Where are the new jazz classics?
Heard any new jazz songs or symphonettes?
Is there a hot jazz lick or tune everyone’s digging this summer? A riff or rhythm musicians are tossing around like a great idea?
It seems not. Jazz may be too marginalized now for a song or sound to reach a genuinely broad audience. In their days, “Java,” “Jive Samba,” “Girl from Ipanema,” “In Crowd,” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Mr. Magic,” “Birdland,” “Rockit” and Kenny G’s “Songbird” were ubiquitous on radio and were covered by bands at gigs. But the last tune to hit like that was probably Nora Jones’ “Don’t Know Why,” the acoustic jazz-cum-folk vocal that reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Adult Recurrents and No. 30 on the Hot 100 Singles charts 10 years ago.
Radio was somewhat more open to jazz-like tunes then, when smooth jazz and adult contemporary formats prevailed. Today in New York City, we’re lucky to have WBGO playing jazz 24/7 and the jazz-loving if nerdy WKCR. Their playlists, however, don’t give current tunes repeated play. That’s arguably a good thing, but doesn’t breed familiarity, without which no song or hot lick can prevail.
Familiarity is key to the 300-some songs Ted Gioia surveys in his new book, The Jazz Standards. As Gioia writes, all jazz musicians are expected to know, perform or be able to fake these American songbook classics by Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein, Handy, Morton, Armstrong, Ellington, Waller, Parker, Gillespie, Monk, Miles, Coltrane, Rollins, Hancock and Coleman. In the past, most Americans might have encountered these classics. Now, that’s unlikely.
Gioia is engaging, entertaining and instructive, pointing out distinctions between a song’s various renditions and each song’s particular characteristics. His book is fun to browse. But with no standard after “Footprints” (1966) considered, it catalogs glories of jazz repertoire as it ended two generations ago.
If jazz education promotes the old songs, when graduates get on public bandstands or in recording studios today they eagerly unpack their own. Jazzers are recording originals, or old music, or music from odd sources. Bands like The Bad Plus have turned appropriation and transformation of selections by Radiohead, Bjork, Nirvana, etc. into a commonplace. Revisiting or revising the repertoire of Wayne Shorter, Mary Lou Williams and Eric Dolphy is also standard practice. Knowing a colleague’s tunes and deciding to play them yourself? Not so much.
Without widespread familiarity, jazz compositions won’t survive. Never mind songs—what of symphonettes? Trumpeter Matt Holman won BMI’s annual Charlie Parker Jazz Composition competition this year with “What Are You Thinking?” a nine-minute work performed by an 18-piece Jazz Composers Workshop ensemble in late June.
It opens with haunting chorale-like brass, a minimalist riff that modulates darkly, relaxes into a trumpet break, then returns to complex development of ensemble structures. I’d need to hear it several times to absorb it all, but what big band will play it ever again? Hard as it is to get a jazz song played twice, harder yet a jazz orchestra piece—-even once.
Reach Howard Mandel at firstname.lastname@example.org.