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Thirty Years of Our JazzTimes: The 1990s

For JazzTimes' 30th anniversary, Peter Watrous looks back at music from the magazine's third decade

lllustration: Evelyn Rapin

In the 1990s, jazz’s blood squirted all over the floor of American culture and its body and soul slowly escaped, leaving an empty shell twisted in the throes of death.

Uh, no, not really.

Actually, jazz did pretty well in the 1990s, even if it burst its seams and fell apart. Lots of people will disagree, saying it was a terrible time, throes of death, etc. Record companies couldn’t sell records, so they moaned and groaned and kept putting out boring records. Musicians complained about the lack of spaces to perform. Festival impresarios whined about falling attendance, and kept programming fatal festivals. It cost too much for young people to come out and hear music. There was a diminishing source of mainstream coverage of the music, and jazz criticism itself stayed weirdly congealed, some sort of ’60s leftover. And some of the biggest names in the music shuffled off the mortal coil during the 1990s, meaning that even the paltry mentions of jazz (“Jazz legend Miles Davis playing Saturday Night Live“) outside of jazz were gone.

Jeez, Gramps, that doesn’t sound so good. What exactly was good about the decade?

Things fell apart, son, and that was good. See, the 1980s were a period of intense focus. That is, jazz showed a fairly singular face. A few marketing ideas went a long way—the Young Lions—and set up an idea that a youth movement, one headed by Wynton Marsalis, dictated the terms of the era. And while the notion of a unified face of jazz is pretty much an absurdity during any period of jazz, this time it made a bit of sense, if one gives in to the debatable idea that musicians under the age of 40 define jazz’s character. And that group of musicians, influenced by a preservationist approach to the music, believed that jazz had something intrinsic that was worth keeping. It was an argument that essentially stated that jazz was something identifiable, that it had traits. And damned if a bunch of young musicians didn’t go out and learn them.

Sonny, let me back up and tell you a bit about an experience I had in the late 1980s. I attended an early competition of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, in Washington, D.C. It was a trumpet competition, and I’ll admit profound trepidation. Who wanted to go to Washington, D.C., in the first place, and then hear a bunch of terrible unknown trumpeters mash away at standards? And what happened? A big surprise: The competition featured a series of exceptional musicians, each with their own style, all clearly people who had put in time to learn how to play. The feeling in the audience, among the older jazz fans there to hear some free music, the trumpet-playing judges, among the record-industry people who were there scouting, and the few critics, was one of euphoria. After so many high Cs, euphoria? It was euphoric because there was a period in the 1980s, probably forgotten now, during which the future of jazz was in question, not because of any aesthetic issues, but simply because there were so few people dedicated to learning how to play it. And in that room, among those 15 or so players, there seemed to be the seeds of enough future jazz activity to keep jazz going. That’s how dire the position of jazz seemed at the time.

And now the mantra, at least in New York, among musicians, is “Everybody can play.” That is shorthand for a superabundance of well-trained musicians who know, perhaps, the right changes to some Monk tunes. Whether they can make interesting music is another point entirely. But they have the foundation to move on. And there are lots of them. In New York, the lowliest restaurant gig will feature a bassist, guitarist and saxophonist, all of whom can play and play well, if not with much originality. They know 13 other musicians who can play but who are at home practicing. There may not be that many gigs, or jam sessions, but a ton of people can play.

But in the 1990s, when things fell apart, they fell apart for a good reason. The best and the brightest of the musicians, all of whom could play, were off looking for something else. What had been a unified way of studying in the 1980s led, or is leading, to the fruition of all sorts of variations on the jazz language. So jazz splintered. From the Young Lions movement into millions of movements. Musicians started fooling around, using Tower Records as a way out of whatever limitations people were feeling about their own ability to play the language. Want to start a pygmy jazz movement? Go spend $13.99 on a recording of pygmy music, harmonize the melodies, and you’ve got a movement. Again, this was somewhat reactive, coming from a feeling that jazz practice, while good for a certain rigor (if done right), had to a certain extent exhausted itself.

Here’s a list of some movements that did pretty well over the last decade:

Jam band and jazz-fusion, or the rise of the jazz soloist playing over funk or post-Grateful Dead backgrounds. Started, I guess, by Branford Marsalis or David Murray sitting in with the Dead.

Klezmer jazz.

Latin jazz, which was revitalized by the Cuban scene.

M-Base jazz.

New Orleans jazz.

San Francisco jazz.

Acid jazz.

Ecstatic jazz, the marketing term used to cover the conjunction of the avant-garde with rock.

Electronica and jazz.

Eastern European jazz.

Knitting Factory jazz.

Chicago jazz, experimental and otherwise.

