While the thought of actually listening to a real jazz band doing what it does best might seem to be the biggest drag imaginable to the majority of today's music consumers, it is the very lifeblood of others. We read the general press, the trade journals, the yuppie and buppie slicks, the underground/alternative lifestyle rags, and even the oddity pulps, but we have yet to come across anything beyond a begrudging acknowledgment that jazz even exists. Actually, we've come across the adjectival form of the word, "jazzy," far more frequently than the noun form, and even then it's used to describe something totally irrelevant to the music itself, the way F. Scott Fitzgerald used it in his Tales of the Jazz Age - to name something frivolous, gaudy, superficial, and a bit pathetic.
Actually real jazz - the music that developed most directly from both blues and ragtime, its main sources of emotional inspiration and structural form - has long needed a name change. Duke Ellington, without question one of the few truly indispensible musicians of the Twentieth Century, never liked the word, and did not want to see his art, however blues-based and swinging, so characterized.
Of course Duke, like many of his generational and artistic peers, remembered only too well the days when the word "jazz" (or "jass," in its earlier spelling) was deployed primarily as a transitive verb, as in "to jazz (someone)." Though the reason our 1900-1915 red-light districts needed a euphemistic substitute for the venerable Anglo-Saxon verb "to fuck" escapes historical explanation, the word has nevertheless remained in our vocabulary, however altered its current application is from its original sense. In any case, the reason for the shift in meaning from sexual activity to its associative definition as the sort of music played in these environs, though easier to understand linguistically, does not sit well with those who wish to see our music accorded the respect it deserves as an original native art form.
Accordingly, some spokesmen have agreed among themselves that either "Afro-American classical music" or "black classical music" would be more appropriate generic classifications than "jazz." But if that's so, what about all of the undeniably great white contributors to this music, all the way from Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti, and Adrian Rollini in the Twenties, through Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan, and Pee Wee Russell in the Thirties and Forties, to Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and Phil Woods in more modern times? In addition to the built-in discrimination and pretentiousness of the Afro-American tag, there is also the matter of record shops - whoops! CD/cassette/laser disc/videotape emporiums - inconveniently having to redesign their display cards to accommodate such an unwieldy handle.
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Obviously, there is a problem with jazz - not the music, but the word - and especially the way it influences promotion and marketing. I'm not referring to Ellington's objections to its unsavory origins, for these have passed into the mists of time. What I am referring to is the way the word has become so misapplied to other kinds of music of late that its true meaning has gotten lost in the mire. Because I'm speaking generally, there is no need to cite examples from either the national or local fronts to illustrate this contention. But I will say that there are several types of popular music being played in public and recorded for widespread consumption that, though labeled as "jazz," have as little to do with the real thing as, say, country-and-western or rap.
Real jazz, in all of its variegated approaches, has been around for more than 75 years. Its many styles, though sometimes confusing to newcomers, are really less in opposition to one another than would seem on the surface. As a matter of fact, the history of jazz is more a history of evolution than revolution. However, to those who have studied the much-longer history of European classical music, or especially Indian and Asian musics, the development of jazz seems a brief thing indeed. But since perception of time is both relative and elastic, to those born and reared within the post-Presley/Beatles era, who discover increasingly deeper spiritual significance in heavy metal or punk literally from night to night, who measure their life cycles from one rave to the next, the prospect of encountering something as musically challenging as jazz must be the most awesome threat conceivable after the thudding realization that adulthood is just around the corner. Wake up, chillun, wake up!
Not to fear. The state of jazz is now undergoing a period of reappraisal and consolidation. Older traditions, such as New Orleans-style, swing, and bebop, are being reinvestigated and assimilated today by musicians still in their twenties and thirties. In some cases, these are young men and women who may have grown up playing R&B, soul, even rock, and who, as their expertise grew, felt restricted by the limitations of these styles and reached toward jazz as a means of broadening their creative and expressive horizons.
It takes time to shuck off the habits of the formative years, but many of these younger players, through assiduous study, have for the first time discovered the virtues of real challenge. The recording scene today, because of the growing number of independent labels, provides a ready stage for these new talents, and it is our hope to bring many of these new recordings, as well as a sampling of worthy reissues, to your attention. Don't let anyone fool you. Jazz is not only still alive. It's ready to boot your ass.