Should we play bebop or neo soul jazz?
The short answer is both. The long answer involves popular trends throughout history, the clash of generations and the need to preserve aural and harmonical tradition. A few weeks ago I was reading the opening blog post (30.1.2015, Jazzpresso) on jazzfinland.fi, a site created to promoting (Finnish) jazz culture and serving both as a platform for jazz artists in Finland and a bridge between the jazz community and the general public. It was titled “What will happen to the tradition of jazz music in the future?” by the world-famous Sibelius-Academy professor, composer, pianist and drummer Jukkis Uotila.
By taking the a risk I will paraphrase a bit what Uotila was driving at. The article states that preservation of traditional African-American root elements and especially , when it comes to jazz, the thematic and harmonic elements of bebop, are missing the further we get away from the so-called “golden generation” of bebop. In other words jazz is not played the same way it had been before. From a technical point of view bebop is the peak of harmonic and instrumental mastery. What it essentially is composing lines using smooth voice leading on the spot at tremendous speed.
Uotila states that European jazz has furthered itself from the African-American tradition formin its own sub-genre that is more subtle and simplistic. The general acceptance of what is considered jazz by the general public has changed a lot during recent decades and it is now easier to be a “jazz” musician without playing any of the “traditional” jazz language. European jazz is unwilling to admit the significance of the influence black cultural music has had on itself, states Uotila.
About present society trends
I do disagree with some of the points in the article. But to get into those I to go off-tangent a bit first. I have to point something out that is essential about current behaviour trends. There has been a major trend in society where short term investments have been prioritized over long term ones which is somewhat been helped out by technological advancement in data transfer. The possibility of credit outside the traditional banking systems (fast loans), the simplistic dating and social apps that cut out the need of physical social skills management all the way to government/institutional selling of long term (national) investments all lead to short term gratification but are things I deem detrimental in the long term.
Put it another way – investing time to get a desired goal in the future is not seen as an admirable thing since you can get the same amount of admiration and satisfaction with much less effort. Loans enable you to consume immediately despite long term effects. Social media and social apps offers an “abundance” of social contacts but lack the hormonal interchange the cortex exchanges and needs for balance during physical engagement. An inelastic workforce market (hard to fire people and thus hard to hire new ones) forces a workforce that is not in equilibrium and so doesn’t bring insensitive for people to invest many years in school if the best qualified workforce is not always considered in the market. Political and managerial positions that get chosen by connections and and not objective skills are seen by the upcoming generation as a signal that school and education is not valued.
The current state of art and music
What does all that have to do with jazz? It all comes down to how much we appreciate hard work. A jazz musician that had devoted years in studying the jazz language should get as much aspiration as a professor in economics if they have devoted the same amount of time and effort. That is not the case – it was before when professional musicians were few and reproduction of music was harder to do. However since it is easier to make music, copy and reproduce music nowadays there is a movement towards “easier” alternatives to live musicians.
There was , however, a section in the Finnish law that kept live music alive further than it would have otherwise been. Live music played in many bars and clubs served as a permit to be able to serve alcohol late at night thus increasing potential revenue. The law stated “quality entertainment” is needed for he permit and live music fell into that category. However that meant that people didn’t care for the musicians and neither did the owners. The high cost of professional musicians was the driving factor of getting less talented and cheaper ones because the only reason for having them was to serve alcohol. Later, the DJ became a much cheaper alternative and since last year the law changed again removing the requirement for quality entertainment. That made the situation even worse. The whole appreciation of the workforce of real hard working musicians dropped a lot during the time that happened. People are just used to the fact that musicians are cheap and they perform somewhat on the same level. Which of course is no the case. One driving factor is that the way society treats art is essential in how the artform develops and what is expected of artists and this political game has taken a lot of resources and credit from the music cicles. That combined with the lessened appreciation of long term investments and hard work has let to detrimental result for musicians.
