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The Jazz Age In The 21st Century

By Elisabeth Oei



Jazz is alive and well in the 21st century — or is it?

That quintessential American art form known as jazz has had its share of ups and downs, especially in the country of its birthplace. Here in the U.S., jazz is often the ugly stepchild, the musical expression relegated to the dark basements and old, dusty clubs of urban outposts. When it does take the stage of a modern, new concert hall or club, the number of musicians on the bandstand sometimes outnumbers the heads in the audience.

Where has the jazz audience gone? Sadly, most of the jazz coming from the stage is pure intellect, and the musicians are so self-contained there may as well not be any audience. There is no interplay, no connection, no sense of you and me. How many of us really want to pay top dollar to be fed an intellectual exercise on piano or saxophone? It seems we've lost the element of  dance in jazz, the intimate rhythmic relationship between musician and listener. If we bring that back, as some in the jazz world have tried to do, will jazz come alive again?

I've seen audiences eager to be a part of the jazz experience, only to be dismissed as if they were wallpaper. When an elite few bring forth new and original jazz music, touching the hearts and souls of their listeners, it’s always met with passionate enthusiasm. Bill Evans used to stir emotion; Nina Simone would challenge us; Miles Davis would light us on fire. Jazz has to move forward and explore new dimensions. There is no harm in preserving the integrity of the roots of jazz, but we must also continue to advance the cause of new jazz compositions. Especially with jazz vocalists, do we really want to hear the umpteenth version of "Summertime"?

I don't take issue with new and innovative arrangements of our beloved standards, but it seems we can strike a better balance between embracing the new and enjoying the old. We are so much more accepting of instrumentalists creating new compositions, but when it comes to jazz vocalists, the majority of the jazz public seems to want to hear yet another tribute to Duke, Sarah, Billie or the Songbook. How about a new songbook for the 21st century?

Every other musical genre embraces the advent of the new, the pioneering, the latest modern innovation. Why not jazz? Why not be taken on a journey of exploration, of joy, of passion, of dance? I yearn to be a part of a large audience that becomes so rapturous we all jump to our feet and dance to the sound of music — just like in the Jazz Age.

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To learn more about Elisabeth Oei and Afrasia Productions, visit their website.

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