I have many friends who are musicians of various styles,and many are jazz players while some play jazz but wouldn't call themselves jazz musicians per se. Most of my friends certainly play for the love of the music, but also realize that love alone doesn't pay the bills, so they play all kinds of gigs, weddings, bar-mitzvahs, other various social functions, commercials, studio work, playing with bands that do not play the style of music they are best at and even playing in the park and on the street or whatever else it takes to earn the extra dollar. They may not be getting rich, but they are able to keep working by doing what they love. These players really have to hustle and go out there to get a gig. They really are to me the epitome of the independent spirit, because unlike those who have a 9 to 5 job that most hate going to, these cats usually thrive and excel at living in the moment. They continue to do this as the number of paying gigs, at least in New York City, are dwindling. They have grit and determination and keep plugging away despite the odds against them.
Those who consider themselves purely jazz artists are a unique breed. They play for the sheer love and joy of playing so they say, and never would stoop to either commercialism or showmanship to make a buck. They sometimes do play on the street or in the park, but they never take a gig that goes against their "principles". At the same time, they are in my experience, the loudest critics and decriers of more popular styles of music and of musicians that play music to make money. Yet they complain constantly about not getting gigs, or if they do have gigs, the house is nearly or completely empty except for the staff. This of course never has anything to do with the music that they play, but with the public just not being on the same wavelength with them. The public just doesn't understand, just doesn't get it is one of their laments. Whenever a jazz artist has some commercial success, which is very rare, they will be the first to cry that they "sold out". It is selling out only if the music one plays is related to a political or social movement or agenda, in which case, keep playing it, make your statement and promote your agenda, and leave the rest of us to make music we love and enjoy, that the public does get, and have our share of the filthy lucre.
Many jazz players will constantly disparage players like Kenny G. Well, to be honest, I'm not a big fan of Kenny G myself and I do not have any of his recordings, but on the other hand, I know he really can play and people like him and buy his recordings. Also, like it or not, it has been popular artists like Kenny G, David Sanborn, Chuck Mangione,etc., that have inspired many young players to pick up a wind or brass instrument, and play other music than what they were normally listening to. In the process, they learned about the scope and range of music, opening their minds and expanding their musical horizons and learning about the great players who originated the art form of jazz. I heard jazz players disparage "fusion", calling it the worst of rock and jazz put together. In some cases this may be so, but in most cases it brings a lot of instrumental music back to its melodic and rhythmic roots, and people like it and buy it. Maybe they just don't get it, or they actually do. I remember in the 90's when the Neo-Swing bands like the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, etc., were popular. Once again I heard the jazz purists bellow "that's not real jazz", "those guys aren't jazz players", something none of these players ever claimed to be by the way, but jazzers were saying this as if it was a terrible and sacrilegious thing. I had to remind some players that swing was the jazz of its time, and that time does not diminish that. Again, I remember that the popularity of these bands led more young people into not just this music, but jazz and beyond. What can be wrong with that? Well, to the jazz purists, it was because they were entertaining people and making money. They seem to hate that even when they complain they're not making money. You know, we just don't get it.
A common thing I hear from many musicians and laypeople today is that there are no more innovators in jazz, that most players today are merely playing regurgitated Coltrane, Miles, Ornette, etc. There are way too many players who think jazz began with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and ended with the aforementioned players, at least in terms of what they are playing. In jazz, just like any other style of music, there is an evolution of sound and style, but just like all music, there is a limit to how far it can go. The solution to that problem, for many jazz players, just as it was for neo-classical players was to reharmonize existing tunes, and new music would go so far "outside", that to many ears, mine included, that it was cacophonous, dissonant. The rhythm was buried in the flurry of noise, and if there ever was a melodic base, it was blown to pieces beyond recognition. Jazz musicians began intellectualizing the music to the point of losing the audience. Much of it too was tied to many political/social movements and so if there was an audience to be had, it wouldn't be the kind that paid or came to be entertained. While this isn't political commentary, to me, all the music I ever heard that was ever tied to political or social movements always tended to be heavy-handed, boring and dreary sounding, and to pardon my language, the biggest crock of bullshit and pretension I ever heard. Some of these types of players would play in wild, loud flurries of sound, but if they tried, they could not play a simple melody with an even tone and pitch. Jazz has had a few of these charlatans.