But how did all these musicians who went on to hyphenate their styles learn how to play jazz? They learned in school, for the most part. Unlike in most of jazz’s history, where young musicians spent time in school gaining a musical foundation and then went out and worked steadily, young jazz musicians in the 1990s had to rely instead on school, on schools’ jam sessions and performance classes. So the influence of the schools became more intense just as the schools were becoming better. In the 1970s, finding a worthwhile high-school jazz program was virtually impossible; in the 1980s and 1990s, the majority of good young jazz musicians were products of high-school jazz programs that led them into college programs.

And those schools created a sound. The sound of young New Orleans, clearly a product of the rigors imparted by legendary teachers like Alvin Batiste, Marsalis and Kidd Jordan, is radically different from the Boston sound of Berklee, where legendary teachers like Pat Metheny and Gary Burton and others toiled. The schools functioned as the scene, the Minton’s, the big bands. Jazz practice changed.

Several scenes that had nothing to do with academia came to fruition in the 1990s, and they were all self-conscious about their role and status. The first was the circle around the saxophonist Greg Osby, who, having been a founding member of the M-Base movement in the 1980s, took some of the rhetoric of the movement and applied it, as did, to a less successful extent, another original member, Steve Coleman. Osby’s patronage came to quick bloom, and a series of people who trained in his band went on to other bands, taking his point of view with them.

Ones that stayed closer to home—recording for Blue Note, where Osby records—made some of the better music of the decade, including the pianist Jason Moran and the vibraphonist Stefon Harris.

The further refinement of older ideas about how the rhythm section should work, the liberation from the cyclical routines of much of jazz, preoccupation with formal experimentation and a rhythmic freedom that hadn’t existed before define some of the best music of the decade.

The guidelines of this liberation came from Ahmad Jamal’s cueing system, from the tempo-changing of some of Charles Mingus’ work and from the fluidity of the rhythm section of Miles Davis’ band from the 1960s (the one including Ron Carter and Tony Williams). And—gasp!—from the seminal album by Wynton Marsalis, Black Codes (From the Underground).

Along come groups—often enough with Leon Parker on drums—led by the pianists Bruce Barth, Jacky Terrasson or Marcus Roberts. Or Orrin Evans or Dave Douglas, or Danilo Pérez or Reid Anderson and Ethan Iverson, or Chick Corea’s group with Avishai Cohen and Jeff Ballard, where the rhythm section becomes mercurial, changing tempos, meter and feel. Like most revolutions in jazz, this one came in the form of rhythm. But unlike most, this one wasn’t much noticed, except by musicians.

The other scene that produced a pile of players was Smalls, a New York club that opened its doors to second- and third-level players and offered a rehearsal space and a jam session. Owner Mitch Borden knew exactly what he was doing, and out of the environment came some serious swing and a handful of players that produced some original work, including bassist Omer Avital and the pianist Jason Lindner. There were recordings set to go with Impulse!; corporate shenanigans left the projects on the shelves, for the moment robbing them of their place in documented jazz history.

One major problem of the decade was the flooding of record stores with reissues. Record companies were caught in a bind: To keep earning money, they had to keep putting out reissues of older music. The reissue put the living jazz musicians at a disadvantage; as the cliché now goes, What would you rather spend your money on, a box set of John Coltrane or a new album by a 23-year-old trumpeter? Even the larger jazz stars, who on a good album cracked 100,000 copies, were plummeting down into the 30,000 level, while the average jazz album was doing better than well if it sold 5,000. Putting out records by unknowns became harder to justify, and while in the early 1990s the Smalls scene was well documented by a major label, by the end of the decade that sort of money-losing documentation became almost impossible.

Two other sorts of scenes became radically important during the 1990s, but in different ways. Jazz at Lincoln Center, beginning in 1987 as Classic Jazz, was a summer program started by Alina Bloomgarden, and helped along by Stanley Crouch, to fill darkened halls; it became an official part of Lincoln Center in 1991. And the Thelonious Monk Institute came to prominence in the early 1990s as well.

Lincoln Center’s success was strange in that it had ramifications politically, but not so many aesthetically. The program was a huge triumph politically, because jazz had never had a place of Lincoln Center’s stature in the established art world. Jazz had great popular stature, but it had always been excluded from the “European” side of American life. The new hall that Lincoln Center is building for jazz is something new for the music, an indication that a major, if not the major, American cultural institution thinks that jazz is an art form worth investing in.

And across the country other programs started up as a result: Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Orchestra, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band and a failed attempt by the Thelonious Monk Institute in Los Angeles. San Francisco is trying to figure out its own geographically and culturally appropriate response to Lincoln Center, with the Wynton Marsalis position of artistic director held by Joshua Redman.

Oddly, what goes on at Lincoln Center doesn’t have much to do with jazz; jazz musicians aren’t in the audiences, and what happens on the stages of Lincoln Center or on the orchestra’s international tours doesn’t have an effect on jazz’s daily goings-on. It exists in another realm.

