Has the iconic music genre become dated or is it still a big part of the music scene today, like it was 100 years ago?
A brief history:
Jazz originated in New Orleans, United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the 1920s, which was known as the ‘jazz age’, it has become recognised as a major form of musical expression. It emerged through independent, traditional and popular music style that were all linked by African American and European American music, that was composed for performance.
Often called the DNA of modern music, jazz is influential throughout a range of musical genres. Dave Brubeck, a famous jazz pianist who wrote what you are listening to right now ‘Take Five’, once said:
“Jazz is about the only form of art existing today in which there is freedom of the individual without the loss of group contact.”
– Dave Brubeck
It’s clear that jazz has come a long way since its roots in New Orleans and has evolved with time and trends like other types of music do.
But is it really dying? To answer, we must look at its historical background to learn about the evolution of jazz and how this has shaped the genre as we know it today. By learning about its early influences, we can have a better understanding of what jazz means in modern music and whether it’s still relevant.
The word ‘jazz’ was hardly known before 1912 and even then it was more likely to be used in relation to sports rather than music. It stems from the 19th century word ‘jasm’ and it started out in a handful of newspaper reports as a slang term to convey an impression of vigour, energy, spirit and risk. However, less than a decade later, the 1920s were being labelled as ‘the Jazz Age all over the western world.’
As we have seen with recent Hollywood films about jazz music like Whiplash and La La Land, jazz is depicted as a dying art in need of saving.
We must ask ourselves, is this just for cinematic effect or is the music really on it’s way out? The Editor in Chief of the Jazz Journal, Mark Gilbert, who has edited the magazine since 2009, thinks traditional jazz now has a different meaning. The Jazz Journal is a British jazz magazine that was established in 1948, which covers opinion pieces about jazz and the artists, as well as reviews of old and new releases.
“Jazz is not dying if you believe the hype and see the level of activity in the name of jazz. But I have doubts. I don’t see the emergence of discreet, clearly identifiable new jazz genres like we have seen in the past. 40 or more years ago Miles Davis and others said jazz was dead but the word is still everywhere and used to describe newly produced music.”
– Mark Gilbert
Although there aren’t really any new jazz genres emerging in music at the moment, unlike when jazz was thriving, jazz enthusiasts are still making the effort to keep the spirit of the music alive.
Jez Matthews is the organiser of Jazz Wednesdays at the Lescar Hotel in Sheffield. The Lescar Hotel is the longest running jazz club in Sheffield and has been part of the jazz scene in the city for 16 years. Jez holds the jazz nights in hope of making the city more inclusive for all genres of jazz, such as electronic or african. He says: “I try to give a platform to bands who are playing new stuff to create a proper jazz hub in the city.”
Jez supports many up and coming bands, including the Samuel Eagles, a band from the London jazz scene who create music full of grooves and brilliant improvisation, their ‘inventiveness’ was described as impressive by John Fordham, the Guardian’s main jazz critic.
A self-confessed jazz worshiper, Jez has been a lover of the music ever since his dad introduced him to it when he was around six years old. Despite all of his friends being into heavy metal, his passion for jazz grew and grew, leading him to now putting on regular nights in the hope of inspiring the next big thing in jazz.
Click on the video below to hear the band and what Jez thinks about the genre today, what the latest Hollywood films on jazz dying really mean and why he is working so hard to keep jazz alive.
He highlights how traditional jazz may well be dying out, but jazz is very much alive in contemporary genres such as dubstep and hip-hop.
He says that films like Whiplash, Birdman and La La Land are true to an extent in that jazz can be seen as dying out, but the fact that the films exist in the first place and that they were incredibly popular shows that people are interested in jazz and that’s a great thing.
What the figures tell us
The truth on whether jazz is dying really lies within the sales of jazz and how they have changed over time. With the increase in streaming and listening to online music, fewer and fewer people are physically buying music, even less of those purchases are of jazz.
It’s clear by looking at the figures, that jazz isn’t as popular as it has been in the past. However, as Jez highlighted earlier, it’s very much alive and is living through modern music and influencing other genres.
Although jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald aren’t here today, it’s clear that the music they created still lives on today and is inspiring artists to make jazz music.
You may consider jazz to be a world apart from the rock, pop or hip-hop you love (or hate). However, you might be surprised to learn about its influences on many genres through its rich history, from the newest performing artists of today, to legendary musicians that shaped the sounds we love so much.
What does the future of jazz hold?
Young jazz musicians who play in the University of Sheffield jazz band express what they think the future of jazz holds for them and whether the genre is a dying art. Click on the video below to hear whether they think jazz is a dying art and where they think it’s heading.