Then there is jazz education. To me it has always been a double-edged sword. On one side, it helps the student hone and sharpen their musical skills and knowledge and on the other, it has turned out mostly cookie cutter players, all playing those Coltrane and Parker licks, all sounding the same, which in turn has confined the music. Like classical players, there is a certain way to play something, a certain way to sound. I hear one player to the next, all from the best university programs in the country, and I can't tell one player from another. They know every chord and scale pattern inside and out, up and down, all around, and when they play that knowledge becomes obvious. What I often do not hear is a discernible melody, a sound that tells me who the player is. I don't get that from any of the modern jazz players today. I hear one, I hear them all. On the other hand, when I hear a modern horn player that does not play strictly jazz, I can hear who it is. Yep, maybe I'm not a big fan of Kenny G, but I know it's him when I hear his recordings. David Sanborn too. Unfortunately the list of modern players whose sound is recognizable is getting smaller and smaller. Up until the sixties I would say, you could tell by the first few notes who the player was. Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Paul Desmond, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, etc. Even players that derived their styles from Charlie Parker like Cannonball Adderley had their own sound that was recognizable.
This brings me to another point. What made jazz what it is, or rather what it used to be, was its individuality. Each player had their voice, their way of doing things that made the player stand out from the others. Even the way they would play a melody, its chord sequence, scale patterns, and including their technical approach was unique to them. I have heard modern players ripping out scales and chords with amazing speed and dexterity, displaying great technique, but I haven't heard one of them that had the kind of technique or subtlety of touch that I've heard Johnny Hodges, for example, playing "Prelude To A Kiss", or Frankie Trumbauer with Bix Beiderbecke playing "Trumbology" or "Singing The Blues". Listen to them and hear what I mean. Just click on the links below to hear these tunes.
Another complaint from modern jazz players that I hear quite often is that they get tired of playing the same old standards over and over again. I'll say first that the standards that have been played have all stood the test of time, and in the hands of a sensitive player, they'll never get old. Having said that,what is stopping any player from taking more recent popular tunes and turning those into standards? Miles played Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson tunes. Many players have played the Beatles "Michelle" and "Yesterday" to death, but there are a number of other Beatles songs that would be as good or better. Some examples would be "Here, There and Everywhere", "Norwegian Wood" ( Buddy Rich did this tune on his recording "Big Swing Face"), "Good Day Sunshine", "For No One", "Fool On The Hill", "Lady Madonna", "Something",etc. I'm sure you've heard at least a jazz version or two from one of these tunes, and maybe you can think of others. I have also started making sax and band arrangements based on Jimi Hendrix tunes. He has a treasure trove of material for the horn player that wants to find more modern and interesting tunes and Gil Evans did some big band arrangements based on his tunes, as well as nice renditions by Tuck and Patti. There were many jazz elements in Hendrix' songs. The songs I've chosen are "Third Stone From The Sun", "Up From The Skies", "One Rainy Wish", "Purple Haze", and "The Wind Cries Mary". There are more, but with a little imagination and a wide open mind, you can find some modern tunes to jazz up.
This now brings me to the final points of this article. This will mostly be my opinion, but I'm sticking to it, because this is the way I feel jazz can survive as a viable musical and commercial force. Yes, I said commercial, because all the love in the world won't mean anything if people aren't buying your product and coming out and paying money to hear you or purchase your recordings. Maybe the first thing is to stop calling it jazz. Everyone has their own idea of what that means. There are those who want to dispense of the name jazz completely. Some are part of a new movement called BAM. I won't address what this is here, you can look it up. Suffice to say that if some players want to create this new definition, by all means it's their right. I do not agree with their motive, and have had serious disagreements with a couple of adherents as to why. It's just using music to promote a political/social agenda, as well as instill some guilt in some of us. Anyway, I really believe that the player's main role is to convey their love of music by showing that love to the audience. Ever watch a performer smile when they're playing? You can bet the audience is smiling too. Players should relate to their audience. Listen to any live recording of Cannonball Adderley, and listen to how he always spoke to, not down, to the audience, and how he related to them. This was one of of the reasons for his popularity, aside from his brilliant playing. He always played in an uplifting manner. People loved seeing him play, and you could always hear that joy in his recordings. Dizzy Gillespie always entertained the crowd, no matter what he was playing. He was never afraid to clown on stage, tell jokes, act funny. Of course Louis Armstrong always entertained, was a first-class showman while still maintaining his place in jazz history as an innovator. The audience needs to be entertained, that's what they pay for.
Finally, for the players out there. I know this isn't easy to do, but I challenge you all to try. Rather than playing the same old Parker, Coltrane etc., licks and patterns, try finding your own voice. Search out a few tunes, ballads and blues, and play them listening to how you sound. Do you like it? If not,what sound are you looking for? I know tone is a subjective thing, but if you pay attention, you may at that moment hear it, and then you'll find that your technique and approach will change a little, and just enough to start singing in your own voice. Put away the exercise books and just concentrate on a sound and a song. It will work if you let it.