It is a commonly held belief that “jazz is dying”, or some may believe it is already dead. In this article, I hope to best communicate what I believe is the current state of jazz music, and why it is such a crucial and foundational genre of music.
During March this year, I had the opportunity to travel to New York City and visit the historic Blue Note Jazz Club. Located on West 3rd Street, the Blue Note has been a cultural center for jazz performance since 1981. Performing there that night was pianist James Francies, joined by drummer Jeremy Dutton, bassist Burniss Travis, and legendary saxophonist Chris Potter. Together those 4 put on a show, unlike anything I had ever heard before.
Before getting into some of these musicians’ solos, I first want to take a moment to explain what exactly a jazz tune is. The standard format for playing a jazz tune is first the head, which is another name for the melody. Following this is a solo section, where individual instruments will take the lead and improvise over the chord changes. After solos are done, the group will come back together and play the head once again. Francies’ soloing over different tunes was groundbreaking to me. Typically, pianists, when soloing, will have the solo line in their right hand, with comping chords in the left. What made Francies playing so wild is that he was soloing two completely different ideas with both his left and right hands. Take the idea of patting your head and rubbing your stomach, and expand it tenfold.
This example of Francies’ new delivery of jazz soloing is just one of many pieces of evidence of the continued growth and evolution of jazz music internally, and this is not shocking. The language of jazz being improvisation lends itself to this rather ambiguous set of rules and guidelines. In the 1930s, jazz was defined by swing music and a classic big band sound. Moving into the 40s and 50s, bebop dominated the jazz scene, with arpeggiation and sharp elevenths being the biggest changes. Then into the 60s, hard bop was the defining style, with a huge rise in what we now consider tonal jazz. John Coltrane’s Giant Steps changes are one of the largest takeaways from this era. This new growth in the interplay of soloing is something that I believe will come to define the current jazz environment we are in now.
Even more interesting than just development within the jazz world though is the injection of jazz styles and language within contemporary and pop music. The first person that comes to mind is rising star, Stacey Ryan. Ironically, I followed her as a jazz creator and influencer on TikTok for the past couple of years, but just recently, she has gained massive fame and success due to her recent pop music singles. Ryan incorporates many elements of jazz into music, like the more rich and extended harmony typically found in jazz, as well as vocal runs that utilize more exotic scales. Other artists like Jacob Collier, John Mayer, Stephen Day, Eloise, Terrace Martin, and Daniel Caesar are some other musicians that tend to utilize lots of sounds and ideas that are typically seen in the jazz world in their own mainstream, popular music.
Jazz as a genre has always been at the forefront of pushing the boundaries in terms of melodic phrasing as well as harmonic expression. While jazz may not be as dominant of a genre as it once was, its continued influence on the rest of the music scene is apparent.