There are a lot of worried people these days, particularly in the arts. Music styles, such as rock, jazz and classical music in a state of flux, spinning without direction in artistic disarray. Critics in both visual and performing arts note the same thing – a tremendous quantity of product (to use an industry term), but very little that is inspiring and unique. Do we lack genuine creative artists with the pioneer vision? Has society turned so vapid that creativity is highly improbable? I can’t – and don’t have to – believe this negative view. Great works can, do and will happen, but someone must make us aware of these great finds, as-art must be self discovered. In other words, they must be made accessible – someone must deliver.
It wasn’t always quite like the recent condition. Perhaps you have already been bored by a 60’s you-should-have been-there type. The Volkswagen bus of the past has turned into, a BMW with all the extras, and, the tapes of Yanni and Kenny G are on the dash. It is certainly true that they were exciting times in our cultural history, and having Miles, Hendrix, Dylan, Sly and Coltrane did not hurt, But there was also something very different than today – wehad a creative outlet. FM radio started out as an alternative music source which allowed people exposure to old and new blues, all types of jazz, folk, experimental rock, classical music, and what we yuppily call today “world music.” Off the main top 40 highway we discovered new music and then sought it out in live concerts. Our minds were opened.
I can recall lying in bed at night with my cheap, red Sears transistor radio, listening to Ron Britain’s Subterranean Circus or Ryan Against The Night, and being amazed by the progressive sounds of early Blood Sweat and Tears, Spirit, Traffic, Miles Davis, Shuggie Otis, and of course, Frank Zappa. The looser days, before radio formatting and overly-corporate controlled record labels, allowed us to hear real musicians play real music for a real audience, without video hype (age is showing). Sounding just like the record was considered trite, and a dance with a guy playing records instead of a live band was considered cheesy beyond belief Times change.
Stepping out of Mr. Peabody’s Way-Back-Machine and returning to the year 1998, we see a totally different music world. A Goliath-like media industry has provided us with more channels, more recordings and technological enhancements, more sales, but little that is truly new and creatively disruptive. Are the mines empty? No, they are not a dying or extinct breed, but the landscape makes them hard to find. On the commercial horizon, there is no one to deliver them to us. FM is now almost musically identical to AM, the innumerable TV channels all pretty much look like Stepford media wives, and college and NPR radio can only do so much. Music is now in the decision making hands of the corporate business school types, and aren’t we all the better off for it?
One wanders if we can even tell the difference between popularity and genuine artistic expression. A recent example would be the double CD Instrumental History of Jazz Collection issued by the company N2K, and endorsed by the International Association of Jazz Educators. The placing of easy-listening, lite jazz alongside Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane smacks more of a business deal than an honest representation of an art form. This type of bizarre packaging only furthers to muddy the waters; an art form of the magnitude of American Jazz deserves more accurate representation.
In seeking a positive solution, some people are looking to the internet as the new frontier that will bring us unhyped creative art for our own choosing, but it is still a long way off, and our senses have been dulled from waiting. I wish I had that old radio, but I don’t think that it would find, in this present day, the music of my dreams.
As appeared in The Green Mountain Jazz Messenger, October – November 1998