The following review is slated for publication in the March 2006 issue of Jazz Notes, the quarterly publication of the Jazz Journalists Association, edited by yours truly.


Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has It Moved to a New Address)
By Stuart Nicholson
Routledge, New York/London, 2005; 270 pp; $19.95 paperback

Review by David R. Adler

With the title of this book, Stuart Nicholson poses a lingering and portentous question, but he gives the game away by the fifth page of his introduction: “[S]ince the death of Miles Davis in 1991, there have been no significant developments in American jazz….” Based in Britain, Nicholson presents a case for Europe as one of jazz’s “new addresses,” an alternative to America’s “omnipresent jazz mainstream.” He maintains that in Europe, much more than in the U.S., jazz’s original spirit of aesthetic innovation and cultural mixing is alive and well.

Let’s first admit that play-it-safe American jazz exists (although it is not as “hegemonic” as Nicholson claims). Much of the new European music covered in this book merits close attention, and the author deserves credit for raising its profile in the U.S. via articles for The New York Times, Jazz Times and other outlets. He presents his affirmative case in the latter half of the book, with chapters that cover new technology and the influence of DJ culture; the phenomenon of “glocalization” (“hybridity resulting from the interaction of global pop with local musical forms”); the “Nordic Tone” in jazz as a case study in glocalization; and a worthwhile conclusion that contrasts Europe’s public investment in the arts with America’s neglectful, market-driven realities. The book’s second half has the makings of a solid study of new European jazz, presented in rich and informative historical context.

But in the Nordic Tone chapter, Nicholson opts for quantity over quality, getting bogged down in a litany of names, dates and album titles. What’s worse, he misspells Arild Andersen’s name as “Arlid” throughout the chapter; it is listed that way in the index as well. Someone pored over Nicholson’s text thoroughly, but it wasn’t a proofreader. Jamey Aebersold’s name is also misspelled. The title of George Russell’s famous book is rendered as The Lydian Concept [sic] of Tonal Organizationin [sic]. We’re told that the Bad Plus has covered songs by “The Pixie and Iron Maiden”—and sure enough, both “The Pixie” and “Iron Maiden” appear in the index. (The band is the Pixies; the Bad Plus covered “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath.)

In his first five chapters Nicholson goes negative, pondering “The Jazz Mainstream 1990 to 2005,” critiquing Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, deconstructing “Jazz Singers and Nu-Crooners” and bemoaning the current state of jazz education. While there is enough to fault in the “narrow elitism” and “formalist ideology” of Marsalis and JALC, Nicholson’s clumsy citations of Gramsci and Wittgenstein do little to strengthen his case. He’s on firmer ground quoting Marty Khan, who condemns “the virtual elimination of the midrange gig in America” and the tendency of JALC and similar entities to “wipe out the grassroots organizations.”

No controversy is complete, of course, until someone compares someone else to Hitler. To this end Nicholson enlists the fusion bassist Anthony Jackson, who said of Marsalis in 1991: “We are, in my opinion, witnessing no less than a modern cultural parallel to Germany in the 1930s, with a megalomaniacal ‘arbiter of good taste’ undertaking a redefinition… of a country’s expressive potential, ostensibly to weed out contaminating influences.” Nicholson’s tone, to be fair, is more reportorial here. While he doesn’t present Jackson’s hyperbolic (and frankly, offensive) assessment as his own, he does little more than drag the reader into the muck.

Nicholson is an unreliable commentator on the American scene more generally. He contends that Michael Brecker, after working with Steps Ahead and Mike Stern in the ’80s, “reinvented himself as a tradition oriented player” with his Impulse releases in the mid to late ’90s. (With Stern, Brecker liked to play “My One and Only Love.”) Nicholson also cites Joni Mitchell’s appearance on Brian Blade’s Perceptual as an example of the “airplay friendly track” approach to jazz marketing—even though the track in question, “Steadfast,” is eight minutes long and utterly uncommercial, and Mitchell sings a mere five lines.

Nicholson also seems to endorse Yves Beauvais’s classification of David Sanchez as a “bebop revivalist,” when in fact the saxophonist—along with Miguel Zenon, Dafnis Prieto and others—has contributed a new and forward-thinking Latin jazz language. Come to think of it, Sanchez’s work represents just the sort of “glocal” development that Nicholson applauds when it happens in, say, Norway. Other examples of U.S.-based “glocalism” abound, including John Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture, Lionel Loueke’s West African syncretism, Vijay Iyer’s South Asian diasporism or Roy Hargrove’s forays into hip-hop and neo-soul. Nicholson ignores them all.

When he does discuss young U.S.-based musicians, he usually renders them anonymous with the word “many.” He indulges in armchair social psychology, knocking bop-oriented players who supposedly “search[ed] for quick results for time invested in the practice room,” claiming: “This impatience with the struggle that goes into musical growth and development reflected the tendency in the 1980s and 1990s for instant gratification….” (As if mastering bebop is instantly gratifying.) He also laments what he calls the “bebop-based value system,” which rewards virtuosity and aggressive technique over original expression, and while there’s truth in this, Nicholson inflates it to the point of absurdity: “Indeed, many jazz club stages are surrounded by iconography that reinforces such expectations, including photographs of perspiring saxophonists or trumpeters straining with bulging necks captured in the intensity of creation.” Jazz clubs with pictures of jazz musicians on the walls! Thank goodness that scandal’s been brought to light.

As he must, Nicholson blasts Ken Burns’s PBS documentary “Jazz” for devaluing Europe’s jazz legacy, but his response is to devalue the U.S.—an idea with facile resonance in the Bush era. He also faults Burns for “failing to acknowledge that anything of significance had happened” between the early ’60s and the early ’80s, but in turn, he arbitrarily moves the goalpost to 1991 and argues much the same. In reverse, actually: Whereas post-1960 is too radical for Burns, post-1991 is insufficiently radical for Nicholson. Each view yields its own distortions.