If you go to the Jazz Record Mart on East Illinois Street in Chicago you will find the CDs of trumpeter Nicolas Payton in the racks alongside Danilo Perez, Jeremy Pelt and Chris Potter. However, Payton begins his latest blog entry, "On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore . . . .," by declaring, "Jazz died in 1959."
This is probably news to Perez, Pelt, and Potter, all young jazz muscians. Payton qualifies his remark by allowing, "There maybe cool individuals who say they play Jazz, but ain’t shit cool about Jazz as a whole." According to Payton, jazz has never recovered from its separation from American popular music. 1959 was the last year jazz was cool. That year two of the greatest albums in jazz--in American music--were released: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and Dave Brubeck's Time Out. The following year Ornette Coleman began dabbling in what became known as Free Jazz. Originally Free Jazz was supposed to be ultra-modern, but by 1965, when John Coltrane released One Up, One Down before jumping off the aesthetic cliff, the end was clear. Listen to Coleman and the late Coltrane and you can hear them saying, "we love jazz, we can't live without it, but we need to do something else."
So what does Payton play? Not jazz. "Jazz is a brand," he writes. "Jazz ain’t music, it’s marketing, and bad marketing at that." Instead, he is a "Postmodern New Orleans musician. I create music for the heart and the head, for the beauty and the booty." I pointed out on Twitter that "postmodern" is a marketing term as well, and to my surprise Payton responded, "Yeah, but it doesn't carry a negative connotation to me. Jazz is over. My Postmodernism is just the beginning. Stay tuned."
I replied that I would. I heard Payton perform at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago a few years ago and he was amazing.
I came to jazz by playing trumpet as a kid. I didn't play jazz, either. I played pre-modern horn splatter music. That said, like about 99% of white male Midwesterners born after 1960, the center of my musical world is rock. It's inescapable. From time to time I make an effort to find new bands, but for the most part I've become, to borrow a phrase from Mark Athitakis after he bought the collected songs of R.E.M, a middle-aged guy in a nostalgia bunker.
Jazz could be my escape route from the bunker. Outside the bunker, it's a no-man's land. I've already exhausted the patience of my wife and my friends for going to jazz clubs. It's possible to find some exciting contemporary music in the Jazz Mart if you're willing to sort through rack after rack of bland neo-jazz. The whole genre of jazz seems stuck between the safe and the fusty. Payton describes the current state of jazz more colorfully: "Jazz ain’t cool, it’s cold, like necrophilia. Stop fucking the dead and embrace the living."
It's better to listen by name, by tradition, to listen for pushing against the limits of the form. There are musicians who do this. Three names that come immediately to mind are Payton, Vijay Iyer, and Jason Moran. All three work within definable--and quite old--traditions, yet they continually surprise the listener. They defamiliarize jazz so that it can be heard again.
Note: I highly recommend Nicholas Payton's Twitter feed, @paynic. Also recommended is Vijay Iyer at @vijayiyer.