Sonia Ruiz

Contemporary popular culture caricatures jazz as the music of their grandparents, the intelligentsia and elevators. In 2014, Nielsen reported that jazz garners a whopping 1.4% of music consumption in the United States. Jazz’s most recent and popular representations in “Whiplash” and “La La Land” claim it’s dying. And perhaps, this is true. For most people, jazz is sadly irrelevant. A relic of another day. Even as a jazz musician, I lament its death in jest. But jazz is not dead. Or at least, this isn’t the first time it’s died. This question has been raised time and time again, at each evolutionary stage of the music. I aim to provide something approaching an answer, delving into campus politics at Yale and the ongoing debate in the country.

Let’s take a time machine back to 1917. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band -— which was hardly the original Dixieland jazz band — just released the first ever jazz record. Soon, New Orleans jazz will take the United States by storm. The swung and syncopated collective improvisation of clarinet, trumpet and trombone graces the ears of young people awaiting the raucous Jazz Age of the 1920s, while gaining the derision of Victorian moralists. By 1922, Vogue contributor Clive Bell claims, “Jazz is dead — or dying, at any rate — and the moment has come for someone who likes to fancy himself wider awake than his fellows to write its obituary notice.” But jazz is a rebellious teenager that will live out its life to the fullest extent as it grows up in the 20th century of America.

The question — is Jazz dead? — is not a new one. It has been raised in every era of jazz as new styles come to replace old ones. It comes from a myopic view of the music, a desire to cling to the past, and a misunderstanding of how music and art change over time. Neither critics nor the masses should make judgments about its health without first examining its history and craft.

When I asked Brian Kane, a professor in the Department of Music at Yale College, he said, “Jazz is dead if one thinks about a certain set of narrow conventions to define it. If it has to look like jazz of the past, jazz is dead.” I believe this is the root of the popular belief that jazz is dead. People don’t really know what jazz was, much less what it is.


Teaching his first semester of “Jazz in America 1900-1960” this spring, Kane describes himself as a “rampant historicist” who eschews essentialist definitions of jazz because they inevitably, and sometimes intentionally, include and exclude certain styles, movements, audiences and artists from the purview of real jazz. He acknowledges there is a vague way to define the genre by its African-American history, particular rhythm and feel and emphasis on soloing and improvisation.

“To call something jazz is to claim it in a particular way,” he said. Defining jazz means boxing it in to a particular conception or narrative. Any definition will emphasize certain continuities, strategies, sounds and protocols over others. To complicate the matter, many types of music we now think of as jazz were at one point or another denied or rejected the label. To further complicate the matter: What isn’t jazz? Its DNA can be found in all of American popular music to some degree. You can hear jazz in Prince, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, and Kendrick Lamar.

To decide whether jazz is dead, we need to pin down what music exactly died, whether and how it persists and what we really mean by death. If we are to define jazz as strictly Dixieland jazz of the style mentioned before, I think one can defensibly argue that this type of jazz climaxed and stagnated in the 1920s. However, this hot jazz eventually coalesced with the saccharine sounds of white band leaders like Guy Lombardo and Paul Whiteman — if you can accept that as jazz — and created swing. Swing overtook Dixieland in popularity in the 1930s. It was the popular music of its day. Though hot jazz is played to this day on the streets of New Orleans, it has been embalmed in Preservation Hall as a well-preserved, but inert style of jazz.

If we are to say jazz took on a new life in the swing era, then Dixieland jazz as an innovative music died in the 1920s. Yet, swing is rooted in the tradition and memory of Dixieland jazz. As John Locke maintains personal identity through memory and the continuity of consciousness in his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” jazz’s evolution from its past styles creates a continuous personal identity that manifests in its present state. With one foot in the past and the other in the present, jazz can be defined as a larger evolving musical genre and cultural entity in a cycle of constant renewal. As long as it maintains personal identity through homage to its roots, it is jazz. As long as it keeps innovating and evolving, it is alive.

Like Dixieland, swing lost its innovative spark and died after World War II. In a 1939 issue of “Down Beat” magazine, the famous big band leader and composer Duke Ellington decried, “The most significant thing that can be said about swing music today is that it has become stagnant.” Vocal jazz and R&B overtook swing due to the financial difficulties of managing dance halls and big bands, popular shifts in aesthetic preferences and the rejection of swing by the hipster pioneers of bebop. If people were still playing swing, it wasn’t original — the style had been exhausted.

