New Jazz Fusions
JAZZ FANS LIKE TO SAY that jazz history compressed into a century developments that took European classical music 400 years. The last 25 years held to that breakneck pace—although it often didn't seem that way, especially to detractors and warring factions.
After the economic collapse of the popular big bands 50 years ago, jazz lost most of its mass commercial appeal. But until the mid-1960s rock explosion, it managed to draw audiences of collegians and beatniks and debutantes, the disaffected for whom jazz opened an exit from the gray conformities of American mass culture to a largely African American devised art form that began as folk art from a marginal subculture.
Bebop insisted that jazz was art, not entertainment; in its wake, jazz idioms diverged, annexed, multiplied: hard bop, Third Stream, modal jazz, soul jazz, free jazz. Soul jazz found broad audiences in the 1960s, but first the era's folk revival, then the British Invasion siphoned off younger listeners. No surprise, then, that by 1970 jazz-rock fusion dominated jazz.
The story of fusion was more interesting and complex—and raised more serious creative issues—than it seemed to at the time. In hindsight, jazz and rock were as inevitable a pairing as jazz and Tin Pan Alley; Bill Graham's putting Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead on the same bills only acknowledged what the musicians were doing. After 30 years of dodging the issue or leaving it in the flaccid hands of radio noodlers like Kenny G, more serious jazz artists are revisiting how to meld jazz and rock. Some, like John Lurie and Steven Bernstein, are old enough to have lived through rock's heyday two and more decades ago. Some are young enough, like Vijay Iyer or Ethan Iverson or Brad Mehldau, that 1960s rock is their Tin Pan Alley, the standards of an older generation.
Evolution, according to the late Stephen Jay Gould, can be described best as punctuated equilibrium: it proceeds in fits and starts almost behind the scenes. That applies equally well to cultural history.
Though jazz record sales and venues shrank after the 1960s, jazz festi-