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Thursday, January 26, 2017

'I Dare You' - Innovation Versus Tradition, The Perennial Jazz Struggle

'To me the word jazz means: 'I dare you.'
Wayne Shorter 

Wayne Shorter (photo - Robert Ascroft)

There is a New York musician with whom I'm friends on Facebook. He is a very fine player, is well known in the scene there, and has played with lots of legendary figures in jazz, many of whom are now passed on. His most common Facebook posts take the form of admonitory messages to the younger generation of jazz musicians, whom he sees as being deficient in true jazz virtues and as being disconnected from the tradition. A posting of a Youtube video of a great past master will usually be accompanied by a comment highlighting the inability of younger musicians to play in the style and tradition of that master, and the admonition to these young musicians will often include a dismissive remark about odd metres or 'weird' scales. The message is - 'you young guys think you're great with your complex scales and rhythms, but you have no right to value your work as highly as you do because you can't play the real shit, don't know the tradition, and haven't served an apprenticeship with the masters, as I have'.

There is a subtext to this, that insists that unless you can play the tradition, (whatever that means to different people, though it's usually applied to the playing of the swing idiom and to the playing of standards), to a level that is comparable with past masters, then you can't be taken seriously as a jazz musician.

On the other side of the coin is the argument that playing standards in 4/4 swing reached its sell-by date 40 years ago, and that playing in this idiom is only undertaken because jazz schools insist upon it, and that it has no meaning in the 21st Century. In Europe in particular, this is a commonly held view by young musicians. The message is, 'I'm a young musician who came up listening to much different music to that of earlier generations. I have no affinity or connection with the standard repertoire or swing idiom, so why should I waste any time trying to emulate something I have no connection with or belief in?'

This tension and conflict between musicians who see themselves as upholders of a great tradition and musicians who see themselves as trailblazers with no need for genuflection to the past has been around in jazz for at least 70 years. It may have existed before that, but it is very evident in the Bebop era, when Swing era, (and earlier), performers were sometimes commercially, (and sometimes critically), swept aside by the bebop revolution. Louis Armstrong, himself one of the greatest innovators in jazz, scornfully described Bebop as 'Chinese music'. Here was a man who had been a trailblazer himself, a giant of the music, feeling threatened by, or at least feeling very uncomfortable with a music that he saw as having no connection to the tradition with which he identified.

For me, the idea that you must play the tradition to show your jazz bonafides, or the idea that to play the tradition is to make yourself automatically redundant, are both too simplistic and not nuanced enough to encompass the vast range of personal expression jazz is capable of. I was raised listening to jazz that was based on swing rhythms and standard forms, and that's the material I covered when I was learning to play - playing with older musicians, playing tunes, having to learn loads of standards, knowing the classic recordings, immersed in the tradition of the music. But I also have interests in other music, and as I began to bring these interests into the music I was playing and the music I was writing, I experienced at firsthand the kind of derision and suspicion that is so often engendered when older musicians are faced with the different tastes and interests of younger musicians - musicians whom they don't consider to have earned the right to be different.

Jelly Roll Morton

I find myself in both camps - I truly believe in the tradition of jazz and its core values - swing, blues, standard repertoire, and a veneration of the great figures of the music. But equally I see innovation and the development of new ideas as also being a core value of jazz. From its inception jazz has been resolutely modernist. The players who were most highly regarded we're not those who sounded like somebody else, but those who did something different. This tradition of innovation, of individuality, on the idea of moving the music forward has been a highly prized facet of jazz since it's early years. Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington - all of these giants were revered for their innovations, not for referencing past glories. 

And this forward looking psychology was dominant in jazz right up to the 1980s when the 'Young Lions' became the first real movement in jazz in which younger musicians expressly set out to copy their musical ancestors. Spokesmen for this cohort were very outspoken about what did and didn't qualify as jazz, right down to how the music should be recorded, and there were even officially approved methods of playing certain instruments (no pickups allowed on the bass....). This conservative outlook, while very prominent for a while, did eventually recede somewhat, but also left a lasting mark. A valuable one in my opinion in that it did bring the 4/4 swing tradition into the conversation of where jazz was, or should be going. Having said that, the ideological doctrine of this movement was far too narrow for me and while admiring their respect for one aspect of the great tradition - swing - their rejection another aspect - innovation and change - makes them ultimately, (and ironically) myopic in their view of very tradition they seek to uphold.

In trying to make sense of the tradition versus innovation argument, I think there's another important value that is overlooked very often and which to me is key to judging any jazz performance - the idea of personal expression. Authenticity and personality, rather than style, are the most important qualities that need to be on display in any performance in jazz for it to have any meaning. It's interesting to me that both camps see themselves as being radically different from each other, yet make the same kind of stereotypical accusations against each other - that the opposing camp's music is 'all the same'. For the traditionalists the music of the younger generation is marked by bloodless complexity, cleverness for its own sake, and lack of groove. For the non-traditionalists the music of the traditionalists is marked by cliched forms, licks and expressive devices trotted out ad nauseam. But either of these accusations is only true if the music that's being played is being played really badly! If the music is played well and with real personality, the means of expression, whether it's traditional swing or not, is immaterial. Vibe and personality is everything - style is a matter of the listener's taste and personal history.

Roman Schwaller

Let's look at some examples from different parts of the jazz spectrum. Firstly here's a track from an album I listen to a lot by the great Swiss tenor player Roman Schwaller (reproduced here with his permission). It's from an album called 'The Thurgovian Suite' and it features a group of players from Australia, Europe, and America (showing the universality of the swing idiom), playing original tunes by Roman. The music is resolutely in the modern swing tradition with very typical values associated with the best swing playing being on display - the very burning groove, great solos, tight ensemble playing and true interaction between the rhythm section and soloists. The vibe on this whole album is so vibrant and alive, and anyone who can listen to this, criticise it because it is using traditional jazz values and miss the sheer musicality, power and unity of purpose of the band is absolutely missing the point in spectacular fashion

Wayne Shorter, a man in his 80s, is still defiantly in the experimental camp. In a recent interview he said 'I still believe in a future jazz music. I am not trading in nostalgia'. He is in a way the perfect link between the two viewpoints - a player who has played at, and emerged from the highest levels of the tradition, yet has always been a trailblazer and innovator. In this excerpt from a concert with his by now classic quartet, he's playing a piece that has a backbeat rather than a swing groove, has collective rather than individual solos, yet is bursting with jazz energy and vibe. This music has one foot in the traditional camp of playing over song form based on changes, but has a very different collective modus operandi than would be heard on a traditional swing tune.

And finally something quite different - music by the New York saxophonist John O'Gallagher based on the compositions of the iconic classical 20th Century composer Anton Webern. This is complex music, both rhythmically and harmonically, yet again it has that vibe, that energy, that interaction between soloists and rhythm section that is the hallmark of good jazz, of any era and style

The arguments about what style constitutes the 'real shit' should be more centred on the mastery of the language that the improviser has chosen to express themselves in rather than the style itself. Playing swing does not automatically make you old fashioned, nor does eschewing swing make you inauthentic in the world of jazz. It's all about the vibe, the sense of the personal in the players. In the end it's about playing good music - so let's concentrate on that and give up these by now redundant arguments about style. Tradition is great in the right hands, so is innovation - there is no need to choose between them.


  1. I've not seen anyone discuss this chronic problem before. It's what I call the "black line principle". People like to draw a black line at some arbitrary date or event. Anything before that date is acceptable, all else is heresy. However, we need both: the traditionalists and the upstarts. After all the oldsters were once the upstarts, and I'm sure the establishment criticized them for abusing the established order.

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