The New Euro-Jazz Chauvinism

American jazz musicians have considerable exposure in Europe, the breadbasket of jazz, with well-funded tours and media coverage. If they are lucky, however, they will evade the growing anti-American sentiment among European critics, which is coalescing into the ideological front of a new Jazz War that could make the Siege of Lincoln Center seem like a picnic. Readers of the Dec. 2000 issue of JazzTimes got a glimpse of this emergent doctrine in Stuart Nicholson’s essay “The Sound of Sameness: Why European Jazz Musicians No Longer Turn to America for Inspiration.” The British critic then retooled his riffs for the June 3 New York Times article “Europeans Cut in With a New Jazz Sound and Beat,” which again coupled his disdain for what he perceives as dry-rotting American jazz hegemony and his boosterism for European artists of varying stripe and merit.

Ironically, this brand of chauvinism poisons the case for the vitality of European jazz, as it is mired in specious arguments sprinkled with rhetorical low blows. Nicholson claims in his JT piece that European jazz had, until recently, been “held in check for almost two decades” by unnamed, presumably American forces—The New York Bebop Cartel? Covert Jazz Operations at the CIA? Harvey Pekar?—but now, “the momentum for innovation” in Europe “has become irresistible.” A triumph of European will or the crumbling of Jazz Fortress America? In JT, Nicholson donnishly argued the latter, huffing about American jazz’s narcissistic “preoccupation with its past,” its “failure to acknowledge” the globalization of the art, and “its apparent unawareness” that it has relinquished its “stewardship” and “traditional pathfinding” roles. Nicholson really hits his stride, however, when he castigates American jazz supremacists, who have long regarded European jazz “with the same kind of tolerant smile they reserve for Japanese baseball.” Unaware that slur-tinged polemics discredit him and those he champions faster than you can say Ichiro Suzuki, Nicholson led his Times piece with the same baseball line.

Unfortunately, this polarizing media crusade obscures the market issues that should rightly outrage European musicians and jazz advocates: the disproportionate share of prime European festival and concert tour slots that go to the creatively challenged Americans European critics ardently pan; and Europe’s jazz trade deficit with the U.S. The ire of Europeans would be more productive if it was focused, for example, on bureaucracies like the Arts Council of Great Britain, a major underwriter of the recent, month-long “UK:KC,” a celebration of British music, dance and theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts that included no British jazz artists. Europeans should be equally incensed at the festivals throughout the U.K. and the rest of Europe receiving government funding to load up on what Steve Lacy wryly calls “the menu” of American headliners served up by a very real, entrenched, European agency establishment.

European jazz advocates also need to understand the disconnect between jazz creativity and a UPC-ed U.S. market. If the sound of Soundscan has replaced the sound of surprise Stateside, that’s an expression of market forces, not the state of the art. Creative European jazz is as equally disadvantaged in such market conditions as its American counterparts, but it won’t overcome these obstacles with chauvinist tracts. European jazz is better served by producers like ECM’s Manfred Eicher, who will endure the convulsion of changing his U.S. distributor so that a Tomasz Stanko album is released in the same timely fashion as a Keith Jarrett title. It will be interesting if Universal—ECM’s current U.S. partner—will release the titles in Gitanes’ excellent Jazz In Paris series led by underheralded midcentury European artists, like Rene Thomas, in addition to those by Louis Armstrong.

European jazz is also well served by those governments who subsidize jazz artist travel to and within the U.S., though increased coordination between cultural officers and their counterparts in trade promotion and other bureaus could result in combined public and corporate sponsorship, yielding more frequent and more extensive tours by European artists. Every European artist who wants a high U.S. profile should study the organization behind George Gruntz, whose Concert Jazz Band tours garner so many sponsors that it takes a set and a half of between-tune acknowledgements to cover them all.

Integrating European jazz artists into the American jazz consumer’s consciousness will require more than one committed multinational conglomerate-associated label, a handful of earnest cultural attaches or a host of would-be heavyweight corporate sponsors. It will require first, if not foremost, accurate information, something European critics themselves have historically been inconsistent in delivering: Joachim Ernst Berendt’s sole reference to pianist Bobo Stenson in the sixth edition of The Jazz Book IDs him as Norwegian, not Swedish. Critics on both sides of the pond need to place European musicians in their own traditions: Stenson—who is quoted in Nicholson’s JT essay, and whose ECM album War Orphans was included in his sidebar of recommended CDs—is habitually placed in the shadow of Bill Evans, even by top-notch European critics like John Fordham. Americans need to know how Stenson diverged from earlier Swedish stylists like Bengt Hallberg, how he compares with contemporaries like Per Henrik Wallin and how he set a benchmark for subsequent improvisers like Sten Sandell. Paradoxically, a detailed historical context can get an American listener beyond “European” and even “Swedish” to the work itself.

True, precious few Europeans have become so familiar to the American audience that their nationalities have all but been forgotten. It’s taken Dave Holland decades of U.S. residency, playing with everybody from Miles Davis to Anthony Braxton, to get beyond being automatically IDed as British (nowadays, the only folks who make a fuss about Holland being British are the British). Practically all European musicians can therefore expect to be labeled as such for their entire careers. However, the way “European” is ultimately translated by the American audience, particularly by young listeners, depends upon how it is intoned by Europeans. If “European” merely identifies the cultural orientation of music, then Americans, by and large, will keep their ears and minds open. But, if “European” is identified with a corrosive, exclusive point of view like Nicholson’s, whose Nordic-centric map of Europe ends at the Italian and Spanish borders, Americans are going to turn off faster than you can say the name of another ECM artist, Gianluigi Trovesi.

Originally published in September 2001

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