How Jazz Was Declared Dead—Then Came Roaring Back to Life

An extract from the new updated edition of my book The History of Jazz


Back in the early 1990s, Sheldon Meyer of Oxford University Press asked me to write a full history of jazz, from its origins to the current day—a book that would serve as the publishing house’s flagship work on the subject.

When Oxford University Press had published Marshall Stearns’s The Story of Jazz in 1956, it had served as a milestone moment in music scholarship. For the first time, a major academic press was embracing jazz as a legitimate field of study. But by the 1990s, Stearns’s book was terribly out-of-date, and Oxford needed a new work to replace it in their offerings. My book was envisioned as that replacement.

I told Meyer that I would need at least 4-5 years to deliver a book on such an expansive topic. He accepted this timeline—he was a wise editor who took a long term view of publishing, a rarity nowadays, but that’s why so many books he edited went on to win the Pulitzer or Bancroft prizes. I was blessed to have him as my editor, and wanted to work with him on this project. I managed to complete the manuscript in the promised time frame, and in 1997 my book The History of Jazz was published, a few days after my 40th birthday.

In retrospect, I view this moment as the key turning-point in my vocation as a music historian. The History of Jazz would prove to be the bestselling jazz book of the next quarter-of-a-century, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in English and various translations. It brought me in contact with readers all over the world, and put me in an enviable position. Music tends to be a young person’s game, and that’s true for writers as well as performers. Yet I had somehow reversed the trend, finding a much larger readership after the age of 40 than I’d ever enjoyed as a young man—in the aftermath everyone from the White House to the United Nations would contact me for guidance and advice on jazz-oriented projects, and I still hear daily from readers of this book who share their own jazz stories from all over the world. I never take that for granted, and have always felt gratitude to Sheldon and Oxford, but especially to these readers, who have stayed with me through so many subsequent books.

But the history of jazz is not a static subject. The music continues to morph and evolve. So I wrote an updated and expanded second edition of The History of Jazz released in in 2011. And ten years later, another upgrade is very much necessary. A few weeks ago, the new third edition of The History of Jazz was released—which has allowed me to bring this exciting story, once again, up to the current day.

Below is an extract from the new edition for my subscribers. It looks at the extraordinary conjunction of events spurring a resurgence of interest in jazz in the current moment.

For more information on the book, you may want to check out my recent interview for NPR, conducted by Natalie Weiner.

On a separate note, paid subscribers to The Honest Broker will receive, later this week, the third (and final) installment of my survey of the 100 best movie soundtracks.

The Honest Broker is a reader-supported newsletter. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. Those who want to support my work are encouraged to take out a paid subscription.

How Jazz Was Declared Dead—Then Came Roaring Back to Life

by Ted Gioia (from The History of Jazz, 2021 Edition)

I’ve heard many predictions about jazz over the years. The prognosticators typically serve up grim forecasts about the genre’s inevitable decline into irrelevancy or its survival on life support as a kind of musical museum exhibit celebrating past glories. Such prophecies aren’t much fun to consider—but they haven’t been very accurate either. None of these seers has anticipated what’s actually now happening on the jazz scene, a development as delightful as it has been unexpected. Jazz has somehow rediscovered its roots as populist music, embarking on a new and unscripted dialogue with mainstream culture. To some extent, jazz has even turned into a kind of talisman for forward-looking sounds in commercial music—with the same mass-market periodicals that published obituaries for the genre just a short while ago now proclaiming its hot new status.

Artists as different from each other as Kamasi Washington, Esperanza Spalding, Shabaka Hutchings, and Robert Glasper have shown that they can draw on the full range of current-day song styles without losing their jazz roots, and attract a young crossover audience who are energized and excited by this give-and-take. Pop culture stars, from Kendrick Lamar to Lady Gaga, have returned the favor, seeking out ways of uplifting their own artistry by incorporating jazz ingredients into their music. In the process, the whole notion of jazz as a niche genre for snobbish insiders has gotten overturned. Jazz is showing up with increasing frequency on tourist guides, suggested as the preferred evening’s entertainment in New York or London or Tokyo or some other travel destination. And even for stay-at-homes watching movies from the comfort of their couch, a surprising number of Hollywood offerings—La La Land, Green Book, Whiplash, Miles Ahead, Born to Be Blue, Soul—have served up jazz stories and songs suitable for mainstream appeal.

