Ugly Beauty: Jazz In The 21st Century

American jazz critic, writer for All Music Guide, Downbeat, Jazziz, Metal Maniacs and others, offers a perspective on recent jazz


Phil Freeman in his thorough survey of 21st century jazz (so far) is with fellow writer Stanley Crouch in believing that it’s no longer possible to define mainstream jazz. By “mainstream”, Crouch meant any sort of jazz that could be identified by devotees as such. The two appear to share the same premise: that writing about jazz and its developments is predicated on a definition. The best one can come up with today, as in the plastic arts, is to define jazz as what a jazz musician says it is. And when one comes to think about it, that’s always been the case.

Guitarist Mary Halvorson is dealt with under the heading How Can I Create Something New? It might be the question all of Freeman’s subjects – over 40 – have asked themselves. For Halvorson, making it new is a perpetual exercise. “It’s not like I’m trying to do something different to make a point,” she says. “I think I just want to keep trying to challenge myself and grow by doing something different and not being like, well, it worked last time, so let me do it again.” Nothing could be more different from established jazz practice, nor could the label run by the husband of bassist Linda May Han Oh, which confronts the environmental issue of the music industry’s reliance on plastic and aluminium as storage media. Her album Aventurine is a “biopholio”, consisting of panelled posters made from responsibly harvested materials. There’s no CD – just liner notes and other info and a listener code needed for downloading in any chosen format. For one album, drummer Makaya McCraven split tapes from 28 performances to create a double LP of “vamps, moments of wild expressiveness and mesmerising, trance-like passages”.

The book recognises 2015 as significant. It was the year Kamasi Washington released the triple CD The Epic. It’s also where semantics obstruct argument, for Washington appealed to many “who had not the slightest interest in jazz”. Freeman cites similar examples – Keith Jarrett, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Charles Lloyd – but it’s a wobbly stance. Perhaps he appealed to them because they’d been weaned on indie rock and hip-hop, and jazz was the music their parents listened to and thus totally off-the-wall. Hip-hop emerged in the 1980s and was famously rubbished by Crouch and Wynton Marsalis. One of the problems for jazz lovers is their ignorance of contemporary black lifestyle and how its representative music changes, though Crouch was nothing if not hip. A late section of the book deals only with post-Roy Hargrove trumpeters, such as Ambrose Akinmusire and Keyon Harrold, who grew up when hip-hop was the dominant black music and a culture in itself. Hargrove was both a hard-bop traditionalist and a hip-hopper, an almost schizophrenic division by the standards Freeman enumerates.

In a section on British developments, saxophonist Nubya Garcia says: “I think in London we live in a massive bubble of what the UK is actually like in terms of its opinions to (sic) ethnicity and immigrants, basically.” This refers to Freeman’s “London Thing” – a mixture of polyglot cosmopolitanism, and the embrace of sounds from across the Afro-Caribbean diaspora and beyond. His final section deals with unclassifiable musicians who seem to flirt with jazz as often as they seize it: Jaimie Branch sings about systemic racism and “homegrown” fascism, and Moor Mother’s poetry “erupts like jets of flame”. But again, jazz seems to be this fugitive entity that can be taken or left by musicians who may or may not think of themselves as jazzers.

One of the issues emerging from Freeman’s stylish, detailed and knowledgeable conspectus is the need to be clear about what in music is an alloy and what a welding job. When jazz combines with another genre, as is sometimes illustrated by the musicians Freeman has chosen to highlight, both lose themselves in the creation of something entirely new; when jazz simply borrows from other styles but remains integral like the form it borrows from – also illustrated in his book – it’s simply a grouping, a “weld”. As with Latin jazz and jazz-rock fusion, welding may be the more common outcome. But it depends on the listener. If the jazz is lost in the alloying process, then the result is not jazz. This might seem obvious, but if you are writing a book on jazz you must be able to say what it is or what it should be; you should be able to define its essence. That’s not a criticism of Freeman but a common requirement of all who write on evolution and change in the arts.

Like Bill Beuttler of the Boston Globe, Freeman is an intrepid American jazz critic who ventures out to listen to the music and fraternise with its practitioners. Beuttler’s 2019 Make It New: Reshaping Jazz In The 21st Century followed a similar format in letting the musicians speak. Freeman’s book, published last year, has had to take in the Covid pandemic and other non-pandemical constraints on touring and club dates. It also has something pertinent to say about social media, whose marketing benefits have to be weighed against a “flood tide” of racism, sexism and general abuse. These are all new topics, and they include not least the myriad ways in which music is accessed and listened to. Maybe the most important one, though, is the need of self-styled “jazz lovers” to take a wider view. The arts, music more than most perhaps, enjoy a core support that’s largely nostalgia driven. It’s also age-related: we like the music that charmed us most persuasively when we first encountered it. We come to its later developments – well, later – and often with prejudices governed by those first youthful obsessions. Not to be aware of history, however, is as limiting a defect as a total reliance on it to the exclusion of anything new-fangled. We’ve not got through a quarter of the century yet, so Freeman’s oxymoron, “ugly beauty”, might yet take on a different emphasis.

Ugly Beauty: Jazz In The 21st Century, by Phil Freeman. Zero Books (John Hunt Publishing). £16.99. ISBN 978-1-78904-632-8