Where we're all Jazzercising like never before.
—A Puzzling Turn For The Portland Jazz Festival: I'm very glad that the Portland Jazz Festival, embattled for its existence this year, will be back in February 2010. From a PR perspective, it also looks to be in good hands, with veteran publicist Don Lucoff of DL Media named as managing director. But the announcement of the 2010 programming made me do a spit take.
In addition to a host of North American acts, next year's thematic programming features three bands billed under the title Is Jazz Dead (Or Has It Moved to a New Address)? — New Music from Norway. The theme refers to a 2005 Stuart Nicholson book; it's summarized here by the festival's press release:
Nicholson confronts traditional jazz musicians and audiences who insist on narrowly defining what jazz should be, while maintaining the importance of this music as being indigenously American. Nicholson claims that such rigidly defined art alienates younger audiences from jazz, and points to the exploding scene in Europe, specifically Norway, that has developed both a new culture and audience for jazz.
Which would be all hunky-dory — if that were all that Nicholson argues. It is not. The mere title of his book leaves no doubt that he believes that jazz is artistically stagnant in the U.S. That alone is an erroneous assertion — I dare Mr. Nicholson to spend a week seeing jazz in Brooklyn alone — but he follows it up with an argument that the new European scene is actually the real center of innovation. (A 2001 New York Times article lays out a condensed version of his viewpoint.)
There's little doubt that jazz is financially healthier in Europe, that there is plenty of interesting stuff going on across the pond, and that the U.S. is glutted with plenty of copycat musicians. But Nicholson is comparing mediocre jazz vocalists and the repertory approach of Jazz at Lincoln Center to a small subset of genre-bending artists. One could easily point out the obverse comparison of Desi-American jazz hybrids, Israeli immigrants to New York, pan-Latin improvisers, the Chicago underground, the Brooklyn underground and stylists who draw on contemporary African American music to all those European hot swing bands and national radio big bands. And what about the facts that American musicians like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Chris Potter and Brian Blade are headliners and influences everywhere they go in Europe? I'm not alone here either: Peter Hum expresses reservations, David Adler expresses strong reservations, and pianist George Colligan, formerly based in New York, tears Nicholson a new one. [UPDATE: Peter Margasak does too, as Kevin Whitehead before him.]
So the question is: why would an American jazz festival evoke a thesis which dumps all over American jazz — and whose veracity ought to be hotly contested by anyone paying attention to the present scene, like, say, a festival director? Why not just call the bill something about "New Sounds From Norway" or something without overtones so ignorant of interesting American music? Many of us who like modern jazz are fascinated by what's going on in Norway and really, the whole European continent. (If Nicholson's writing is good for something, it's about learning what some hip new European acts actually are.) But we also maintain that there's plenty of extraordinary music going on within these shores too. Does anyone else find it oddly self-defeating for a U.S. jazz festival which was almost dead a year ago to ask if jazz is dead in the U.S.?
—The French Honor Wynton Marsalis: With a Legion of Honor, France's highest award. Apparently the French government doesn't share Stuart Nicholson's views on Marsalis.
—Vijay Iyer Explains The Golden Ratio: Specifically, how the Fibonacci sequence manifests itself in his trio version of "Mystic Brew." Editorial in The Guardian. As if I didn't like his new record Historicity enough already, dude up and blew my mind with this. (Related: Hear the Vijay Iyer trio perform on WBGO's The Checkout.)