“Jazz is not dead: It just smells funny.” Among the many memorable Frank Zappa quotes, this one (delivered live on Roxy & Elsewhere) is a personal favorite. Some might read it as a negative critique of what had become of this uniquely American approach to music making by the early ’70s. But what I hear in Zappa’s words is a way of contextualizing some of the elements he had sourced to expertly craft a unique musical hybrid.
I also hear resonances of that quote in the comments of Cale Hawkins in this month’s jazz-pianist roundtable when he notes how the “influence of jazz has pervaded everything from gospel and R&B to indie rock, electronic, and hip-hop music.” Hawkins goes on to cite as examples Bon Iver, Kendrick Lamar, and David Bowie, whose Blackstar was transformed by the progressive playing of Jason Lindner (another roundtable member) and company.
As you listen to releases from 2016, the thing that people refer to as “jazz” (however you define it) has infiltrated popular music, even though the genre, itself, is considered a niche market. Sure, jazz musicians, like all of us, have had to branch out in order to survive in this crazy economic climate, but that’s not why you’re hearing their music cross over. Rather, it’s because these top-level artists are well-rounded musicians, just as their heroes were, with influences extending well beyond the jazz canon. To them, great music is great music, no matter who makes it. The result is that the strict categories the music industry uses to pigeonhole artists continue to blur as musicians, young and old, collaborate and incorporate modern technologies as part of that ancient desire to express oneself with sound.
A millennial-aged colleague recently asked me, “Did you know Herbie Hancock was over 40 when he did ‘Rockit’?” Heck, Herbie was pushing boundaries way before that, and he continues to do so; just as composer/saxophonist Anthony Braxton is doing onstage with a laptop running Supercollider, as well as the millions of young musicians soloing over extended changes played on top of loops and samples.
Something smells funny here, but I like it.