How jazz manages time and again to depict the present, while referring to the past, and to recognise current discourses in tradition.

Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith © John Rogers


When pianist Robert Glasper was asked in March to outline the difference between hip-hop and jazz, he deplored the fact that in jazz, you basically appear to be in competition with all the great heroes from the past. Whenever he performs in front of a jazz audience, he automatically seems to be competing against Miles Davis and John Coltrane, whereas no one had ever thought to compare hip hop artist Chris Brown directly with Marvin Gaye.

“Jazz constantly re-invents itself” is the cliché used to justify both the most outrageous musical experiments and the recourse to jazz history. It is remarkable how differently these references to musical models from the past – to themes, sounds, voicings, models of playing together etc. – are perceived and accepted. When Wynton Marsalis drew on paragons like Armstrong and Ellington, for example, he was criticised for trying to codify norms from the past into the present. Lester Bowie’s homage to tradition in the Arts Ensemble of Chicago, on the other hand, was accepted by most as a gesture of respect.

So why are we so desperately searching for a completely new voice in jazz? And how can musicians liberate themselves from the competition with their role models without having to renounce them?

To answer these questions, we first of all have to do away with one of the greatest myths of jazz history, according to which the great recordings shaping our image of jazz present the real history of this musical genre. In actual fact, these recordings are only excerpts from the creative work of the musicians who made them, a snapshot taken on the day of the studio session and under the given spatial and acoustic conditions. In reality, the true art lies in the musicians’ readiness to embark on the risky path of improvisation at every performance, in the hope of not only surprising the audience, but ideally themselves, too.


It is precisely from this attitude that jazz manages time and again to depict the present, even while referring to the past, and to recognise current discourses in tradition. To the present day, the communication of tradition in jazz has been a kind of flow. When, for example, Vijay Iyer plays with Wadada Leo Smith, Tyshawn Sorey with Roscoe Mitchell, Mary Halvorson and Ingrid Laubrock with Anthony Braxton, or Michael Wollny with Heinz Sauer, the expressions of respect point in both directions: Toward the young artists for taking the older ones’ persistency as an example in following their own path, and to the more established artists for always preferring the challenges of new approaches to the security of songs played thousands of times. And the communication on the practises of improvisation that occurs on stage in these constellations brings these musicians together, regardless of how different their practises may be. And when musicians touch on the vocabulary of jazz history, it is often as a kind of self-assurance: You can only muster the courage to take the next step when you know where you came from.

In an astonishing duo, Cecil Taylor and Mary Lou Williams performed together at Carnegie Hall in 1977 and spent a large part of the concert – or so many in the audience felt – playing at cross purposes. In the middle of this free dialogue between two very distinct stylists, Williams, who had made a name for herself in the 1930s as a dynamic pianist and great composer, hammers a boogie-woogie rhythm with such urgency and force that Taylor, this dyed-in-the-wool free jazz man, ends up joining her, as if to say: “I know, Mary Lou, we come from the same roots …”. Twelve years later, on Taylor’s album “In Florescence”, there is a split-second passage in the short piece “Ell Moving Track” which hints at the rhythmic energy of swing – a kind of music that Taylor enjoyed listening to, but had long substituted with other techniques in his own musical practise. The greatest reverence, it seems, lies not in the quotation but in the awareness of the attitude.


Regarding their repertoire, many musicians have placed more importance on their own compositions since the 1970s, because they provide them with ideal starting points for their individual improvisatory approaches. Others turn to songs from other genres, because they seem fresher than the familiar old jazz standards. After all, these standards always come with the danger of comparison. And often, this recourse to standards, when it is not part of a large-scale tribute project, is in fact a way of determining one’s own position with regard to one’s origins (as for instance in Ambrose Akinmusire’s and Gerald Clayton’s 2011 duo on “What’s New”). It can also provide a welcome common ground to both refer to and depart from: Just listen to Mary Halvorson and Noël Akchoté playing “Just Friends”, recorded live in Strasbourg last year. Only Keith Jarrett would seem to get away with a standard trio in this case, without causing the inevitable question of “Why?” Unless, of course, artists approach these songs from a contemporary perspective, as demonstrated by Jason Moran and his Fats Waller-project. Here, the stride pianist’s cheerful party music was consciously referenced and immediately transferred into the present day of our century’s second decade, including a confrontation with current musical, aesthetic and social discourses.


Heinz Sauer and Michael Wollny © ACT / Anna Meuer

Role models

It is usually only inside knowledge that tells us about the significance of Eric Dolphy for Rudi Mahall’s musical development, or what Nils Wogram learned from Albert Mangelsdorff or what Hayden Chisholm learned from Paul Desmond, or that Alexander von Schlippenbach’s continuing fascination with the music of Thelonius Monk automatically links him to James P. Johnson and other pianists from the 1920s, from whom Monk had learned about using the sound of his instrument.

Thus, musicians are not so much drawing on history as history, but rather reflecting on it as an influence on their own style. And, as pianist Kenny Barron explains, you don’t look for influences – you find them. You use them like they use you, on the path towards your own voice. Anyway, as Duke Ellington was already aware, judgements connected to the history of music are nothing but superficial limitations. In the early 1970s, Charles Mingus suggested recording an avant-garde album with a number of other musicians. “Why go back that far?” the Duke replied. “Let’s not turn music back that far, Mingus. Why not just record a modern album?” And when the Art Ensemble of Chicago drew on old Afro-American musical practises, they were always aware that their own music would one day be history, too – “ancient to the future”.

… so what’s new?

So why are we desperately searching for new voices? Because we know that history is a continuum, that it is not a time-loop, but rather a continual discovery of the new. Dealing with jazz history, no matter how specific or unspecific it may be, is not about reinventing the music, but about finding new, individual, unexpected and surprising perspectives – even in the seemingly familiar. The only way, therefore, for musicians to free themselves from the competition with the past that Robert Glasper complains about, is and remains to ask the question: Regardless of what I am playing, what is my point of view of the music? – Or simply: “What’s new?”

“There’s a time when you are beyond yourself, better than your technique, better than your usual ideas.”
Dave Brubeck

Translation by Elena Krüskemper