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The Genres: Bill Shoemaker on Avant-Garde

Cecil Taylor

Avant-garde jazz is as much a hot-button phrase today as it was 30 years ago. It is a label with a rancid, agenda-laden history. Yet its usage has changed in ways totally unforeseen in 1970, when the avant-garde was considered a mere appendix to the body politic of jazz, serving no function but to be periodically inflamatory. In 1970, the phrase avant-garde jazz was more apt to be used in a gambit to legitimize avant-garde music through an overt connection to jazz; now, the term is often employed to connect jazz to the avant-garde.

Mapping these changes reveals how musicians, the market and the media have, in many instances, cooled rhetorical tensions through inclusive practices. But it is a mistake to conclude that avant-garde music has been assimilated into a jazz melting pot. On the contrary, the avant-garde has moved on—and jazz is the poorer for it, as now little more than business considerations and the inertia of a blemished shared history prevent jazz and what it claims as its avant-garde from rupturing irrevocably.

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