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Putting Jazz in Present Tense

Alexander Brown
Contributing Writer

The first commercially available jazz album I ever bought was the box set The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions and until I started going to record trade shows with my Mom, that remained the most jazz I ever copped in one buy. But my story is much like my entire social group, though the many varied genres of music we buy and actively search out jazz was frequently forgotten and placed on the back burner. And in many cases this wasn't our fault but more a systematic change in how jazz was viewed.

It's easy to point out that jazz's heyday was before rock & roll stole the show and hip-hop won the hearts and minds of the world, but it's not so simplistic. Like all things a lack of love starts at a lack of understanding and since the late seventies people have just failed to understand jazz. And people stopped understanding jazz a great deal because people stopped understanding instrumentation. With the decades long recession after the free-love era everybody had to pull back and extraneous programs such as music started to get pulled out of a lot of urban schools.

Worse yet had to be the fact that the greatest known musical innovators of the age went electric. Whereas a person would get inspired by Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker, now they were being influenced by Hendrix and The Doors or James Brown and The Impressions. Singers flocked to the rhythm and blues while musicians plugged in and turned the dial up. Even the bass got a remodel.

Jazz's death knell however had to be the two forms of music that eschewed the traditional form of using instruments at all to make great songs. While Miles may have been fighting to keep listeners very interested with jazz fusion many of his would be audience looked to computers, synthsizers, and boxes of things that could only tangentially be called instrumetns at the time. People like Delia Derbyshire and Kraftwerk turned a generation of artists onto electronic music, people who if listened to now definitely had the ear for jazz comopsitions, but probably didn't have the opportunity or patience for the theory and lessons.

The 1980's popularized in hip-hop, the urban alternative to excess atmosphere of disco and heavy metal, and a whole generation of music prodigies made due without ever having to pick up an instrument. The funny thing is, it's not like the music that came before hip-hop was not respected; All of your early hip-hop songs required heavy use of sampling, but record covers didn't exactly specify "sampled by" unless you had liner notes to read. A shame since hip-hop's mid period is characterized by a group of artists who almost exclusivity sampled jazz for years.

The same holds true on your audio files. Sure they will list the writers of said sampled track, by it takes a bit of digging to figure out that Wes Montgomery was sampled on Sisqo's "Thong Song" or that Roy Ayer's Coffy Soundtrack is required listening for most DJs. And it can get a bit awkward when a band gets up to play Joe Sample's "In All My Wildest Dreams" and then have to explain that yes, this song was sampled note for note by 2Pac on "Dear Mama".

The thing is jazz did not suddenly disappear from popular culture as the genre faded into somewhat obscurity, it's just it was in hard to recognize places. Luckily a newer generation of jazz artists are reaching out and breaking stereotypes and not letting themselves be pigeonholed into popular obscurity. And that is how jazz stops being being viewed in the past tense.

Alexander Brown is a freelance writer. More of his work is available at his blog, Relax and Aspire.