Wednesday, July 19, 2006

it's that ole devil, again

Francis Davis has apparently survived the Village Voice's recent reshuffling and is back with a bang, taking on the Euro-US issue with more subtlety than most. He uses a review of Trygve Seim's work to expand into a full-fledged discussion. A good one, but I continue to be bothered by the latent us-versus-them mentality the article's very existence implies (cf. the article's confrontational title). Also, the Europeans-struggling-for-acceptance angle is slightly distasteful, if you set it against a wider historical backdrop.

But the question I can hear the jazz police asking is whether that much originality is desirable in a foreign musician.

"Originality" has become dissociated from "origin," Raymond Williams holds in Keywords: "Indeed, the point is that [originality] has no origin but itself." The problem in a nutshell, the Stomping the Blues crowd would say... [T]heir argument [is] that jazz becomes something else, something not nearly as vital, when it loses touch with its blues ancestry... [T]he increasing dominance of elements from their own [European] cultures is [felt as] an affront to both American and black exceptionalism—though I doubt the affronted would ever put it that way.
That last sentence is quite a zinger.
If jazz were a folk music, the belief that only its originators can do it justice would have validity. But art music embraces change and claims universality, and not even Albert Murray can have it both ways.
I've never understood the hostility towards Europeans bringing their own, non-American influences to jazz. Does "if you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn" (and, especially, its implicit corollary "what you live is what comes out of your horn") not apply beyond America's shores?
In free's lasting wake, there are at least three distinctly European schools of jazz, two national (Dutch dada and British improv) and the other defined as much by a label (Germany's ECM) as by a region (Scandinavia).
That's all well and good (one would have no difficulty adding a few schools, French and Italian, for starters), but when will people start talking about transatlanticism? Ken Vandermark finds common ground between Chicago, Germany and Sweden, improvisers on the electronic edge of things meet in Vienna and Tokyo, Americans move to Berlin to record albums or paint and many European musicians you've never heard of regularly spend as much time in New York as their visas will allow. But even transatlanticism is an outdated term: pretty much the entire world meets at Berklee.
Europe is still a lucrative market for American jazz, more lucrative now than the U.S.. With jazz on the ropes commercially back home, the unspoken fear is that if it ceases to be regarded as a touchstone of African American culture, the mass media are unlikely to pay any attention to it at all. But getting used to the fact that different European outposts now have their own jazz traditions needn't involve buying into the British critic Stuart Nicholson's belief that American jazz is played out, any more than it has to mean sharing his enthusiasm for tepid Scandinavian techno.
Certainly not. Again, it's disappointing that, in 2006, such manicheistic views continue to hold sway. Then again, maybe Davis is setting up straw men (or maybe just thinking of Jack Reilly's hilarious diatribe). Speaking of whom, for those of you who missed it, the infamous Jason Moran review is back online.