Again, jazz evolved and made itself new, holding on to its roots through the advent of bebop. In the 1940s, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk rejected the mainstream popularity and commercial mediocrity of swing. They played an esoteric music characterized by blazing tempos, complex harmonics, small groups and solo improvisation. For the most part, these musicians exclusively sought respect as artists, not as entertainers. They intentionally branded themselves as proponents of bebop, a deliberately inaccessible art music, rather than swing. Of course, bebop had its critics, including Louis Armstrong who hoped to revive the hot jazz of the 1920s. But by this time, the popular music industry had abandoned producing meaningful jazz for crooners and R&B. If jazz was to live, it had to change.


Bebop redefined jazz to focus on solo improvisation and artistry, which has since come to dominate the genre. Jazz became a jazz musician’s music as opposed to people’s music. To appreciate it, you either had to fake it, and fake it well, or understand and love the tradition and craft of improvisation. While bebop eventually splintered into numerous subgenres and can arguably be labeled a dead style like the styles before it, its improvisational essence can be traced from its Dixieland roots through swing, bebop, cool, hard bop, free, avant-garde, fusion, to modern jazz. Improvisation creates continuity in the jazz consciousness and the life of jazz.

In the 1966 documentary “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans,” the famous pianist explains his view of jazz as a spontaneous creative process rather than any particular style. He said, “It’s the process of making one minute’s music in one minute’s time.” Because music springs from the consciousness of the improviser the moment it is conceived, it is perhaps the only living type of music. Jazz musicians speak in this spontaneous fashion. You will never hear the same performance of live jazz because the improvisation fundamentally changes the composition, even if the song melody remains the same. Thus, John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” and Robert Glasper’s “Afro Blue” are uniquely different from their originals and will be from all future performances and recordings. Using improvisation as our criterion for jazz consciousness, we are able to connect all the movements from Dixieland to modern jazz and extend the life of jazz from the 1920s to the present.

Defining improvisation provides another problem, since not all jazz is clearly improvised or sounds like music to the unacquainted. As Professor Kane said, “Improvisation is never simply improvisation. It is always placed in a context where it takes on a certain meaning.”

There exists a spectrum between complete neural spontaneity that musicians like guitarist Wayne Krantz claim to achieve and the highly arranged, but spontaneous-sounding music found in Dixieland and swing arrangements. There is also a spectrum of accessibility within avant-garde music; The deconstructed music of Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and Sun Ra on one end, mainstream jazz like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller on the other. In this matrix lies most of jazz since bebop.

Learning the tradition and art of improvisation is regarded as the rite of passage into the jazz community. Nobody is born with preset concepts for improvisation. Jazz musicians must internalize the method of improvisation so it becomes second nature and a means to communicate through the sounds of their instrument. The study of improvisation ties together the styles, or phases of life, of the jazz consciousness, allowing it to live past the death of former styles to its present existence.

Improvisation can be defined as a particular approach to expressing oneself and communicating with musicians and listeners in the African-American musical vernacular. Hersh Gupta ’19, the president of the Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective, said, “Jazz is a spontaneous form of communication like a language.” Its phrasing, harmony and rhythm are like the grammar, syntax and vocabulary of a language. It can be viewed as one of many improvised musical dialects alongside blues, R&B, rock, etc., which are rooted in the blues — expressive call and response — and rhythmic feel transplanted from West Africa that interacted with the popular derivatives of European classical tradition and syncretized into a distinctly American creation.

The immense variation in styles of jazz improvisation is due to the variety of messages artists wish to convey. Describing the communicative role that the music plays, Gupta said, “How you say things is just as important as what you say.” In his own playing, Gupta stresses coherence, playing inside the familiar sonic realm, to make the message he wants to send more accessible. He said, “I think all the time about making my music accessible to someone who hasn’t heard jazz before.” However, coherence runs all sorts of ways. Just as jive was used as way to signal being in the hip in-crowd, inaccessibility can be a virtue when an artist only wants the jazz demographic to understand. Avant-garde playing and playing outside the changes serve emotional functions as well, building dissonance, tension, chaos and uneasiness. Unlike other music genres which aims to be accessible, jazz can employ the full range of the musical toolkit to affect the listener.

