The term “mainstream jazz” probably means less now than it ever has. Jazz is, now, itself and whatever else you can get away with. You can now play New Orleans-style music and just about anything else, including 20th-century European concert music clichés as well as snippets—or an abundance—of ethnic music, and find yourself included in a jazz festival or written about in a jazz magazine. These days you can be given an award by jazz critics, in a ceremony underwritten by the Knitting Factory, even if you play with no feeling of swing, no feeling for the blues and make use of hardly anything from the great canon of jazz technique. Mainstream jazz can now mean anything.
None of that, however, means that the fundamentals that make for true jazz have ever disappeared. Things are still pretty clear. From Armstrong through Ornette Coleman and most of John Coltrane, we can hear particular things. We hear 4/4 swing, fast, medium and slow. We hear the blues in all tempos. We hear the meditative or romantic ballad. We hear what Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish tinge.” Those were the terms and styles under which a rebellion was fought against the commercial dictates of fusion that threatened jazz during the ’70s. This is something that the present critical establishment seems to have missed, primarily because the true nature of aesthetic courage has yet to be grasped by the majority of those who purport to have some grasp of this art. Ignoring the challenges of the fundamentals of an art form is less about courage than it is evasion. It is always easier not to swing than to swing, and when swing becomes a target for contempt, swinging becomes more important than ever.