Playing Changes with Nate Chinen :: The AD Interview


By now, jazz has been back in the mainstream of music criticism and popular thought for so long, it seems impossible to imagine it was ever endangered. Though to hear Nate Chinen tell it, jazz was never in danger — we just weren’t paying attention.

Playing Changes, his recent survey of jazz in the 21s Century, is as lean as a Coltrane quartet and nearly as dense with information. Despite the limitations opposed by his title, Chinen provides an overview of the past forty or so years of jazz history, explaining not only how we got to this moment, but illuminating moments from the past four or five decades that may have escaped your notice.

We called him up at the studios of WBGO in Newark, where he’s Director of Editorial Content and got the low down on Playing Changes — and erased a few borders while we were at it.

Aquarium Drunkard: Playing Changes encompasses the work of a whole lot of artists who seem to have little to do with one another beyond the fact that other people have called what they do jazz. What then is jazz for you?

Nate Chinen: That’s a good question. We’ve come through a period where that notion of “definition” was the most pressing issue on the table, and it’s not really anymore. So I actually spend very little of my time thinking about what is or isn’t jazz. That’s a kind of a wishy-washy way of not answering your question, but what I will say is that jazz musicians, by and large, are conversant in a literature, in a lineage, in a set of strategies, in a sort of vocabulary. And so to be a functioning jazz musician is to have at your fingertips all of this information and all of these skills. And then how you choose to apply them is sort of another story.

AD: The concept of definition has been a big part of the way that jazz thinks and talks about itself, at least for the last half-century. Why is that? And do you think that’s unique with respect to jazz?

Nate Chinen: Well, there was a real need for a kind of legitimizing impulse in the music. I feel like, in the 1950s to 1960s, jazz really was pretty close to what you would consider popular music. It had a robust audience, it was a really vital part of the larger forces in culture. It was in the ’70s and ’80s when things began to feel a little bit more precarious. There was a feeling that this is an art form, it is something that is worthy of study and worthy of elevation to the stature enjoyed by classical music. And it was a fight, for a long time. Jazz was disreputable, and it was kind of bad-mouthed, and sort of understood just like “oh it’s all that jazz,” or “it’s good enough for jazz,” or “they’re just making it all up.” Musicians like Wynton Marsalis and institutions like Jazz at Lincoln Center really fought an important fight in obtaining a kind of respect and legitimacy for this music as an art form.

AD: You kind of set up this paradigm between the Knitting Factory and Jazz at Lincoln Center (and you then of course proceed to slowly dismantle the same paradigm), but I was kind of expecting you to fully side with [the Knitting Factory] side. I was very intrigued by your treatment of Wynton, by your very even-handed approach to his approach.

Nate Chinen: That chapter you are referring to is called “Uptown, Downtown,” because at the time, and I remember it very clearly, there really was this division between what people called the downtown scene and whatever was happening above 14th Street. I noticed at the time, because I was checking stuff out at Jazz at Lincoln Center and also hanging out at Tonic and the Knitting Factory, it seemed strange to me they were so bitterly divided, and there was such a rift certainly in the jazz press, and at the time, it really did play out among musicians and you were pigeonholed as an artist as “I’m one of those” or “I’m one of these.” So that chapter to me was about bearing witness to those divisions and trying to get to the heart of why they happened in the first place, and what they meant at the time. And then, with utmost gratitude, to say isn’t it great that we are past that now? This idea of drawing a dividing lines, it just seems so silly and pointless. So it is really heartening to me to look at musicians who don’t even give a second thought about crossing whatever line you want to draw. Someone like Julian Lage, this wonderful guitarist, who can play music that sounds like it is from the ’30s, or he can play in a band with Nels Cline, or he can play John Zorn’s music. It’s really like, why wasn’t that the ideal all along?

AD: You open the book by talking about Kamasi Washington, which seems like a wise place to start, because Kamasi’s moment with The Epic seems like the most public moment for jazz probably since Wynton first came out in the ’80s. But then you do a very interesting thing after talking about Kamasi — you jump all the way back to the ’70s and slowly make your way through the last few decades of the 20th century. Which is an interesting thing to do in a book called Jazz in the New Century. So I was wondering why you chose to tell the story that way?

Nate Chinen: I knew I wanted to open the book, maybe perversely, by going back to that moment in the ’70s when we see really the start of the conservation movement in the music. The ’70s is a moment when jazz begins to take stock of itself and feel an urgency about preserving that history. An undercurrent of that, and sometimes it was not even an undercurrent, was the feeling of “we are losing this, we are going to forget what this is if we don’t take active measures.” So that to me was really powerful and influential because it then set the stage for emergence of Wynton, the arrival of the Young Lions movement, which was a huge paradigm shift for the music that influenced everything. The whole jazz record industry was shifted to accommodate the idea of the young torch bearer, and as we entered the 21st century, some of what we saw was a swinging of the pendulum back to another idea. Sometimes it was even consciously pushing against that idea, what some people call neoclassicism or neoconservatism in the music.

