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Collective Visions

For the ambitious jazz listener in New York City, a kind of haze descends around the second week of June. With the JVC Jazz Festival just stirring and the Vision Festival gathering steam, concertgoers can gravitate to the aesthetic extreme of their choice. But that’s only the half of it: In a season of overbooking, the clubs also grow delirious with promise. So what was striking about this past June, for me, had less to do with the abundance of options-though the upstart New Languages Festival, in its fourth season, did compound that issue-than with one common ideal among them. Uptown and downtown, on stages great and small, I kept considering the social legacy of jazz innovation. Wherever I turned, there was fodder for the argument that visionaries need company-they don’t come out of nowhere, whatever their press clippings say.

Of course this isn’t a novel idea. Jazz has always been a communal art, despite the emphasis on solo feats and the timeless imperative to find one’s own voice. Ralph Ellison once famously described it as “an art of individual assertion within and against the group,” exposing both the balance and the tensions of such an arrangement. Consult some of the more conscientious histories of the music, like Scott DeVeaux’s The Birth of Bebop (Univ. of Calif.) or George Lewis’ A Power Stronger Than Itself (Univ. of Chicago), and you’ll encounter a record of communal innovation, punctuated by the errant flash of genius. It’s much the same today, though collectivity may be an even bigger deal now, if bandstand evidence can be trusted to tell the tale.

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