The practices of Jazz education are profoundly wrong. I speak from expensive experience. Firsthand, I swallowed the tacitly understood lie that grounds all Jazz education: Jazz is the center of the musical universe. According to the lie, all contemporary genres with head bowed may submit to our divine patronage, yet none are worthy of our serious study; at best, they are worthy of theft which does not even understand what it steals. There is no understanding because The Lie teaches that other genres are elevated when let into the throne room of Jazz--the Great American Art. In fact the opposite is often true: they are weakened by fusion with a music that has not survived the scrutiny of the public eye for many decades. They are cheapened and broken by the arrogance of Jazz. Our “Standards” are American Popular (Popular, Popular, Popular) Songs from the 30-50’s. Our musical standards only exist in relation to the practices of Jazz, a music that has lost virtually its entire audience. One would think allegiance to this music requires Herculean rationalization, but the process starts early, so by the time we are pumping out albums into a non-existent market at our own lavish expense we--while grimly bitching about the sacrifices of a life in Jazz, and, worse, in New York--continue to play this non-functional music with an evaporating puddle of an audience.
The paradox and absurdity of Jazz education is that it calcifies a music that owed its very existence to contemporary, popular musical languages. Apart from all rhetoric about the value of Jazz in American history, the relevance of Jazz to a popular audience was predicated on one foot being sincerely planted in the field of popular sounds; once that foot was in the door, the highest levels of craft and artistry could be seamlessly smuggled in and therein lay one of the most incredible things about Jazz: there was no compromise between High and Low. It was exciting and smart and malleable and American. The stylistic signposts we inherited--the sound of which say “Jazz” to many people--are mostly past languages of popular music. The songs, the rhythms, and the harmonies used by Great Jazz Musicians were heavily based on purely popular sounds. Ellington’s writing would not be propelled by swing if swing was not a contemporary style, but because it swung he could write anything…he could unleash his craft on an engaged (and often dancing) public. And when asked about “Jazz”, Ellington’s response was clear: “I don’t play Jazz. I play American music”. And when asked about Jazz, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis talked about Stravinsky and Bartok, about theory and technique, about Blues…they didn’t lock themselves in a word. Birth of the Cool, a canonic jazz album, was, to paraphrase the Downbeat review: “very interesting, but not Jazz”. When Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy pushed Jazz further into the esoteric, it was still very much culturally hot both in Europe and America. One foot was still in popular music. New sub-genres opened in Jazz. What was Jazz? The cross of Jazz was dutifully carried into the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s…each decade carried a further alienation, a further lurch into irrelevance. In fact, one can trace it exactly: as the assimilation of popular music became more and more hamfisted or absent, so the music declined in relevance. Being irrelevant to popular culture does not mean that the music is bad. Far from it. However, I am arguing that--if we are to truly reckon with what defines Jazz--it is essential to factor in two things: a) its free and competent usage of popular music languages, and b) its function culturally. I believe Jazz at its core is a music that must continually move. Cultural relevance generates heat and heat generates movement. It is not a style; it is a process.
So that’s my story. I gave a lot of my life to a lie. It’s a lie that made me a broadly competent musician, a good one, even. It’s a lie that has provided so many of the most meaningful things in my life. It’s the music that I love, but the lie that I hate. I’m done with the lie, but I’m just beginning with the music. When one dies, the other can live. The mindset of my music is Jazz, but the music itself is not Jazz because I don’t think the Jazz of yesterday wants anything to do with the Jazz of today. The jazz of yesterday wouldn’t call itself Jazz. It’s a paradox, by saying I am playing Jazz, I therefore am not. If you love something set it free.