Of course, not every jazz old-timer celebrates the music’s newfound popularity. Just as complaints could be heard in the 1980s and 1990s when the music gained wider respectability and made an alliance with academic and nonprofit institutions, a whole litany of different grievances have been raised now that the genre has seemingly reversed course and returned to the people. But the lessons of jazz history are fairly clear by now: complaints and denunciations by entrenched insiders are almost always a sign that something important is underway. In this instance, the new discourse between jazz and popular music seems more than just a passing trend but the sign of an emerging ethos that might prove lasting and transformative.

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment a trend reverses. And in the case of jazz, it sometimes seemed as if its alleged downturn would never end—at least judging by the pessimistic media pronouncements on the art form made during the early years of the twenty-first century. Jazz’s problem, they declared, wasn’t like a bad haircut, something you could grow out of, or an embarrassing tattoo that a laser might zap away, but more like a death sentence. I still recall my dismay when The Atlantic entitled an otherwise favorable review of one of my books with the dispiriting headline: “The End of Jazz,” and followed it up with a subhead that promised to explain “how America’s most vibrant music became a relic.” I was miffed, but I could hardly blame the author. He was simply stating the consensus view among opinion leaders.

That was back in 2012, but the notion that jazz was dead had been bouncing around for quite some time. In 2007, Esquire had published a similar article, proclaiming in its headline not only the “Death of Jazz,” but adding that the genre had been in decline since John Coltrane’s demise forty years earlier. Around that same time, critic Marc Myers published an article on his JazzWax website entitled “Who Killed Jazz and When?,” which reached a similar conclusion, but pinpointed an even earlier cause of decline— specifically, the decision by jazz bands in the late 1940s to stop playing for dancers. When CNN tackled the same matter, in an article entitled “When Jazz Stopped Being Cool,” the guilty parties were now the Beatles and rock & roll. Other pundits focused on different root causes for the music’s obsolescence, with everyone from elitist fans to narcissistic performers getting a share of the blame. But the final result was, as they saw it, hardly open to debate: jazz had been on life support for too long, and it was time to put the dear old thing out of its misery.

It’s now been several years since I’ve seen any of those anguished obituaries for jazz, and instead a different kind of news story has taken its place. Big font headlines now proclaim “the new jazz age” or the “new jazz resurgence” or the arrival of a “new groove” that is “bringing jazz back to the people.” In many cases, the very same periodicals that had buried jazz only a short while before have become the most vociferous in announcing its rebirth. Even given the short memory span of pop culture media this is a remarkable turnaround. And it raises the obvious question: how did a hundred-year-old genre get its groove back?

In a strange twist, many of the leading indicators of this shift were first evident outside the jazz world. Just two days before his death in January 2016, David Bowie released his final recording Blackstar, a project that featured the rock star surrounded by jazz musicians— the music was dense and challenging, yet it would later be picked by many critics as the best album of the year. Around that same time, Lady Gaga embarked on an unexpected partnership with Tony Bennett, almost exactly sixty years older than her, which found the pop star replacing her contemporary sound with old jazz standards. This hardly seemed like a promising commercial venture, yet the resulting album Cheek to Cheek debuted at the top of the Billboard chart, and earned a Grammy for both artists. Just a few weeks later, Bob Dylan released an album of jazz-oriented songs associated with Frank Sinatra, and not long after Prince embarked on a downsized “piano and microphone” tour that featured the more jazz-oriented side of his musical personality. Hip-hop artists were moving in the same direction, and none with more influence than Kendrick Lamar, who enlisted the services of rising jazz star Kamasi Washington on To Pimp a Butterfly, which would earn eleven Grammy nominations, the most ever for a rap musician. Against all odds, jazz was returning to pop culture—not as a marketing gimmick but as part of an attitudinal shift led by the leading commercial stars of the day.

Perhaps the most striking example of this is in current-day London. In truth, the jazz scene has flourished there for many decades, but has often been shaped by stylistic developments coming out of the United States. The roles are almost reversed nowadays, with many American musicians and fans not only paying close attention to new sounds from the United Kingdom but increasingly envious of a British jazz ecosystem that can support a wide range of emerging styles and perspectives, attract an enthusiastic young audience, and get adulatory coverage in mainstream media outlets. A century after the so-called Jazz Age, the music is somehow hot again, creating a buzz and impacting popular culture in a way that can serve as a role model for other arts communities.

