During an interview with Jazz Times, Branford Marsalis stated that Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington are not jazz musicians.
An issue that’s been unsolved in the recent years has popped up again. I don’t evenn remember how many times I’ve witnessed this issue coming up since I’ve discovered and started working on jazz. It comes up every few months: Radical traditionalism in jazz, or what I like to call ‘’jazz police’’ or ‘’jazz facism, makes many respected jazz musicians confront each other.
Many people argue about what jazz is, who jazz musicians are, what jazz is supposed to be played or heard, which musicians can be categorised under the jazz genre with a strict stereotyping.
Some claim the begining of these conversations date back to 70’s, when fusion and free jazz becomes popular. Some claim when neo-traditionalists came into the scene in the 80’s. Some people even claim it all started way before. When you look at jazz history it can be seen that when the Chicago style was rising how the traditionalists wanted to go back to Dixieland and ragtime, how Charlie Parker was unpopular with jazz authorities because it was too complicated when bebop was not ‘a thing’ and jazz was America’s dance music, when Coltrane’s music was opposed, when Miles Davis’s later music was a discussion topic. It’s easy to trace these topics to the roots of jazz.
This status quoits resistence is as old as humanity and has ben a part of western music as well. Music has been under control by authorities as Plato wrote in Republic, or later by Aristotle, and it has been feared that any uniqueness or advances in music would cause a disorder. This is how Ars Nova, which brought innovations to church and secular music in the 14th century, was criticised for discomforting listeners and provoking them for earthly pleasures. This is a resistence from mass groups or individuals for any musician who thrives for any distinctness and innovation.
Thinking how musicians like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis (I want to mention them again as them being the most recent and well known examples) have been disapproved by mass groups, you would normally expect that in the 21st century people would have taken lessons and moved on. However the fact that because nation-state concept becomes more transparent, borders becoming losing their meaning, cultures getting more and more interbedded, when everything in our lives become ‘glocal’ where there is nothing actually local and everything is global; It’s worth questioning if music should be boldly categorised, seperating genres and putting jazz into strict borderlines, and also if that’s a possibility.
It’s a up for debate to try to preserve 30’s or 60’s jazz when everything is in a melting pot, from music genres to political systems, to cultures. How can a genre of music advance if everything is performed as it was 80 years ago? How can a genre of music advance without acceptng any improvements? How can any new genres be formed? How can this shared culture be limited by some authorities? Who can be in charge of this ‘legal’ authorization? Should an artist’s capacity, knowledge, education and past be judged solely upon the music they’re performing or the music they put out there?
The latests of these converstations were started by one of the most important figures of the neo-traditionalists, Branford Marsalis. A surprsing thing about this issue is that Brandord Marsalis was in a debate regarding the very same topic with Wynton Marsalis, who has a very orthodox view on jazz.
Marsalis made some claims that were not received so positively by the modern circles about Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington, who combine jazz and hip-hop, during an interview.
“Robert Glasper has a limited jazz vocabulary, and that’s not anything he would say is not true. I think it’s in his best interest to do that. Kamasi’s not a jazz player either. He’s a sax player. But his vocabulary is not jazz. It’s some jazz.
This is not something I want to go to war with. But I can listen to a Lester Young record, a Dexter Gordon or Wayne Shorter record, and ask, “Do you hear that lineage in his playing?” If you don’t, what makes it jazz? Improv? We’re back to that illusion again. The success that Kamasi has had—it’s awesome. But the people defending him as a jazz player are not jazz players. They have their own idea of what jazz is, and they are entitled to that. But so am I.”
Robert Glasper replied on Instagram about these claims that state Glasper’s jazz vocabulary is limited and that Kamasi Washington is not a jazz musician, but rather just a musician with some jazz vocabulary. I didn’t see any reaction from Kamasi Washington on this topic.
Glasper criticized Branford Marsalis’s way of expression rather harshly, an attitude I believe to be right, and asked him if he had listened to his trio records. I will initially ask that you listen to Robert Glasper’s Mood (2004) and Canvas (2005) albums.
He couldn’t make sense of the expectation that his music should be directly connected to the music of a hundred years prior by saying “It is supposed to sound different!”. He wrote that he doesn’t have to show off his knowledge of bebop in every piece he writes. And he emphasizes what I would also like to focus on by saying:
“…this whole “that’s not jazz” shit is wack and totally killing the music. And kills the dreams of young players who wanna have a place in this music and wanna expand it…NO other genre of music has to deal with dumb shit like this on this level..hints why jazz is in the state it’s in now.”
I would like to list those who got involved in this discussion on Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington’s side: Cory Henry, Terrace Martin, Derrick Hodge, Anthony Hamilton, Philip Cornish, Lupe Fiasco, Christian Scott, PJ Morton, Keyon Harrold, James Poyser, E. J. Strickland, Marcus Strickland, Miles Mosley, Shaun Martin, Ledisi, Nicholas Payton, Brandon Coleman, Sean Jones, Makaya McCraven.
Mark Guiliana, Kendrick Scott, Marcus Gilmore, Aaron Parks, Alfa Mist, James Francies, Walter Smith III, Eric Bloom and Taylor Eigsti are among those who liked the post.
Many of the important names of the modern stage are listed above. It is like a war among the gods. There are Marsalises on the traditionalist side (I am including Wynton Marsalis because he got into a similar argument with Christian Scott before, and Jason Marsalis because he started an argument on Jazz Nerds International), with their incredible contributions to the jazz history, and innovative names who have expanded the borders of jazz by including different genres and perspectives…
The best comment I have seen on this topic is about whether it is necessary for the music circle to have divisions like this in a period when there already are many divisions, opposition and fights. The argument links to black music and this division rightfully is seen as unnecessary during a time where black people are suffering from serious political, social and economic hardships. This is a technique frequently employed during interviews as well, it is also added that one should not fall into this trap of asking questions just to put the interviewee in a tight spot.
On the other hand, when the music aspect is considered, one really wishes to say “Let the music finally progress”. It is a backwards and lost cause to try to label music when it is a reflection of the time it is performed in and even further, when the world is viewed in a completely different framework. I believe that the struggle of musicians to belong to a place, genre, class or whatever else prevents them from becoming creative.
Musicologists claim that musicians are influenced by their own sociocultural and political environments and make music according to social experiences instead of individual ones. Research suggests that the relationship of mainstream political and social movements and current news and discussions are directly related to the development and progression of music. It seems like the rise in the politicisation of jazz only drags this genre back with such comments about its inclusivity of other genres and cultures like electronic music and hip-hop.
Ultimately, the musician should be able to perform his music without worrying about being categorized. One wishes that choices were not questioned, heavy criticism was not so easily given to paths chosen, and that behaviour that comes with the radicalisation of the subject wasn’t observed.
It can feel like “This will never end” when similar discussions float to the surface. There are always those who resist innovation and different voices. However, despite all that, there is a movement against the conservative approach in both societies and music. Just as Louis Armstrong wasn’t too keen on bebop, maybe the strict perspective of the Marsalis brothers will be viewed differently in fifty years.
Saluting those who side with the progressives, innovation and development.