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Real Village Voice #36

Is it jazz? This question obsesses American jazzers, especially purists. Wynton Marsalis first raised his profile by pronouncing on what is—"blues, swing, bebop"—and what isn't—funk, fusion, avant-garde. American magazines have often been criticized when they have stretched to cover country and western players or classical virtuosos who improvise, rock and pop bands acknowledging or appropriating jazz roots, studio session musicians or movie and theater composers who have arguably taken from or added to the jazz culture. Jazz educators must take a stand on what they should teach, and jazz labels are held responsible for what they issue. On one hand, if the music is considered too popular, too sentimental, or too easy and on the other, if it's too elitist, too dry or too abstract, someone is bound to say, "That's not jazz."

A publicist recently left a message on my phone machine: "Come see Jamie Cullum—he's a jazz pianist from England, playing at Joe's Pub." I knew Cullum was signed by Verve for one million dollars, a sum way beyond what most genuine jazz musicians can realistically hope for. Joe's Pub is a very sophisticated room hosting some of the most interesting acts to visit New York for one-nighters, but it does not pretend to only present jazz. I went to hear Cullum, who was hyperactive, singing and playing piano as the leader of an acoustic trio. He was not very well-dressed, not particularly handsome, but personable, talking easily to the audience from his piano bench or the front of the stage. He was brave—he sang "My Funny Valentine" to a girlfriend in the crowd without instrumental accompaniment—but somewhat off-key. His record is called Twenty-Something, after a song he wrote about being at loose ends, ready for anything but with no particular place to go. He was okay, but not my kind of jazz.

There are many other young musical entertainers in the same genre. The New York Times recently referred to Peter Cincotti as a "jazz piano virtuoso". I haven't heard this musician live, but I sincerely doubt he rivals Oscar Peterson, Cecil Taylor or Kenny Barron, to name three genuine jazz piano virtuosos. The singer Norah Jones has just released her second album, Feels Like Home—and I like it. She has a pretty, distinctive voice and a loose way of phrasing. Her band's arrangements are spare, never getting in her way. She is not pretentious, and she sings with some emotion, as if telling a story. Her repertoire is unusual. She is not what I think of as a jazz singer, but some people don't consider Cassandra Wilson a jazz singer, either, and much of my description of Jones could be applied to Wilson, too.

Probably only Americans care about "Is it jazz?" If you are from another country, and you say you play jazz, your friends will believe you and support you if you show the slightest jazz affinities, because you are trying to be included in something that originates far away. Here, the purists are trying to protect a music that they consider their own, and are afraid can be stolen from them. Those who believe they have the most to lose are African Americans, who gave birth to jazz, although the music's birthplace was New Orleans, where many ethnic, racial and cultural influences breed together. African Americans rightly claim that the jazz innovators have primarily been African American—though Jelly Roll Morton had French ancestors, too; Louis Armstrong was encouraged by a Jewish family, and Duke Ellington embodied the style of a man of the world. Some African Americans are afraid their best ideas will be credited to white Americans and Europeans and Asians who borrow them and may get wealthy in the process. That people feel this way was clear from audience comments during the panel "Racial Considerations in Jazz Journalism" at the International Association for Jazz Education conference in New York in mid-January.

It is sad to me, a white American, that any of my fellow citizens feel that way, because I don't think African American values can or should ever be bleached from jazz. I think jazz is a gift that's come from African American culture—which is, in the terms of writer Albert Murray, Omni-American culture, our culture—and been given to the world. Now we all can share, and amplify, the beauty of this unique contemporary music. It does not belong to any one group, or style. If Jamie Cullum, Kenny G, Dave Brubeck, Anthony Braxton, Vijay Iyer, Diana Krall, Charlie Haden, Birelli Lagrene, or Yosuke Yamashita says they play jazz, I will listen to their music. I will decide if I like what they do. But I won't say "that's not jazz". The phrase does not belong to a real village voice.