Among my collection of articles musing on the death or waning days of jazz, my favorite (so far) appeared in the spring 1997 issue of the Wilson Quarterly. Embellished with an engraving of Wynton Marsalis's face pasted atop a lace-cuffed frock coat and cocooned in a Mozart wig, the article, "Has Jazz Gone Classical?" hits the usual marks. Author Clive Davis laments the passing of giants (Miles, Dizzy, Ella) and the resurgence of well-worn styles. Citing the absence of an obvious, vital titan or two, Davis wonders, "Who is the new Miles, the new Charlie Parker?"
Perennially, the death, decline, disintegration, disappearance, or however you want to describe it of jazz gets blamed on economics (frozen or sky-high cover charges, depending on whom you talk to), prominent artists (Ornette Coleman, Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Miles, Kenny G, Wynton—yes, everyone's a suspect), audiences (white, black, young, old, or some lack thereof), or the institutional embrace of jazz by high-school and university music programs.
Too many writers think they know what's going on in jazz. I can unfurl lists of national and regional artists—many of them potential or actual successors to Miles and Parker—yet I don't know nearly as much as I think I know. But I can tell you this: If we define jazz as music invented by African Americans that exalts improvisation, ongoing rhythmic tension, and group dialogue while reserving a prominent place for a soloist to articulate an individual, perhaps contradictory, musical vision, then jazz is in pretty good shape.
The Is That Jazz? festival offers proof over two weekends (Fri–Sat Jan 22–23 and Fri–Sat Jan 29–30, Chapel Performance Space, 8 pm, $10/$15) with an array of double bills suggesting that jazz is here and continues to expand in many directions.
Named after the legendary Coltrane LP Sun Ship, Sunship (Fri Jan 22) range from jittery moods to sawtooth saxophone wailing. They'll be joined by the Sun Ra Tribute band—count on an uproarious evening. The following night (Sat Jan 23), Bill Smith, a pioneer of extended clarinet techniques and compadre of Dave Brubeck, leads a trio, followed by Evan Flory-Barnes, whose rowdy Threat of Beauty project crowned last year's Earshot Jazz Festival. Next weekend boasts the Tom Baker Quartet, Bad Luck, Jesse Canterbury's Vertigo, and the amazing Cuong Vu Trio with Stomu Takeishi and Ted Poor.
I love the Davis article for its crucial, concluding observation: "To wish for the return of Louis Armstrong or Count Basie's original, raw Kansas City orchestra is to long for the magical return of a combination of social conditions that have gone forever." Look around. Jazz lives if you want it.