The Thelonious Monk Institute, started in 1986, affected the 1990s by promoting younger jazz musicians with talent. It served as a place for jazz labels’ A&R people to convene, and the winners, including Jacky Terrasson, Terri Thornton, Marcus Roberts, Josh Redman and Jon Gordon, all benefited from the exposure. The contest was a way of bringing the music some attention. It centralized the vast expanse and it added marketing weight to jazz, producing network television programs, which, even though they were lousy, at least existed.

A corollary to the rise of institutions as powers in the jazz world was the rise in the publishing of academic books on jazz studies. Aside from a few silly books, Oxford University Press published some fine work, and young scholars like Ingrid Monson (Say Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction), Paul Berliner (Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation) and Scott DeVeaux (The Birth of BeBop: A Social and Musical History) represented the serious investigation of jazz, something that hadn’t really happened before. Shockingly, jazz criticism by and large stayed in its state of fandom. The proliferation of readers began the movement, with The Duke Ellington Reader, compiled by the academic, pianist and Ellington specialist Mark Tucker, and a Lester Young reader brought together by Lewis Porter. Krin Gabbard’s Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema and Jazz Among the Discourses set the tone for serious work on jazz, compiling essays, while Robert O’Meally’s The Jazz Cadence of American Culture brought together essays on jazz culture that were serious and worthy of the subject itself, bringing the best of jazz academic criticism up to date with criticism in other artistic spheres.

While the institutional side of jazz became increasingly powerful and visible, the invisible stayed invisible. What rarely gets discussed, either historically or in daily practice, is the bulk of jazz activity. And like the bulk of jazz activity over the history of jazz, there was plenty of jazz being played by the middle-aged, those people who fell in between the elder-statesman positions and the young-musician positions, musicians dedicated to the art of improvisation, working clubs or bars or restaurants, using standards or blues on which to base their playing. In many ways the jazz world is infiltrated with assumptions of importance that give value to experimentalism over craft, a critical perspective that comes at once from European ideas of art and from pop marketing. If Tommy Flanagan doesn’t make an album with a didgeridoo player, he’s patted on the back and sent off to obscurity, where he’ll continue to play his extraordinary form of bebop. And in the 1990s that perspective didn’t change: People who were working on the jazz mainstream were relegated to the sidelines, overlooked by grant-givers, festival bookers and profilers, as always.

Members of that generation passed away—Miles Davis, Betty Carter, Dizzy Gillespie—all of whom had a role in preparing younger musicians to take on the pragmatic tasks of bandleading. Without them jazz lost an important way of reaching beyond the jazz audience, a role taken up in part by several other jazz musicians whose careers had been all over the place.

But suddenly, and who would have guessed, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett emerged playing vital improvised music again, as did Pat Metheny, whose career had taken all sorts of swerves. And they, along with perhaps Oscar Peterson and Dave Brubeck, were the last large concert draws in the United States. With the fragmentation of the music came the fragmentation of the audience; these were the last few musicians that could unify jazz’s disparate fans, the various cults, and bring them together.

So what’s good about the fragmentation, then? The good that comes from it is the profusion of small independent labels that allow for all sorts of points of view to be heard, from the experimentalism of the young Chicago school heard on Thrill Jockey and Delmark to the mainstream post-bop of the best work on Criss Cross. Winter and Winter and Aum Fidelity produced fine music, and Palmetto and Fresh Sounds recorded some of the best albums of the last several years. The indies were beaten by only one major label, Blue Note, the only major not to drift into irrelevance.

And the fragmentation allows for all these movements to develop without the scrutiny that sank many of the Young Lions, who, having been signed too young by hungry record companies, never developed. Latin jazz comes out on major labels, on small labels, played by all sorts of people. The Chicago jazz scene is represented by several labels; Los Hombres Calientes, a hybrid band from New Orleans, is on the local New Orleans label Basin Street Records; and the trumpeter Rod McGaha, who worked with Max Roach, records for Nashville’s Compass label. On small labels and in small places, musicians can learn by screwing up, making mistakes and coming to some conclusions that are not dictated by the big city of New York and its record labels.

And by accentuating the local, this spread, the huge variety of music being made all over the place, a focus will be found in the form of a figure rising out of the mess. But those leaders won’t exist if there is already a dominant figure or a dominant movement. They can only arise out of flux and darkness—what the ’90s were about, in a good way—an era where jazz was pretty much without an aesthetic leader. So brace yourselves, because something important is going to show up, probably sooner than later. There’s simply too much pressure, too much intelligent action for all the fragments to remain on the margin. Yeah, and sonny, one last thing. If you want to do something good for jazz, start a small club. You’ll pass into history. Originally Published