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Jazz war, anyone? Jason Marsalis vs. 'Jazz Nerds International'


Have you, as a listener, been suffering under the influence of Jazz Nerds International?

Jazz critic and blogger for the Ottawa Citizen Peter Hum wrote a terrific post Thursday on the latest installment in what's become known as "the jazz wars," a long-running culture clash pitting the music's traditionalists -- personified by nearly any member of the gifted Marsalis family -- versus what could be considered jazz's new guard.

A little background: This new guard encompasses some of the most acclaimed, adventurous artists in jazz today -- Christian Scott, the Bad Plus, Vijay Iyer and the Claudia Quintet, just to name a few who have been featured in this space -- as well as anyone who followed in the footsteps of late-period John Coltrane and "Bitches Brew"-era Miles Davis. A hardcore traditionalist would argue that these musicians, though talented, may be playing interesting music but it's certainly not jazz.

Recently examined in the documentary "Icons Among Us," there's a lot of remarkable stuff going on in modern jazz that incorporates influences from across the musical spectrum, stretching into odd time signatures and generally treating jazz as the boundlessly creative, free-thinking genre it is. While on the opposite side, the traditionalists argue that truest form of jazz involves all-acoustic instruments, a swinging rhythm section and, if possible, some really sharp suits.

In the video posted on Hum's blog (and after the jump), drummer Jason Marsalis offers an amusing warning against "Jazz Nerds International," his term for young musicians who have a "selfish" view of jazz, eschewing the standards of the genre in favor of "abstract solos" and odd-metered straight rhythms. The end result, in Marsalis' view, is music that alienates its audience and exists only for the appreciation of fellow musicians.

The jazz blogosphere reacted with a number of eloquent responses, and while I agree with Hum that Marsalis is being intentionally over-the-top for a mock-PSA tone, his point speaks to an ongoing problem. If jazz is not being declared dead, it's being monitored by an aesthetic police force that builds walls around the genre, fending off rogue elements from violating its purity. 

In the end, the war is ultimately pointless because there's room for both sides. Of course the roots of jazz are vital and demand attention from anyone who would play or listen to it. It's hard to imagine many of the gifted if cutting-edge artists in jazz being any less appreciative of past masters than, say, upstart indie rock artists who learn from and expand upon decades-old records in their collection

But to argue that all musicians who plug in, play a song in 7/8 or dive into a paint-peeling solo for as long as their muse carries them aren't part of the tradition does the music a disservice. Like all broad, nebulous genre labels, the boundaries are in the eye of the beholder.

Is an interview with the forward-looking jazz blog NextBop, Esperanza Spalding summed up this expansive view of jazz wonderfully. "We need all the aspects of it [jazz] and that’s OK," she said. "We need the Wynton Marsalis and we need the Anthony Braxton and we need a Chris Botti and we need Christian Scott....  Jazz can be anything but maybe the only element that’s there across the board is that people are creating it in the moment."

Do you agree? Or is jazz done a disservice by a big-tent approach?

-- Chris Barton

Photo: Jason Marsalis, right, onstage at the Greek Theater with Ellis Marsalis Quintet in 2008. Credit: Christina House.

Comments () | Archives (13)

Jason Marsalis comments more then shocked me along with many other enlightened Jazz enthusiasts. I do not take away the talent from the family they all posess a wonderful technique however they have taken Jazz from the present into the past. Like any art form Jazz must evolve, taking chances to make new discoveries, funny that ALL of the world wide "intellectuals" understand and are fans of the International Nerd music that he is refering to. Why go backward when art should continue the journey forward.

Trombone Shorty -- the youngest talent ever on the official JazzFest poster -- is all the rage in NOLA now. Check out his show, and you'll see some of the most high-energy music ever. Anybody ever said that about a Marsalis show? Shorty lets his 20-something musicians take their solos, then he says Watch This! Nothing like a Shorty solo. Grew up in Treme, a born second liner, jazz family roots, taking the music to new heights. Name a traditional jazz piece, he'll blow you away. But music develops, and he is leading the charge into new territory. Viva La Shorty!

Why is it always the Marsalis family are the ones that tell us what jazz is and what jazz is not? They should recall Duke's statement of how there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. Sorry I would prefer to not live in the 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's or 80's where the music played back then was cutting edge. Much better to stay right here in modern times with cutting edge jazz music. There is a place for all of it, but the forefathers of jazz were Jazz Nerds as well. They experimented as should Jason.

To this day, we don't know what jazz is. We were taught and influenced by the "traditionalists", among many many others, so how exactly do we define it? We found ourselves in the top 100 on the Reverbnation Jazz charts for our location, and our jawbone suddenly dislodged themselves from the rest of our face from the surprise. The reality is that we can accept being defined in that manner from an outsiders perspective, yet would be very very careful to describe ourselves in such a specific manner. As a group of music makers, we'll refrain from marking ourselves with any particular description, and leave the categorical naming rights to those who might just be missing the cable TV in their lives.

Sweet Fuzzy


Hmm. I love Trad Jazz but Jason's attitude here is horrible. I also love what guys like Mark Turner, and David Binney are doing.

The attitude of it will strike more people wrongly than them preferring walking bass and 4/4 drums.

Take Miles Davis. There's a really expensive Box Set, Live at the Plugged Nickel...it shows the depth that those standards can possess, and do possess. He was playing those Standards for decades, and each time they had live and vitality. This is what's missing. If I'd wish to argue a *point* for Jazz, I would stress that there would be meaning in whatever played. Not (intro, head, solo solo solo trade 4's head out).

