Jazz, The Second Century, Part I: New York’s New Sceneby Phil Ehrensaft
/ February 1, 2000
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
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
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.