Both Robert Glasper’s Black Radio and Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society feature talented young artists who are primarily associated with jazz. Both albums draw upon hip hop, r&b, neo soul, and other styles that often outstrip jazz in terms of airtime on that device mentioned in both titles. Unsurprisingly, both Radio outings are also making a lot of headlines.
While not the first experiments along these lines (Miles Davis had his fingers in several pots his entire career, Glasper had begun to explore similar territory on Double Booked and Nicholas Payton’s Bitches proudly incorporated radio-friendly sounds, albeit with less media attention), and in all likelihood just the tip of this genre-breaching iceberg, the release of these efforts within weeks of one another and their corresponding media attention have generated familiar discussion regarding the future of jazz, its intersection with more popular styles and the potential dissolution of the former into the latter.
The script for this latest episode of “jazz meets the new(est) thing” is similar to previous seasons that included guest-stars rock, world and electronic music. Some critics and musicians, notably Glasper himself, treat jazz’s diminishing popular appeal as the inevitable outcome for an art form that has stubbornly refused to market itself to new and wider audiences, even as that art form stubbornly continues to enter the debate decade after decade. Jazz musicians and commentators have been reticent to define “jazz” at least since Duke Ellington expressed his own reservations about the term (which, as Stanley Crouch points out, perhaps had more to do with the negative social connotations of that word during Ellington’s youth than its musical signification). Yet whatever jazz is, it keeps popping up alongside every new stylistic kid on the block.
Other voices have a very clear picture of what “jazz” means, and advocate for the music in its purest i.e. earlier nature. Their definition usually sounds like recordings from Blue Note, Prestige and Atlantic released through the late fifties, or anything but what’s popular right now.
Many present day commentators choose to define jazz according to a musical aesthetic neither its earliest practitioners or contemporary exponents bore witness to. Part of the joy and frustration of listening to the earliest recorded jazz is the way jazz materializes alongside ragtime, vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, dance tunes and other musical styles Americans enjoyed throughout the twenties and thirties. At that time, blue notes, vocal inflections on instruments, improvisational flights and an uninhibited rhythmic thrust were startling musical ideas, as foreign to their first-time audiences as sampling, rapping and breakdowns are to some contemporary jazz listeners.
Many perspectives on what jazz is gloss over the fact that jazz was something very similar to hip hop: a new, exciting and for some listeners an intimidating musical expression, deeply rooted in African-American communities, which shaped all aspects of American popular music and culture. Today, jazz thrives as a distinct mode of expression: it says something in a different way than hip hop, rock, r&b, polka, etc. (that’s why these modes are called “styles”). Audiences leave it up to artists (such as Mozart, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and now perhaps Glasper and Spalding) to blend and transcend these modes, but there are things that still make “jazz” jazz, and “hip hop” hip hop. Like some far guiltier pleasures, audiences know what they are when they hear them.
Listeners (such as this writer) should simply be grateful to have a variety of music to experience, enjoy or pass on. Both knee jerk innovators and diehard purists aren’t doing those listeners any favors. Jazz’s rhythm, harmony, virtuosity and interplay, its powerful little way of blending the earthy and the intellectual, make it a unique force unto itself. Celebrating its demise in favor of new directions (or selling more albums) denies whole generations a special form of expression. Insistent reductionism of that expression accomplishes the same ends for all the other music out there (while adding credence to the perception of jazz as an insular, academic pursuit).
It’s a great big wide world, why not put all of it on the radio?