Technology has made it possible for “anyone” to be an artist, get exposure and stop being dependant on record companies and institutions for exposure. This has supply of musicians practically endless. Record companies, although stubborn at first, realised they needed to change the way they should act if they want to keep their dominance in the music industry. What they did is change the landscape of the market. They solved the issues by teaming up with or establishing their own event organizing companies and thus started getting major shares of live event promotion opportunities. Smaller organizing companies were bought out or outsized. Also the same happened in Finland. So essentially the music market shifted from selling records to selling live gigs and events (festivals). The stress of the assets was then placed mainly on stage presence and a fake illusion of marketability (since they had majority control of commercial exposure anyway) and the new “product” was the experience you get from a live event then the actual art form or music. Artists became vastly consumable products and were made to do insane amounts of live events every year by contract or they would just be replaced by the “next big thing”. Because competition is poor in the event organizing and record company market a few companies get to organize most major events and hold most ties to commercial exposure.
Back to the afordmentioned lack of appreciation which I think is somewhat illusional. People do appreciate sub-genres more than what one would assume but commercial exposure is very limited and thus competition for exposure is severe. So all sub-genres, traditional jazz and classical included, have to preserve themselves in a very small bubble that has less and less air as the time goes by. Many artist feel this as too restricting and broaden their horizons to new genres and styles. But I do disagree (with Uotila) that anyone is disrespecting the jazz tradition if they don’t play traditional jazz or admit they are influenced by African-American music. The way people should feel art is subjective and the possibility to reflect through art is the reason people consume it. Cultural referance and appreciation is cructial to understanding why art work the way it does. I think the bigger problem that should be discussed is how can we start getting models that signal that hard work and long term investment should be appreciated even though results cannot be measured or seen right away. A world or society without culture (art and sport) is a dark place since people will find less healthy ways to balance routines and emotional imbalances. These are serious issues.
Institutional jazz is perseverance jazz and thus similar to traditional classical music
What I seem to feel about the Sibelius Academy jazz department is the major importance of bebop as a major reference point. From the entrance exam, to the education and the jam sessions – bebop is very present everywhere. That is nice if you treat it as a preservation art form. Bebop is however time-stapled – it was popular music at a certain time but it was mainly an inner circle music made by musicians for musicians. It overshadowed the function of tradition swing that preceded bebop – dancing. There is a point in most music genres when a cultural reference point is lost and it is precisely that moment when the genre starts to form a bubble. And that is where I think bebop is today – in a bubble both admired by the people that lived when it was popular and by people that try to preserve it in a vacuum (mainly students). The moment a cultural reference link is re-established with the present audience is the moment this bubble busts. And that is where I disagree about Uotila’s assessment about the negative comments about the new jazz generation trying new things and elements – it is essential for the exposure of jazz and therefore traditional jazz as well.
Now how does that relate to classical music? I think institutional jazz and classical music are culturally quite similar. By institutional jazz I mean the type that it thought in universities , the so-cold “serious” jazz education. I feel the goal of it is preservation of an art form – the same way classical is. Although improvisation is a major differing factor between the genres I still feel the style of improvisation is very bebop driven and thus restricting. Which is fine when we are dealing with preservation art. I understand the importance in that. But that is not all it is. Modern jazz dos not equal preservation jazz.
Classical music and institutional jazz are actually siblings
Let’s get back in time for this one. Jazz as I see it as an art form is free from restrictions and is mainly and extension of yourself as an artist and individual. Classical music’s restrictive form in term of improvisation is a very new thing historically. Classical music and traditional music have much more in common as one may assume. Before the printing press most copied notations were unique and based on a certain situation. During the baroque era improvisation was the standard and notation was used just as reference just as lead sheets in jazz. Harmonically voice leading was very close to the bebop language – chord notes were approached mostly diatonically. The romantic classical era brought chromatic approach and the introduction to voicings later used in jazz. Improvisation was very common at the time and the whole piano improvised recital set the groundwork for jazz piano a century later. That harmony was later expanded upon during the impressionist era and later transitioned into early jazz.
Composing and improvisation are kind of the same thing, one just happens simultaneously. During all these periods improvisation was the standard and when you played a piece by someone you were actually playing his or her transcription. And the thing that kept them part of the present repertoire was the cultural reference they had. Compositions were dedicated to an important political individuals or royality or the themes were relating to literature/art that was relevant at the time.
