I’m reading a new book by Philip Jenkins called Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America, and I think there are some pertinent tie-ins to the elusive history of the last four decades of American music. Those are the decades Ken Burns couldn’t handle, and this may help explain why.
Jenkins’ basic argument is that the conservative drift of recent history is a direct reaction to the nightmares and what became seen as the excesses of the sixties and seventies. Savvy politicians stoked those fears by finding demons to personify the threats to civilized society. What have been defined as radical changes in society were met with radical solutions that preyed on irrational fears and brought back the good old days of more security, bigger military, more spending on industry and less spending on health care, education and the environment.
The post Vietnam era is thus more dominated by fear and a resulting trend toward conservatism, with less emphasis on progress and less openness to change. It is this fear that has led us around by the nose for the past few years and in my opinion led us straight into the apparently illegal (or at the very least ineffective) policies of our present government.
In a way I think our reluctance to absorb and reflect on the jazz of the sixties and seventies stems from a similar fear. There’s a demonization of musicians who pushed the boundaries, successfully and importantly, in that period and it has crept into the way history is told and music is taught.
To be clear: music always changes and progresses, but you can’t deny the basic conservative trend in the perception and representation of current improvised music. The adventures of the sixties and seventies challenged listeners, and in reaction it became comforting to hear music that harkened back to an earlier time and pretend that those changes never happened. Some institutions have taken advantage of that fear with slick marketing campaigns, and mainstream presentations like Ken Burns’ generally leave out or have a tough time with this explosive period.
I can’t speak for the so-called “post-classical” world because I don’t know as much about it as I do about the music around jazz. But I would say that, since the onset of Reaganism, there has been a general tone of fear surrounding challenging music. And it’s an era from which, twenty-five years later, we now seem to be emerging. I’m sure many would argue that there are similar trends in pop music.
Some would say this stems from the general “dumbing down” of the media we hear so much about. Or maybe it’s the conglomeration of media and corporations, making the profit of shareholders the only meaningful goal of cultural activity. I have a hard time taking that cynical a view. Yes, to sustain ever-larger profits, corporations have to take a lowest common denominator approach to culture. But that’s quite different from the general perception of music among musicians, writers, educators, and archivists.
That’s why I find such an interesting analog in Jenkins’ book. The wild experimentation of “the sixties” (idealized version circa 2006) caused a backlash and a retreat to “safer” territory that threatens to completely obliterate memory of the wonderful music that happened. I guess this is all part of my obsession that in order to move forward we must understand the past.
Is there a writer who can take on the project of an unbiased overview of music since the end of the Vietnam war? The typical problem with this project is defining jazz — the music is so stylistically broad. Where do you draw the lines? What do you include and what leave out? That has remained the stubborn, unanswerable question, though many would insist they have the answer. I believe history can be told without obsessing over definitions. If you are only capable of representing this one way it’ll be impossible to take it all in and understand what’s happened. It’s a generation of multiplicity, and it’s the generation that made us what we are today.
Jenkins uses the resignation of Nixon in 1974 as the official end of the sixties, and it seems to me to be a good year to begin the post-post-war history of music around jazz. Miles Davis goes into semiretirement. Anthony Braxton records for a major label. Julius Hemphill records Dogon A.D. Return To Forever. Mahavishnu Orchestra. Weather Report. Carla Bley, Michael Mantler, and JCOA. Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, and soon after, the arrival of VSOP. Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and Company. AMM. Sam Rivers and the Loft Scene. Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds. Steve Lacy and Musica Electronica Viva. The Art Ensemble of Chicago. Woody Shaw. Don Cherry’s Relativity Suite. Misha Mengelberg, Han Bennink, and the Instant Composers Pool. World Saxophone Quartet. Henry Threadgill and Air. Arthur Blythe’s Lenox Avenue Breakdown. Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life. Jaco with Joni. The Brecker Brothers. Peter Broetzmann. David Murray moves to New York with Mark Dresser and Stanley Crouch. Karl Berger and The Creative Music Studio open in Woodstock, New York. The passing of Ellington and Armstrong.
A history of this era is long overdue. Any takers? Or is there a history out there that I missed? Thanks for passing along your thoughts.
This would be on the way to a post Cold War history: the music of the nineties and today. I hope that’s not too far away.