The Decade in Jazz: 10 Definitive Moments

The Decade in Jazz: 10 Definitive Moments

At the end of the decade, where does jazz stand?

Is it the proud tradition of America’s “classical music,” rooted in the blues but now happily subsumed into the academy? Is it the domain of no-holds-barred experimentalism, where standard ideas of harmony and rhythm have grown passé? Or is it an ever-evolving form of black music that allows young virtuoso musicians to incorporate pop, hip-hop and electronics into new styles that sound like our information-overloaded, 21st-century lives?

All three are valid answers — and as the past 10 years have shown, it’s the friction between them that keeps jazz’s engine running.

A decade ago, musicians were still working to outrun the ideology of Neo-Classicism. Today, the two other definitions have the edge.

A decade ago, New York was still the undeniable center of the jazz world, where young musicians fresh out of school would inevitably flock to compete for gigs. But the past 10 years have seen the resurgence of local jazz scenes — especially in Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as London — where young musicians can sometimes play a greater role as organizers and outside-the-box collaborators, and can stay connected to the heritage of their hometowns.

And a decade ago, jazz’s gender imbalance still felt implacable. But thanks to an influx of female and nonbinary students at academic institutions, the advocacy of virtuoso musicians like Geri Allen and Terri Lyne Carrington, and agitation by young musicians demanding change, a new paradigm is starting to emerge.

After all, this has always been the way of the music: Planted in tradition, buzzing with activity and contingency, it cannot help but grow. Here are 10 moments that tell the story of jazz’s progress in the 2010s.

When this singing, bass-playing young virtuoso stole the best new artist Grammy from under Justin Bieber’s nose, it incited a Twitter fury among his fans and — more important — established her as the first in a new generation of crossover jazz stars. (Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat and Makaya McCraven would soon follow.) In the decade that followed, Esperanza Spalding proved adept at making use of her platform: Her albums grew only more ambitious and rewarding and her artistry now encompasses interdisciplinary art, activism and, apparently, writing operas with Wayne Shorter. (Some tantalizing videos from the studio keep landing on Instagram, but the work remains unfinished.)

“Jazz is a label that was forced upon the musicians.” “Jazz separated itself from American popular music. Big mistake. The music never recovered.” “Jazz ain’t cool, it’s cold, like necrophilia.” The Grammy-winning New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton was looking for converts, not friends, when he posted an entry on his personal blog over Thanksgiving weekend 2011 titled “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore.”

His droll, 1,100-word critique immediately became the “Jazz and the White Critic” of the new century, arguing that the so-called jazz establishment has cut musicians off from the rest of contemporary society. If jazz’s artists had more control over their industry, he argued, genre divisions would matter a lot less. In a separate post, Mr. Payton introduced a term to replace jazz (and R&B, hip-hop and house music, theoretically): “Black American Music,” abbreviated with the hashtag #BAM. That phrase, like the argument it represents, has not gone out of style yet.

For years in the late 2000s and early 2010s, in half-hypnotic, half-electrifying live shows and lengthy rehearsals that sometimes involved playing a single hip-hop groove for an hour, Robert Glasper’s Experiment band honed a new kind of jazz/hip-hop fusion. It was a flexible science by the time this quartet released its first full-length album, “Black Radio,” full of short, airplay-ready tunes and star guest vocalists. Paying equal debts to 1980s quiet storm, Radiohead’s moody ooze and the slackened rhythmic stamp of J Dilla, the record won a Grammy for best R&B album — and opened up a fresh sense of possibility in jazz.

Rarely does a tribute concert really touch the spirit of its honoree. It helped that Ornette Coleman himself was onstage that drizzly June night in Brooklyn, presiding like Buddha, occasionally shedding tears, even though he didn’t play much saxophone. Sonny Rollins, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, the Master Musicians of Joujouka and others came onstage to affirm his importance as a founding figure on the avant-garde, some by speaking and others simply by playing. One year later, almost to the day, Mr. Coleman died.

By the time the pianist and MacArthur fellow Vijay Iyer became tenured at Harvard University — a first for a jazz musician — he had already set about changing the place. He encouraged the music department to ditch its Eurocentric core curriculum, and founded a one-of-a-kind, interdisciplinary doctoral program in music. It is evidence that jazz musicians entering the highest rungs of the academy will radically alter it with their presence.

Just two months after Kendrick Lamar released his masterpiece “To Pimp a Butterfly,” a tenor saxophonist who had played a big role on that album put forth an opus of his own. Kamasi Washington’s three-disc “The Epic” — with horns, strings, choir and an outsize jazz combo funneling into a titanic blend of postbop, calypso, funk and gospel — was a runaway success, thanks to the allure of its ambition and the co-signs of Mr. Lamar and Flying Lotus, who released the album on his label. Mr. Washington soon became one of today’s more popular musicians of any kind, as well as an ambassador for Los Angeles’s thriving scene.

Two events on opposite ends of the Eastern Seaboard — jazz’s newest festival and its oldest — each provided a keyhole into the music’s future. In February, the nerdy jazz-funk phenoms in Snarky Puppy held their first GroundUp Festival in Miami Beach, showing that the young, hyper-technical musicians coming out of jazz-education programs could make up a consumer base of its own. In Rhode Island, the 45-year-old bassist Christian McBride became artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival (taking over from its nonagenarian founder George Wein), and immediately nudged it toward an embrace of the #BAM philosophy: His first festival featured the Roots, Maceo Parker, Esperanza Spalding and Henry Threadgill.

After years of buildup, in 2017 young female and nonbinary musicians forced a major reckoning with jazz’s old ethic of gender exclusivity, which pervades the bandstand, the studio and the classroom. Buoyed by the #MeToo movement, a number of young musicians went public with stories of harassment and assault, posting lengthy personal essays online that landed like a boulder in the center of the road. The entire community had to come together to figure out a way forward, and to open up a broader pathway into jazz. The next year, the #WeHaveVoice collective released a broad Code of Conduct establishing what behavior is unacceptable on the bandstand and off, and Ms. Carrington started the first-of-its-kind Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice at Berklee College of Music.

For over a decade, the Stone served as a ballast for the avant-garde on the Lower East Side. In 2018 it moved across town, voluntarily, into the New School, signaling an ascent that’s both a victory and a loss. It meant a new kind of institutional acceptance for downtown New York experimentalism, but also felt like a goodbye to Manhattan’s last truly outsider space devoted to improvised music.

The broader his artistic identity grows, the more Jason Moran, 44, seems like the elder statesman-to-be that jazz has been waiting for. Aside from the continuing bounties of his trio, the Bandwagon — still the finest small group in jazz in its 20th year — much of his influence comes by way of assembly: This year he and the vocalist Alicia Hall Moran, his wife, barnstormed classical stages across the country with “Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration,” a multidisciplinary performance bringing together blues, rock, jazz and Western classical musicians, as well as scholars. A few months later, Mr. Moran’s first museum retrospective show, featuring the fruits of his collaborations with visual artists, arrived at the Whitney Museum of American Art. If jazz is to live in the academy, Mr. Moran wants to ensure that it changes the nature of what that means — making institutions more socially engaged, more interdisciplinary, more improvisational and more awake.

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