But the easy way to solve this is to play more Ballads haha. Play But Beautiful as beautiful as Charles McPherson does.. who can resist that?

talking about jazz is like talking about fiber
and fiber has lots of fans, let me tell you

talking about jazz is like remembering your name
on your name tag

talking about jazz is necessary for some
and so easily over done

Talking about music, is like dancing about architecture.

For anyone willing to listen to the current music being put out by the more prolific of the Marsalis brothers (who admittedly are friends of mine, so take it for what it's worth), it is nearly impossible to argue that they are trying to stagnate jazz to some 1940s-80s aesthetic. I would offer that you should listen to Jason's work with John Ellis (at the forefront of today's eclectic avant-garde), Branford's recent recordings, and two large scale projects put out by Wynton and the LCJO: Wynton's own "Congo Square" and Ted Nash's "Portrait in Seven Shades". Please note that Jason's partially tongue-in-cheek comments are aimed primarily at young players with a severe deficiency in the fundamentals of good, melodic (rather than expressly harmonic or rhythmic) group playing, which by nature forces a more vertical rather than horizontal type of music...

As for Shorty, I had the good fortune of being onstage with him for about a week a couple of years back, and while he is a very talented young man, there are (perhaps more accurately "were"...I haven't heard him recently)significant gaps in his playing, and I bet you he would be embarrassed and appalled that you would try to compare him, at this point, favorably to Wynton.

After all these years, it's probably a waste of breath to try and talk people out of their Marsalis hatred because, like the political pundits on both sides which love sound bytes and out-of-context quoting, anytime these guys say something y'all are right there ready to twist it into some controversial us-vs-them speech. The fact of the matter is, they don't tell anyone, ever, what they should and shouldn't play. When asked what they like and dislike about today's music, who among us doesn't have opinions, preferred sounds or styles, and even (God forbid) a set of standards that we most believe in for whatever our artistic endeavours may be.

The author missed Jason's point slightly. Jason isn't referencing accomplished musicians (like the Bad Plus, etc.), he's referencing young musicians that make a leap into trying to play music like that without establishing any sort of musical foundation first. If you listen to Lincoln Center, for instance, they play all sorts of weird odd-meter stuff, straight rhythms, obscure Ornette Coleman tunes. Jason isn't saying that music like that is terrible; he is saying that the young musicians aspiring to do that stuff without learning where it came from are terrible.

In order to play jazz, whatever genre of it, you must be familiar with what preceded it - makes sense right? Learning from our history is extremely important!

There is no war in jazz, that would be counterproductive. What folks need to realize is that there is room for obscure/modern jazz, no question, but if you're going to play that you should realize that it can only be done successfully (or in a way in which people would want to listen to it) by folks who are of the highest caliber of musicianship....and you get to this position by practicing and studying the history of jazz music. Coltrane didn't start with Interstellar Space - he started with a "blues" and played that for 20 years before he moved on.

"Jazz can be anything but maybe the only element that’s there across the board is that people are creating it in the moment."

Oh really? By that standard, Ravi Shankar is playing jazz, as are the Chieftans.

This of course is nonsense. Both Celtic and East Indian Classical music are improvised over set forms, but neither is 'jazz.' They have their own vocabulary and traditions.

This whole thing is a tempest in a teapot. Jason plays stuff in odd meters himself (check out "Seven-Aye_Pockey-Way" for starters) and all of the Marsalises are fond of making incendiary polemical statements. Take it with a grain of salt.

Anybody who wastes more than 10 minutes of practise time on this non-issue is a true 'jazz nerd.'

This is very interesting.
Jason makes some great points. Basically he just saying that Jazz is not merely an excersize of the intellectual. Without heart, emotion and depth and can become quite mechanical and an example of pure rationalism which is spreading across this county. A true artist expresses what inside themself and in order to do this, if the artist has depth, there will be moments full of notes, moments full of space. moments that are loud, moments that are soft. moments that are melodic and beautiful, and moments that are rough and angry. He is just reminding Jazz musicians coming up today to take into account that we are here to exoress the full human experience of what it means to be alive through music. Thats what Jazz is. If it becomes an excersize of rationalism than it looses its spirituality, its heart, its body and only utilizes the mind. It takes mind and bodt to play this music.

Don't forget we are telling the story of our lives and the music we play should relect the full scope of what it means to be of life.

Jazz was built on innovation on the one hand, and yet it wouldn't be the world-wide genre it is today without an era, however short, where it appealed to millions of fans. We cannot go back in time, but we should learn what we can from the swing era, when the music was great AND popular, cutting edge AND relatable. All in all, that stuff just FELT good, you know. Is it just me, or does 7/8 not really make you want to groove?

I've been writing some big band music for the Matt Nowlin Jazz Orchestra during the past year with that old groove as its only goal. The recordings are being mastered right now, and I can tell you I've never had so much fun playing jazz. The band felt the same way. These are all young students at Indiana University, some of the best jazz students in the world. They could play any strange time signature or digital pattern you want, but in the end they had the most fun (and so did the audience) when the bass was walking and the kick was four on floor (or even some old Lunceford-style cut-time).

"The end result, in Marsalis' view, is music that alienates its audience and exists only for the appreciation of fellow musicians."

Isn't that what Swing musicians said about Be-Bop?


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