So, I worked on it and struggled with it and as that was happening I was documenting and experiencing the rise of Kamasi Washington, which was an explosive rise. I was thinking there was something about the way Kamasi was being covered that struck me as incomplete. I felt like people who were freaking out about him weren’t putting him in the proper context. They weren’t really connecting him to the tradition, and so as I was puzzling it over, I figured out that Kamasi actually was the perfect sort of person to crystallize some of these ideas, and what it boiled down to was this messianic role that’s thrust upon him. It felt not just coincidental that he kept being referred to as a “savior for jazz.” So then I began to understand that he and Wynton could be kind of two figures that tell the same story at different times, in the sense that each of them is a sensation well outside of jazz circles; you only need to say their first names and everyone knows who you are talking about. They couldn’t be more different aesthetically, but then that’s interesting, because if each man answers a need of his age, then what does that tell us about how the age has changed?

AD: Throughout the book, you keep explaining these dichotomies that exist in the way we think and talk about jazz, and then slowly erode the border between them to show why actually we need both of these things for the art to both progress and remain true to what jazz historically is. That made me wonder, given the incredible breadth of artist that you talk about here — from Wynton to Tyshawn Sorey, Makaya McCraven, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, J. Dilla, the AACM — is there any sort of true form of jazz that sits at the center of all of this music and from which those artists depart? Or does Flying Lotus have the same claim on the truth of jazz as, like, Bix Beiderbecke?

Nate Chinen: I don’t know if there is a center, necessarily, because each listener has his or her own aesthetic compass. I’m a little different from someone who sees a kind of genre essentialism in the music. There’s a chapter in the book called “The New Elders,” and this is a chapter that I knew I was going to write, because it was something that I observed. Jazz has always venerated its elders, and that’s been true since the very beginning. Part of that is because no matter what happens, jazz has a connection to sort of folkloric mode of communication. It is music that needs to be transferred from person to person, and its oral history is more powerful than its written history. So, the elders have always been really important, and the elders have, for a very long time, been sort of the North Star. They are the ones that tell you that is how it is, and this is how it was, they are sort of guardians of a language.

One thing that has been really interesting about the last twenty years is that a new class of elders has ascended. This generation of elders is the generation that is everybody that played on Bitches Brew. It’s musicians who were shaping the identity of the AACM. You can’t show them anything new because they’ve sort of already done everything. Their idea of what the music is, is total flux. When you talk about someone like Herbie Hancock, or Wayne Shorter, or Muhal Richard Abrams, or Henry Threadgill, or Carla Bley, the last thing they want to think about is how to define their music. They feel like it’s an insult whenever you begin that conversation. What an amazing thing when your guardians are the ones who are sort of pushing you further and seeking? To me, that’s not to take anything away from a previous generation of elders, but I think that we’ve seen this amazing shift and that the reverberations from that go throughout the art form, because these elders are all — to a person — mentoring younger musicians. So when you talk about the center of the art form, I think the center of the art form resides with those artists, but then where is the center of Wayne Shorter? It’s a very slippery and changeable proposition. You know, that’s amazing; that’s a really inspiring thing to me.

AD: You say near the end of the book that “to be a successful jazz artist today, on some level, is to be a conceptualist,” what do you mean by that?

Nate Chinen: There was a time when you could just be a total badass on your instrument, and if you had your own voice and you could present the language in a new way, that was good and that was enough to propel your career. I think that partly because the record industry has basically collapsed and our modes of distribution are so fragmented, it’s really important to have a concept. I am not saying that it has to be some kind of concocted “this is a song cycle based on Pablo Neruda’s love poems,” or whatever, although that sounds fine. It’s more of an idea of “Why am I doing this?” No one is going to say, “Congratulations young man! Here’s your record deal. Now, I wanna hear two songbook standards, and two post-bop pieces, and two originals, and a ballad, and a cover.”

You look at someone like Cécile McLorin Salvant, who has won the best jazz vocal Grammy for her last two albums. I think it would be accurate to call her a traditionalist, but she’s not a throwback. There’s a way in which she has something to say about the material, she chooses it carefully, she raises questions that don’t necessarily get answered. There is a little bit of ironic distance, but there’s also a clear affection for the historical. It’s so smart and engaging, and she is in no way painted into a corner for her love of the past.

The industry twenty years ago would have worked really hard to advance an idea that she was the reincarnation of Sarah Vaughan or Betty Carter or Carmen McRae, or name your person. And we’re not doing that anymore; it’s not the natural thing to say, “Oh, here’s a bright young artist. Who does he or she sound like?” And I think that’s in no small part to the credit of the generation or two of musicians who have fought really hard to be recognized on their own terms. It’s really to the artists’ credit that they stick to their guns and articulate an identity and a direction. Going back to that idea of concept, it’s really just about having an identity and having a personality, and then exploring ideas that interest you.  words / m garner

Related: Transmissions Podcast: Nate Chinen’s Playing Changes/Exploring Japan’s Kissa Bars