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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 5

Jazz, The Second Century, Part I: New York’s New Scene

by Phil Ehrensaft / February 1, 2000

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The 21st century is jazz's second century. How can we explain the contemporary absence of great innovators in jazz, apart from Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, who have passed their 70th birthday? Our age has more high-quality players than any previous time. For three decades, however, there has been no new Armstrong, Bird, or Coltrane. Does a music of incremental improvements on a great heritage have a future? As in the classical world, important voices are asking who or what may be killing the art form.

One quandary is economic. High ticket prices climb higher, spurred by fat fees for stars and basement prices for the rest. Five multinationals push the most marketable stars to a niche public that accounts for less than 4% of annual recording sales.

The rebound is already audible. A new breed of affordable jazz clubs populates low-rent districts in New York. Le Monde's Jazzman Magazine lists 34 New York venues where fans can hear first-rate music for less than $15. Live Internet broadcasts from the Knitting Factory now bring downtown NYC to the entire planet.

A second supposed crisis is demographic. Graying audiences are strangely cited as a death knell. In fact, jazz is an "identity music." Baby-boomers chose jazz as a hip self-definition that resonates throughout life. The boomers, one third of our population, also had high birth rates, resulting in the "echo babyboom." The Echo crowd is now filling up New York's affordable clubs and putting leading-edge jazz on community radio and the Internet.

Yet there is little sign of the upheavals that bebop and free jazz created in their own time. One reason may be the transfer of jazz mentoring from informal networks to university music faculties. This has a price: the institutionalization of a previously irascible and mobile music. The bustling jazz department at Greenwich Village's New School is the exception that proves the rule.

The majority of students enrolled in university jazz programs are white. This is obviously sensitive for African-Americans. Most blacks respect anyone from any corner of the globe who can make the grade. At the same time, they are anxious about appropriation of an art music created by African-Americans despite formidable obstacles.

My own conviction is that residents of space colonies in the year 2100 will tell their computers to play Miles' Kind of Blue or catch a live jazz broadcast from New York. The band's members will hail from every corner of the faraway earth. They will play improvised music deeply rooted in jazz's African-American origins, even while stretching the envelope in ways we cannot imagine now.

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