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March 10, 2012


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Nicole Williams Sitaraman

Wow, Payton's position hits me like a ton of bricks. Frankly, I need to sit and think about this further. On one hand, I am in total agreement with him about the overarching issue of how American history has been whitewashed and revised by many. I passionately believe in the preservation of black/African diaspora history and culture. I also believe that black culture is part of the bedrock of American culture. However, on the other hand, I am not completely convinced that this American art form should be renamed: BAM. The fact that jazz sprouted from, was nurtured and driven by the African-American music tradition is undeniable. However, I think it is tragically short-sighted and unfair to ignore the many other cultural traditions that have made jazz and yes, black music, what it is today (such as Hindu -- e.g. Alice Coltrane's seminal work Journey in Satchidananda; Native American -- e.g. Oscar Pettiford; Latin-American -- e.g. Mario Bauza). Black American Music/Jazz has been heavily influenced by various cultural traditions as well as the other way around.

Dave James

The only possible way this works is if one accepts that black, as the science of chromatics will tell you, is really the absence of color. Somehow, I don't think this is quite what Peyton had in mind when he suggested renaming the music. What he ignores, needless to say, is that calling it BAM is just as exclusionary as he feels it is to call it JAZZ. Fortunately, the chances of this catching on are just slightly higher than if someone as biased as he is had decided to call it WAM (White American Music). Me? I think we should just call it DAM (Delightful American Music).

Doug Zielke

I saw the Nicholas Payton Quartet at Birdland, NYC last year. Call the music what you will; Nicholas and the band swung like an axe! To me, how you label the genre is a peripheral issue.

And regarding jazz styles, time will always be the arbiter of value. Now, please excuse me while I chip off the amber from some Bud Powell recordings!

Michael Steinman

Second thoughts. I respect you deeply, Marc, and know that your thoughts come from deep experience and feeling, but wonder if you aren't proposing a false either-or: "Jazz must change or else it is stale, dead." It is possible that jazz, however you define it, changes minute by minute ever time a musician or group steps up on the stand to perform, to create. Since jazz is predicated on various types of exploration and inquiry -- even something as apparently simple as playing a slow Bb 12 bar blues opens up new worlds previously unknown -- why not take it for granted that jazz has perpetual change built into its bones? Otherwise, I think we are locked into a perpetual restless striving for novelty -- the kind of "progressive" thinking that made people assume that the newest thing is by definition the best. I am not advocating a complete nostalgic reversion to what has been done -- embracing the tradition so tightly that all the breath is squeezed out of it -- but I think CHANGE or DIE is a kind of imprisonment also. Thanks for the post: anything that makes us think is high-quality stuff!

Bill Kirchner

I think that Nicholas Payton is a wonderful musician who has too much time on his hands. Most of what he's said has been articulated many times before--and better--by others.

To wit:
“‘Jazz’ is only a word and really has no meaning. We stopped using it in 1943. To keep the whole thing clear, once and for all, I don’t believe in categories of any kind.”
—Duke Ellington


Yeah, Bill, that's the quote I was looking for. -- Or, as Charlie Parker said in an interview with radio man John McLellan on June 13, 1953 while he played at Boston's "Storyville":

"There is always room for musicians. There is no such thing as the middle-of-the-road. It's either one thing or the other--either good music or otherwise.

It doesn't matter which idiom it's in. Call it swing, bebop or Dixieland. If it's good music, it will be heard."

And that's what I would expect from anyone who has the stature of a Nicholas Payton: That he tries to make the best music, that he keeps on *living* it, be it BAM, or the music which is widely known as jazz, if we like it or not.

Rick M


Without denying anything that has been said here about the need to break out from overworked formulae, I think the term 'jazz' will always represent something less rigid than classical yet more sophisticated than pop, rock and blues. It can accommodate elements of all those genres. 'Jazz' will perservere.

The attempt to racialize the music with a new term (BAM) sets back assumed goals of equality, tolerance and historical credit for this music just as identity politics tends to divide and reduce individuals in society at large.

The notion kind of flies in the face of what yesterdays' Ella/Karen collaboration suggested, don't you think?

keith hedger

Jazz must change to survive, meaning jazz must find some way to draw a larger audience. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen. The "jazz" today that draws a larger audience is not jazz. Jazz for all intents and purposes is dead. We no longer produce musicians of the caliber and talent that we used in jazz's heydey. There are no budding artists on the level of Miles, Dizzy, Bird, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, etc. They made jazz. Not marketing, not young kids (though they were), not music schools, and not the Internet. Without players of that level, the real music that we know of as jazz cannot exist. Is that bad or good? Neither. It just is.

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  • Marc Myers writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and is author of "Anatomy of a Song" (Grove) and "Why Jazz Happened." Founded in 2007, JazzWax is a two-time winner of the Jazz Journalists Association's best blog award.

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