Two-thousand-sixteen was a year filled with great promise and just recognition for deserving leaders. I’m discussing the year in jazz, of course; generally speaking, we suffered the devastating loss of several beloved cultural heroes and handed the reins of the free world to a human boardwalk caricature. But I digress. I’m tired of talking about that guy, I’m sure you are too, and there’s a lot of fantastic music to cover.
Funnily enough, jazz saw the sort of year you want in a political climate: a healthy status quo accented by fresh opportunities; the participation of enthusiastic young people; a newfound understanding of the past that can inform the present. Henry Threadgill, whose astounding Old Locks and Irregular Verbs received top honors in our Critics’ Picks, won a hard-earned Pulitzer Prize. Jazz on film had something of a banner year, with high-profile biopics—Miles Ahead is a jazz conversation-starter for the ages—and many fine documentaries making news. Artists who crossed over in 2015 continued to make the festival, theater and club rounds in ’16, strengthening their audiences and, at least by default, jazz’s on the whole. I’m thinking of pianist Joey Alexander, whose recent release, Countdown, failed to enter our Top 50 but needs to be heard, and especially saxophonist Kamasi Washington, a jazz-pop phenomenon in ticket sales but not artistic concession. The year was one of the strongest I can remember in the way of historical or vault recordings. Some of them—the latest Miles Bootleg installment, Unheard Bird, A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters—mine the meaningful scraps, flubs and leftovers of jazz history; others, like the Savory Collection or Resonance’s lost Bill Evans Trio studio album, unearth fully formed treasures.
There will be more room for reflection in our next issue, which will include the annual Readers’ and Expanded Critics’ Polls. But allow me to close with my favorite jazz memory of 2016, and one of the best moments in my career at this magazine. In April, I had the privilege to report on the International Jazz Day concert at the White House, hosted by the Obamas. It was, not surprisingly, a striking concert saturated with A-listers. What really impressed me, however, was the grand display of cultural appreciation, and the deeply felt and considered speech the president delivered to open. I’m not a soothsayer, but I doubt I’ll have a similar experience during the next four years, and I worry about jazz’s place in our national future. But let’s face it, we’ve got bigger worries.