The moment where a cultural reference point is lost is the moment music moves into perseverance territory. The current audience will still listen to the compositions and the way they are played will be strapped in time. If one deviates from the way one is “supposed” to play it since it has “always” being played that way , it is wrong. Vladimir Horowitz, Artur Rubinstein and Leopold Godowsky improvised sometimes during their Chopin recitals which many frowned upon. However they were actually playing the pieces much more than how Chopin played them himself and thus honoring him even more.
So what is happening in a nutshell
I think the same is happening today with jazz – the jazz elite circles expect a certain sound that if not emulated the same way is playing jazz “wrong”. However I feel that musical expression is very personal – my style and liking of jazz and improvisation is very different to what would be considered “proper” jazz. My approach is that the piano is an imitating instrument and that the best thing you can imitate on it is the human voice. So I like the type of jazz that can emulate that. Influences like Oliver Jones, Diana Krall, Shirley Horn, Mulgrew Miller, Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan are important to me. I am sure they all could play bebop well but their style is modern and personal.
I think that making a personal stylistic impact while having the tradition rooted is what we should aim for instead of copying a style. A good example is Michel Petrucciani. His fast playing style can be seen as modern form of bebop that is still quite unique. Another one is Herbie Hancock who elevated piano comping into an expresion artform and not only a tool for functional harmony. Going forward in time we get to Aaron Parks, Eldar Djangirov, Taylor Eigisti, Robert Glasberg and Jacob Collier – all could play bebop and traditional jazz but have elevated it further.
But there is one trait of all these artists (Hancock’s example with Headhunters, not as an avant-garde player) that make them stand out from others that just play the “same old” traditional jazz – the ability to understand popular culture and the importance of reference points. They understand the importance of audience interaction , of hummable melodies when composing, that people pay to see musical communication at the highest caliber rather then 16 note passages that go on forever. People respect art but they also sence if something is underdone or overdone (if exposure is addecuate to the music). The ability to have a reference and an emotional contact with your audience is a very undervalued skill for many present jazz musicians. The art of being easy to follow is not an easy one. It is also important to know your audience and take them into account. Many times I have witnessed that jazz musicians play for themselves or other like-minded but can sound or feel very distant from an audience outside this jazz-bubble.
Now back to the article I read. With all that I have staed above – I still don’t see how someone that doesn’t study all of jazz language nuances should be considered less than someone that has. Does the end result not have more significance than the background of how one got there?
To answer the question in the title – I think we should do both. Perseverance art is important to carry a lineage. I still think this is a personal preference and not something that should be thought academically. Pushing perseverance as the staple of present jazz is wrong. On the contrary to what the article stated I think people should merge those closed musical sub-genres bubbles even more. Current trends, popular culture and how media shapes (art) consumer tendencies set challenges to artists of all type trying to work hard for exposure. However many things can be done to break certain closed genre bubbles.
Breaking boundaries and setting trends is an important thing to aim for even though it might fail. Touching one person with your art is more important than exposure to thousands that just consume you as a behaviour trait. Personally I would like to use hip-hop artists improvisational (freestyle) skills as an improvisational and rhythmic instrument in jazz settings. Also the piano with (for example) a classical string ensemble by playing classical music by using the composers underlining harmony and utilise some jazz voicings and harmonies that suit the style. The usage of popular songs made into jazz style arrangements is something that is done a lot already. All of those aspects require deeper thought and understanding of each genre but also a certain amount of respect to the past and future. I think this type of deep communication between different genres could only broaden musical horizon and should not be seen as threats to old tradition. Art is subjective and is good to keep it that way. No definition of a genre is owned by a single institution and its representatives even if it the mighty Sibelius Academy! Yes jazz can be serious and complicated but it can also be simple, silly and light at the same time. Maybe one day bebop, neo soul and classical music can shake hands without any eyebrows being raised.
(c) 2018 Sibil Yanev