Jazz and culture in a global age
Stuart Nicholson’s last book, Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has It Moved to a New Address), published in 2005, proved compelling but controversial with its view that non-Americans are taking the lead in jazz globally and went on to explore notions of globalisation and ‘glocalisation’ where artists incorporate their own national musical heritage into the language of jazz.

This new book also has a compelling if more distracted character, sage-like at times but a bit rebellious too in its bolder claims, a bit like a polemic by Simon Jenkins but one that becomes increasingly more academic the more you read.

Nicholson in his preface begins by pointing to “the understandable lack of curiosity inside the United States about jazz outside American borders – the global jazz scene”. That’s on the first page, so it doesn’t take long for him to wade in. He also tackles head-on basic terminology, usually a sore subject but handled in a business-like way, so “with the passage of time, what we understand to be jazz has gradually become narrowed by the need to define it.” He also, more interestingly and going out more on a limb, bravely stands up for modernism and argues that “jazz’s cultural capital is enhanced when we consider all of it a modernist music”. The final chapter, ‘Jazz and Modernism’ deserves to be a main chunk of a separate book, as it’s more a history of a wider artistic movement and opens up new vistas.

But back at the very beginning the panoramic first chapter ‘Jazz and the Perfect Storm’ takes as its theme the displacement of culture by the dictates of entertainment. Nicholson rapidly traces how American pre-eminence, beyond jazz and in jazz itself, was slipping in the 1990s and moves on to how the US banking crisis also hit jazz hard. Nicholson then hones in on smaller detail, pointing for instance to the growth of door money gigs and that US musicians found they could make more money playing in Europe than in New York. At this stage the book reads less like a polemic and more like an official report into the state of the jazz nation.

Nicholson discusses the neo-Kantian political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s argument that market forces following the demands of entertainment displace and destroy culture. This is the most interesting thing about the book as it leads to a discussion about the value we place on jazz in a wider context and within a hierarchy of cultural choices. Discussing the place of jazz in culture within a consumer society is a stimulating subject and certainly draws out plenty of possible flashpoints. Nicholson doesn’t really have space to go into the subject of whether jazz is entertainment per se but perhaps he should have somehow at this point.

Nicholson quite rightly is critical of prescriptivist views of jazz that tend to lay down the law too much to the exclusion of certain styles, and discusses how the word ‘jazz’ itself is seen as an obstacle to perception of the music in the eyes of certain key artists. More interesting is the discussion about the complexity of what it is we’re actually hearing musically and how much we can actually take in as listeners, a bias existing in favour of appreciating music that operates on a lower level of complexity. But there is a danger at one stage in the ensuing discussion that it’s a case of youth versus experience, for instance he writes: “One common fault among younger musicians is to undervalue the importance of melody and melodic development”. Surely youth is not a barrier in this regard at all. Nicholson does warm to the subject of favouring melody within improvising, which is interesting, and quotes Joe Lovano on the subject who rails against playing “patterns”, putting more store on interpretation. Nicholson’s point that it “is now context that is coming to define originality” is a strong one.

The second chapter changes tack after such a promising start and instead of anatomising what Nicholson detects as a music in some sort of falling trajectory in terms of audiences and artistic ambition moves on to its supposed universality. The chapter heading is ‘Jazz May Be Universal, But Does it Have a Universal Meaning?’ tackling the issue head on. Tracing the rise of jazz along with the rise of the record industry, the universality of a listening medium eventually matched by a perceived universality by the mid-1950s of jazz as an international musical language, is the way in here. The discussion does ramble a bit but eventually moves into involving ideas drawn from psychology dwelling on a discussion of music and emotion which is stimulating. Better though is when the discussion moves on to cultural backdrop.

The next chapter, ‘The Globalization of Jazz’ is where Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has It Moved to a New Address), one of the most significant books about jazz written in the last few decades, left off. The significance of this chapter is highlighted a little by greyscale graphics added to several pages filled with quotations from musicians offering their views on glocalisation, the creation of local sub-genres for instance within jazz. Pat Metheny puts his finger on the crux of the matter best and this certainly coincides with Nicholson’s authorial stance. Metheny says: “It’s harder and harder to support the myth of jazz as ‘America’s Classical music’.” The book enters the realm of an academic text book here and in this differs a good deal from Is Jazz Dead, which was suitable more for a general reader. Among the knotty subjects raised there are interesting comparisons made between Paul Gilroy’s diaspora theorising and what Nicholson refers to as the thinking of New Jazz Studies academics, avoiding talk of national culture in jazz as the latter ideology has it, one key point.

By the end I got the distinct feeling of having eavesdropped on a lot of complex conversations that as the book wore on got more and more involved, sometimes ones that nonetheless petered out but always involved issues that need discussing. The most significant part is probably the extra detail about glocalisation, and in a long section Nicholson goes into a lot of detail about this with “Real Life Examples”. The reader is left dangling a bit at the end, a feeling a short summary drawing all the threads together might well have prevented.

Stephen Graham