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Jazz War, Anyone? Jason Marsalis vs. 'Jazz Nerds International'

SOURCE: Published: 2010-05-23
Jason Marsalis Have you, as a listener, been suffering under the influence of Jazz Nerds International?

Jazz critic and blogger for the Ottawa Citizen Peter Hum wrote a terrific post Thursday on the latest installment in what's become known as “the jazz wars," a long-running culture clash pitting the music's traditionalists -- personified by nearly any member of the gifted Marsalis family -- versus what could be considered jazz's new guard.

A little background
This new guard encompasses some of the most acclaimed, adventurous artists in jazz today -- Christian Scott, the Bad Plus, Vijay Iyer and the Claudia Quintet, just to name a few who have been featured in this space -- as well as anyone who followed in the footsteps of late- period John Coltrane and “Bitches Brew"-era Miles Davis. A hardcore traditionalist would argue that these musicians, though talented, may be playing interesting music but it's certainly not jazz.

Recently examined in the documentary “Icons Among Us," there's a lot of remarkable stuff going on in modern jazz that incorporates influences from across the musical spectrum, stretching into odd time signatures and generally treating jazz as the boundlessly creative, free-thinking genre it is. While on the opposite side, the traditionalists argue that truest form of jazz involves all-acoustic instruments, a swinging rhythm section and, if possible, some really sharp suits.

In the video posted on Hum's blog drummer Jason Marsalis offers an amusing warning against “Jazz Nerds International," his term for young musicians who have a “selfish" view of jazz, eschewing the standards of the genre in favor of “abstract solos" and odd-metered straight rhythms. The end result, in Marsalis' view, is music that alienates its audience and exists only for the appreciation of fellow musicians.

The jazz blogosphere reacted with a number of eloquent responses, and while I agree with Hum that Marsalis is being intentionally over-the- top for a mock-PSA tone, his point speaks to an ongoing problem. If jazz is not being declared dead, it's being monitored by an aesthetic police force that builds walls around the genre, fending off rogue elements from violating its purity.

In the end, the war is ultimately pointless because there's room for both sides. Of course the roots of jazz are vital and demand attention from anyone who would play or listen to it. It's hard to imagine many of the gifted if cutting-edge artists in jazz being any less appreciative of past masters than, say, upstart indie rock artists who learn from and expand upon decades-old records in their collection

But to argue that all musicians who plug in, play a song in 7/8 or dive into a paint-peeling solo for as long as their muse carries them aren't part of the tradition does the music a disservice. Like all broad, nebulous genre labels, the boundaries are in the eye of the beholder.

Is an interview with the forward-looking jazz blog NextBop, Esperanza Spalding summed up this expansive view of jazz wonderfully. “We need all the aspects of it [jazz] and that's OK," she said. “We need the Wynton Marsalis and we need the Anthony Braxton and we need a Chris Botti and we need Christian Scott....

Jazz can be anything but maybe the only element that's there across the board is that people are creating it in the moment."

Do you agree? Or is jazz done a disservice by a big-tent approach?


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