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Jazz History is Now

Anthony Dean-Harris
anthony.deanharris[at]nextbop[dot]com / @retronius

Think back to third grade. Think back to that time when class was that thing that got in the way of lunch or recess (if you came of age in the time when children still had recess). Think back on all the subjects and topics that became the foundation for the things you know today. One of those things had to be main idea. To an eight-year-old, thinking about the big picture of everything is one of those concepts that’s crucial to get down for the rest of your life.

As folks who are invested in the future of jazz and spreading it to the masses, our main focus at Nextbop (and maybe you as well, dear reader) is to ensure that jazz isn’t seen as some dusty museum piece that scares off laypeople. Yet, it’s hard to just ignore this genre's rich history. The big picture of jazz includes what folks are creating in jazz and its periphery. Try as we might to not think of jazz as a historical exhibit, what we do now is still a part of jazz history.

For example, when [The Bad Plus] broke onto the scene almost a decade, there was a great deal of controversy about their take on jazz. Yet they have most certainly influenced many musicians in their time. What began as a group whose legacy was rather contentious eventually became a group integral to modern mainstream jazz. Their work will down the line be considered part of the jazz canon. Imagine [Marco Benevento] performing a more electronic cover of “And Now We Test Our Powers of Observation” or Matt Stevens trying his hand at covering one of The Bad Plus’ Champion series (“1972 Bronze Medalist,” “1979 Semi-Finalist,” and “1980 World Champion”). Covers like these may not be as ubiquitous as yet another cover of “Round Midnight,” but no one expected [Vijay Iyer] to cover Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother,” either.

In an even larger notion, we must remember that the things we do today have impact on the future. The conflicts that we have today about traditionalism vs. modernism will be commemorated fifty years from now as the crucial discourse the community had to determine the different directions of the genre. Someone will one day continue the groundwork Ken Burns and Wynton Marsalis did and make Jazz II, interviewing folks like [Peter Hum] and [Patrick Jarenwattananon]. It’s rather exciting when you think about it.

We exist in a time when this music is facing a crossroads. Musicians must continue to innovate or fall by the wayside, something that shouldn’t be too difficult in a genre geared toward perpetual innovation. Its fan base must continue to support the music in the clubs and concerts and wherever the genre decides to go next. Record labels are wracking their collective brains trying to figure out how to best serve their artists and appeal to fans who are buying albums less and less but consuming music more and more. Some may look to this time with trepidation, but it’s really a brave new frontier.

Like the birth of bebop, fusion, or even (ugh) smooth jazz, this is a time that will be marked in history. The piano trio isn’t confined to just standards. Electric instruments are gaining notoriety again. People still love the Hammond B3 (I mean, who doesn’t love the Hammond B3?). Radiohead is now part of the American songbook. While we here are trying not to confine music to the dusty shelves of the past, time continues to move forward. Our present will be the past one day. It’s impossible not to think of jazz in the larger context of its history. It’s impossible to ignore the present’s importance. How we move forward or how we splinter off will be recorded in jazz’s past. What we do to expand the genre could be an example for the generations that come after us.

It’s rather humbling to think about how we are all part of a historical institution. If anything, it makes the shelves on which we hold jazz a little less dusty.

Anthony Dean-Harris is a contributing writer for [African-American Reflections] and hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on [91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio]. More of his writing can be found at his blog, [In Retrospect] and you can also [follow him on Twitter].