Yet if you walked into one of the London clubs where the up-and-coming artists and bands perform, you may think you have arrived at the wrong address, so little is this music beholden to traditional conceptions of jazz. You might hear danceable beats, trance-like vamps and riffs, reggae or rock rhythms, electronic sounds and samples, soulful vocals and urban raps, and other aural bric-a-brac drawn from a full global village of sources. But on closer attention, you will also notice the saxophones and trumpets and other time-honored emblems of the genre, and get drawn in by the spontaneity and in-the-moment vitality that have always defined the jazz experience. The sheer diversity of sounds is striking, but even more the lack of pretense and elitism. If you harbor concerns that a soulless generation of degree-certified jazz museum curators has taken over the bandstands, a night of clubbing in London will ease your worries.

But what’s especially interesting about the new sounds of British jazz is how markedly they draw on specific cultural factors and influences that have no precise equivalent in the United States—or elsewhere, for that matter. London’s multicultural environment creates a different jazz soundscape from what you would hear in, say, New York or Los Angeles, for the simple reason that it is the result of historical forces, migration patterns, and priorities that are uniquely its own. This was less obvious in an earlier day, when British jazz musicians were playing, more or less, the same types of songs and styles as their counterparts in the United States. But now when globalization is supposedly forcing a convergence in cultural matters, jazz seems destined to move in the opposite direction, fostering confident regional and local approaches that grow from incommensurable roots.

In the case of London, this involves a distinctive postcolonial vibe that brings sounds and styles marginalized in the past to the forefront of the music. Instead of refracting African influences via African American music, current-day UK music often draws on a more direct connecting line to these sounds. There are around one million residents of Britain who were born in Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, or Ghana—and they have helped shape a musical culture very different from what you will encounter in their lands of origin or elsewhere in Europe. By the same token, contemporary British jazz can boast of an especially intense connection to a host of other traditions (from South Asia, the West Indies, etc.). Just as Jelly Roll Morton, in an earlier day, claimed that jazz in New Orleans drew energy from its assimilation of Spanish and Latin American ingredients, a commentator in London today might just as accurately celebrate the music’s special relationship to India or the Caribbean or Africa. These connections can be detected everywhere in current-day British jazz, and are matters of personal history as much as bandstand influences.

London-born Shabaka Hutchings spent much of his childhood in Barbados before returning to England to pursue music studies. Hutchings’s bandmate in Sons of Kemet, drummer Seb Rochford, is of Anglo-Indian descent, and his colleague Sarathy Korwar in A.R.E. Project was born in India but is now pursuing cross-cultural music fusion projects in London. Keyboardist and producer Kamaal Williams is the son of a Taiwanese mother and British father, and while training for a music career also studied Mandarin and Arabic, as well as Chinese calligraphy. Trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, leader of the band Kokoroko, was raised in southeast London by a mother from Sierra Leone and stepfather from South Africa and Zimbabwe. Saxophonist Nubya Garcia was born in northwest London to Trinidadian and Guyanese parents. Drummer Moses Boyd’s parents hail from Dominica and Jamaica. Vocalist Zara McFarlane, from East London, is of Jamaican descent. “We have a different history to the US,” remarks Hutchings. “There are some commonalities to do with the legacy of race and colonization but there are different ways of seeing these histories, and maybe even different ways of approaching the telling of these stories. For me there are issues related to race because this is an area that I myself and we as a group are interested in, but I don’t see it necessarily as black history but rather British history.”

Then again, you might guess all this simply by listening to the music. The jazz elements are balanced out with sizable doses of Afrobeat, reggae, soca, ska, funk, grime, and other vernacular idioms, many of them transplanted from former British colonies. The resulting sounds reveal a versatility and flexibility that would inevitably be lost in a narrower, purist approach. This is music without elitist pretensions; you can bring it into a formal concert hall, but it is perhaps even more at home at dances, informal jams, and basement nightclubs. And the response has been extraordinary, especially in the aftermath of a long period when jazz existed with a bunker mentality, its death repeatedly announced in mainstream media.

Consider the success of Sons of Kemet’s 2018 recording Your Queen Is a Reptile, which was chosen as album of the year in an influential critics poll conducted by The Wire and earned a nomination for the coveted Mercury Prize, distinctions typically restricted to artists working in more commercial genres with larger audiences. Make no mistake, Sons of Kemet plays quirky music, with its unusual instrumentation of sax, tuba, and multiple drummers; even so, this sound was readymade to shake up London pop culture aficionados with songs that are both accessible and in-your-face intense. I can’t help imagining this was how jazz must have felt, both beguiling and disruptive, to those first audiences who heard it in New Orleans more than a century before.