Even though there is a general consensus among the jazz community that the tradition and art of improvisation qualifies jazz as jazz, each generation has seen its more conservative members try to limit the definition of jazz to a particular period or sound. Wynton Marsalis became the de facto spokesman of jazz and vocal proponent of the neoclassical school of jazz in the 1980s. He disavowed fusion and avant-garde because they lacked the bluesy sensibility and swing he claimed legitimated music as jazz. Either these musicians were too commercial in the former or hyper-intellectual and classical in the latter. In a 1983 interview, he said, “Everyone was saying jazz was dead because no young black musicians wanted to play it anymore.” For Marsalis, the music’s path since 1960 abandoned its racial roots, authenticity and sense of community.

Speaking with Grammy Award-winning tenor saxophonist coach Wayne Escoffery, who instructs two combos and teaches a jazz improvisation course in the Yale School of Music, I better understood the viewpoint of Marsalis, though Escoffery and I agree Marsalis has matured for the better since his reactionary comments in the 80s. A member of the Black Jazz Art Collective, Escoffery feels he should be able to unapologetically celebrate jazz as a music of distinctly African origins.

“Everybody can play it and innovate it and enjoy it,” he said, “but it is an African-American art form.” Speaking of jazz legends and mentors like George Coleman, Jackie McLean, JJ Johnson, and Freddie Hubbard, Escoffery said, “Nobody would claim [jazz] was everybody’s music if they were still around. [People of my generation] feel responsible to make sure that what they’ve accomplished isn’t forgotten.” This means making it known that jazz was an African creation. To acknowledge the black origins of the music does not mean denying the contributions of white musicians. Escoffery analogizes this jazz controversy to the sentiment of All Lives Matter. Where popular appreciation leads to commercial appropriation, it is imperative to highlight who truly owns the music.

Nonetheless, Mr. Escoffery believes jazz does not need to explicitly reference the blues and swing to be jazz. Pointing to his mentor, “Even though Jackie McLean was an innovator of avant-garde jazz, it was all rooted in the blues.” For Escoffery, the blues is more than notes. It is an indefinable quality rooted in the African-American vernacular. He said, “I describe jazz as an indigenous art form. It is America’s classical music.” Escoffery recognizes his peer saxophonists Ben Wendel and Rudresh Mahanthappa as jazz musicians because they have mastered the vernacular and just speak it with different inflections coming from their own specific influences outside of jazz in European classical music in the former and Carnatic South Indian classical music in the latter.

While I agree with Marsalis that jazz ought not to succumb to the meaningless vulgarity of most popular music, where Marsalis goes wrong is assuming any relation to the popular and commercial means nullifying it as jazz. Marsalis’ comments that jazz should not be popular is unhistorical and detrimental to the music. Since its birth, jazz has flirted with the popular. Learning from and reacting to the popular music of each generation, jazz integrates these components to the contemporary moment, maintaining the spirit of improvisation. Today, jazz is undoubtedly an art music that occasionally intersects with the popular.

Arguably, the contemporary jazz scene is as vibrant, if not more so, than in any other period of American history. The diversity is astonishing, with the fusion of jazz and South Indian Carnatic music in Rudresh Mahanthappa, electronic techno in Flying Lotus and Too Many Zooz, hip hop in Robert Glasper, rap collaborations with Snoop Dogg in BadBadNotGood and Kendrick Lamar and alternative and punk rock in Kneebody. This crossover jazz, rooted in the young music of today and tied together through improvisation, offers the chance to make jazz popular again.


The root of the “Is jazz dead?” question perhaps lies with conservative jazz musicians like Wynton Marsalis. Denying the jazz moniker to experimental and free jazz, jazz fusion, jazz hip-hop, neo-soul and other modern forms, Marsalis severely limits the music’s lifespan to a mythical golden age that lasted from the 1900s to the 1960s. In Jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis’s museumification of the jazz golden age, Marsalis curates jazz of a bygone era. Situated in the concert hall, where for so long it had been questioned whether it belonged at all, Marsalis rightly legitimizes the music as art on par with European classical music at the expense of disavowing the vibrant contemporary jazz scene that lives and breathes in dimly-lit jazz clubs every night. He has removed the spontaneity, intimacy, and youthful spirit of the music, playing to older, mostly white, middle-class audiences. If we were to identify the life force of the music by its audience, jazz would be close to death based on the number of metal hips and dentures in Lincoln Center. The concert hall is a nursing home for the music of the past.

