the VJO being sent out using taxpayer's money, in the way jazz in Europe is supported by European tax payer's money,  is almost non-existent. Sad but true.

But the music lives on, and the geographical barrier between American and European jazz has never seemed smaller, and this has to be a good thing. Instead of parochial sniping between one side and another, let's celebrate the wonderful music that is coming from both continents, both individually and in combination.

To finish, here is a clip of a concert I was involved with in Belgium, with MSG, a trio featuring my Irish self, the Dutch drummer Chander Sardjoe, and the American altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa. An Irishman, a Dutchman,  and an American, playing jazz together in Belgium - the future is now!

1 comment:

  1. Nice article Ronan, thanks for writing something about it.

    If one want to be even more baffled then take a look at the 'best of lists' coming out of the states. This shows that the USA has absolutely no idea of what's happening here - in Europe. I used to listen to Jason Crane's jazz podcast until I got fed up of only hearing about Americans playing jazz, and sometimes taking the credit, although not intentionally, for European innovations. Some of the more open minded musicians have become 'hip' to what's happening here, which is at least comforting.

    Another small point about jazz and America which is often ignored is 'No Europe, No jazz'. In a very brief sentence...people seem to ignore that jazz came about due to a fusion of Africans re-shaping European music. That doesn't mean Europeans invented jazz, but it does show that European influence was vital for jazz to develop as it did.

    Coming to the present day I would ask George Colligan (a fine writer and musician) where he thinks jazz would be today without Europe? Bill Evens lyricism didn't come from Robert Johnson's thudding guitar style and Ellington's arrangement's were not based on the Burundi drummers, and on the same subject one should not to forget Billy Strayhorn's love of European classical music.

    I guess we could spend hours debating and writing about this subject, but maybe the best thing we can say to them is 'what's their loss, is our gain'.

    * p.s. I should add that one of the most interesting (fun and informative) Jason Crane podcasts, in the period I listened to them, was with Ingrid Laubrock, a European!