Stuart Nicholson – Jazz and Culture in a Global Age
(Northeastern University Press. Book Review by Frank Griffith)
Acclaimed jazz writer Stuart Nicholson’s oeuvre covers a wide horizon, with biographies of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington as well a groundbreaking treatise, Jazz Rock: A History (1997) which fully and effectively charts and explores the beginnings of what would later be called “Fusion.” In that book he chronicled how jazz musicians stretched the boundaries of jazz by using electrified instruments and rhythms borrowed from rock, funk, soul and latin idioms. His theory of how the influence of British bands and musicians like Graham Bond, John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth, Dick Heckstall-Smith and even John Mayall affected fusion icons such as Miles Davis, Larry Coryell and Weather Report seems most credible to me. It was the first ever book on the history and development of fusion, not to mention the finest and most comprehensive account of it as well.
Nicholson’s controversial 2005 epic Is Jazz Dead (or has it moved to a new address), on the other hand, is a provocative title, to be sure, which echoed many of Nicholson’s views espoused in his twenty years of columns, articles and CD reviews in Jazzwise. Chapter titles such as “Between Image and Artistry: The Wynton Marsalis Phenomenom”, “Prophets Looking Backward: Jazz At Lincoln Center”, “Deja Vu Time All Over Again”, “Jazz Singers and Nu-Crooners”, “Teachers Teaching Teachers: Jazz Education” and “Celebrating the Glocal: The Nordic Tone in Jazz” speak for themselves. Nicholson’s dissatisfaction with what America’s current offerings in jazz and education are relentlessy pounded home to the reader here.
Of particular interest in the 2005 book were Nicholson’s views on US jazz education (shared by many others, of course) which he sees as dominated by musical technicians and academics who lack soul, individuality and performance experience, thereby denying the vulnerable student paying exhorbitant rates for the course from getting value for money,etc. Furthermore, regardless of a student’s talents and abilities there are no “careers” in jazz anymore with the paucity of gigs, recording opportunities and general funding for the music certainly in the USA and UK at least.
So,….why does one even bother? Good question- very good question as I would say that 85% of the jazz musicians worth their salt earn at least 50% of thieir income from teaching, commercial (non jazz) writing or other playing (West End shows, functions,etc.) Does this mean that one should not invest in a degree level course in something that they love, have a thirst of knowledge for and will extemely benefit their overall musical skills? I think not. As an educator myself having logged in eighteen years at a British university I firmly believe that it does not really matter that much what kind of degree one earns as the fact that if one stays a course for 3-4 years and manages to completes it this provides the biggest benefit. The confidence and the pride which students gain from this will undoubtedly prove to be a distinct advantage in their life and their work.
Nicholson’s latest offering, Jazz and culture in a global age, by has hit the shelves recently and is, no doubt, causing a bit of a stir. It is, for my money, Nicholson’s grandest achievement, particularly in that it describes and celebrates many of the non-American havens in which jazz has been enabled to develop and to innovate.These include the Nordic countries, where local arts funding from public authorities is a much higher amount proportionally than in the UK or the USA. Nicholson’s repeated provision of examples of Norway’s embracing of jazz, not only funding-wise but making it much more accessible for all ages groups also brings to the fore the wondrous cohort of Norway-based artists that have had a worldwide impact, like Jan Garbarek, Karen Krog and John Surman, to name a few.
A heroic effort to be sure, this book reveals an exhaustive amount of research undertaken which is evident in the thirty pages of notes at the end many of which provide analysis and further expansion of the chapter points and prose. The final chapter “Jazz and Modernism” is a 100-page “tour de force” tracing a hundred years of cultural and artistic developments in the USA that leaves no stone unturned. The links between this monumental chapter and the rest of the book are, however, to my mind slightly tenuous, The chapter does enable the author fully to address the “culture” aspect of the book’s title, but in the context of the book, it appears to be a lengthy afterthought.
Jazz and Culture in a Global Age is a valuable addition to jazz and cultural journalism which will be equally accessible and read by both jazz and non-jazz fans.