Fortunately, jazz has compensated for its aging audience by demanding greater commitment from its young devotees, going so far as to educate them in the craft of the music. Having grown up in New Haven, jamming at the now defunct Malcolm’s and Foundry Café, Escoffery said, “The jazz community is defined by the young people interested in the music, the institutions they have to study the music, and the outlets they have to perform the music.” Though jazz clubs have largely been replaced with gigs in bars and restaurants, there are plenty of outlets for jazz musicians to perform. And like classical music, jazz has become the subject of study in academic institutions like University of North Texas and Berklee College of Music. Jamey Aebersold, Hal Leonard and other musicians and educators began writing theory books, instruction manuals, and repertoire books, notably the Real Book franchise. This accumulation and dissemination of knowledge has made jazz accessible to a dedicated fan base.

“The proof to me [that jazz is not dead],” said Escoffery, “is that there are young people interested in learning it. Yale is a good example of that. The students here are the squeaky wheel encouraging the school to support jazz.”

While the youthful life force is here at Yale, jazz’s academic study could use some much-needed administrative support and financing. This year the three-year fund for the Yale Jazz Initiative, which consists of the coached combo program and Escoffery’s improvisation class, will run out and needs renewal.

Working towards the curricular advancement of jazz studies at Yale, Hersh Gupta said, “what is lacking and feasible is a pedagogical structure for teaching jazz music.” Currently, there are no jazz lessons for credit, infrequent course offerings, and a single jazz improvisation course. Asked what he would change about the existing program, Wayne Escoffery said he would “separate jazz improvisation into classes on theory, transcription, repertoire building and jazz ear training,” later adding that he would “expand the combo program so more students can participate, targeting specific periods and styles.”

Professor Kane hopes to create a jazz studies program, joining forces with faculty in the African-American Studies, American Studies, and other disciplines to supplement performance-based courses with the study of jazz history and its relationship to race, gender, culture and class in the United States. A program proposal had been brought to Yale’s provost Ben Polak in 2016, but it was rejected on grounds that it could only secure temporary funding from its donor as a pilot program.

Yale School of Music has picked up the slack in teaching jazz performance. Strangely, current Dean of the Yale School of Music Robert Blocker has made it clear that jazz does not fall in line with the mission of the school. In an interview with “The New York Times,” Blocker said, “Our mission is real clear. We train people in the Western canon and in new music.” Interestingly, jazz, which was born in the 20th century in the United States, is left out of this mission despite it being new and Western. Concessions and wins for jazz have been made with the temporary Yale Jazz Initiative, funded by a donor under School of Music administration. But still, Willie Ruff, a scholar and musician who ran a concert series since 1972, has yet to be replaced, and there are no School of Music faculty who give jazz lessons for credit to match the classical lessons. Dean Blocker’s attitude towards jazz has not strayed far from that of former deans. In an essay he wrote for “The New York Herald” in 1924, School of Music Dean David Smith, “But where in either the verse or music of jazz can be found the rhythm of strong, fine feeling, of America at her work, of the thoughtful idealism of her quieter hours?”

For much of its history, jazz has struggled to gain the recognition and respect of academics and elites. For a music so rich with racial and cultural diversity and history, a value Yale purports to espouse, jazz studies is surprisingly hard to come by. Gupta said, “The melting pot idea of America is excluded in the way Yale does music.” With the Yale Jazz Ensemble having been only reestablished several years ago and the Yale Jazz Initiative running up on its budget this year, jazz at Yale could look very grim in the near future.

The future of jazz at Yale hinges on collaboration between Yale School of Music and the Department of Music in Yale College, renewal of the Yale Jazz Initiative and filling the position of Willie Ruff with a notable jazz academic and performer on par with Rudresh Mahanthappa at Princeton and Vijay Iyer at Harvard.

“We have great scholars already at Yale,” Professor Kane said. “We have unique and significant collections of jazz material in our archives. We have world class academic units in the study of music and a great conservatory. We have a campus and town that have been involved in jazz from the very beginning. There is no reason all of these things could not be brought together with administrative support.”


Though the Yale administration might not lend enough support to jazz academically, jazz thrives in the student body. The Yale Undergraduate Jazz Collective has organized and scheduled its seventh annual jazz festival for this weekend with three free shows Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. In selecting artists for the show, Gupta wanted to express “the spectrum of jazz” to attract jazz aficionados and newcomers alike.

“On the one end, we have Jane Ira Bloom who is on the avant-garde side of jazz,” explains Gupta, “Down the middle, we have David Virelles doing more traditional Afro-Cuban jazz. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Nate Smith and Kinfolk who are a funk, neo-soul, R&B group that is more accessible.”

The festival embodies the diversity of jazz and invites listeners to explore their own musical development. For those jazz deniers and skeptics out there, I challenge thee: see for yourself if jazz is dead.

Ethan Dodd | .