This month’s musings were prompted by the arrival of a new book, Phil Freeman’s Ugly Beauty: Jazz in the 21st Century, and word of two others that are due to be published later in 2022, a biography of Bill Frisell by Irish journalist Philip Watson and a memoir by Henry Threadgill. You’ll read more about all three of these books in future issues of JazzTimes; I’m just using them here as a platform for arguably pointless but enjoyable speculation.
Freeman’s book—much like Nate Chinen’s Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018), which covers much of the same time period and some of the same topics—has an episodic structure. Vijay Iyer gets a chapter, followed by a chapter on Taylor Ho Bynum. There’s a chapter on Shabaka Hutchings, and one on Matana Roberts. One section of the book is made up of five chapters, each one discussing a different trumpeter. The approach makes a certain sense. After all, the century’s still young, as are these musicians. None of them necessarily warrants a whole book yet (and Freeman’s agent probably didn’t think a book about any one of them singly would interest a publisher).
On to Frisell and Threadgill. No one could possibly argue that either of these superlative artists doesn’t warrant a full book. I’d say they each deserve several. But even though both musicians have done loads of brilliant work in the past 20-plus years, no book about them would ever classify them as “21st-century artists.” They made their first big creative marks—and lots of them—in the 20th century, and they’ll always be remembered for doing so.
And that leads us to the big question: Which jazz artist that’s inextricably connected to this century will be the first to “get” his/her/their own book? Will it be any of the artists in Freeman’s volume? Or none of them?
There’s no way to answer this, of course, but it’s fun to guess. Right now, I’d say Iyer has a good shot at it; his intellectual appeal and background make him a strong candidate. Kamasi Washington, with his compelling persona and growing fan base, is another formidable contender, as are Jon Batiste and Jason Moran. At least a couple of names in this issue of JT—Helen Sung and Brandee Younger—are worth considering. As for currently buzzed-about players like Shabaka Hutchings, Immanuel Wilkins, and Nubya Garcia, they show great promise but are only getting started (we hope).
One more question. What will it mean when that first 21st-century jazz artist, whoever it may be, receives the full-book treatment? I think it’ll mean this: that a scene that’s been immensely fertile over the past two decades will have finally produced individuals whom most observers regard as leaders. Some may find this development unfortunate or unfair, arguing that lifting a few up over the many is reductive and presents too simplistic a picture of the music. But I’d like to believe that others will celebrate it. After all, why shouldn’t our century have its own Duke and Satch, Miles and Trane, Monk and Mingus … or Frisell and Threadgill?