“A Spirit of Possibility in the Air”

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Music critic Nate Chinen C’97 on the present and future of jazz.

PLAYING CHANGES: Jazz for the New Century
By Nate Chinen C’97
Pantheon, 2018, $27.95.

“Whatever you choose to call the music, ‘jazz’ is as volatile and generative now as at any time since its beginnings,” writes Nate Chinen C’97 in Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, his simultaneously lively and exhaustive survey.

Chinen is the director of editorial content for the jazz-oriented radio station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey, and a contributor for NPR Music. For 12 years he was a regular music critic for the New York Times, and has also written for JazzTimes and other publications. He co-authored Myself Among Others: A Life in Music, the autobiography of Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein.

Chinen has had an extraordinary vantage point for hearing new music and observing the jazz scene from Manhattan’s Uptown and Downtown venues to as far away as Beijing. In Playing Changes he synthesizes those listening experiences, offers profiles of some of the most exciting individual musicians and groups now working, and analyzes the issues shaping the music’s present and future—from the impact of historicizing jazz as “America’s classical music”; to the effects of intermixing with rap, hip-hop, and international musical styles; to the growing role of academic institutions in sustaining veteran players and training new performers. The book also features lots of suggestions for listening, scattered through the text in Chinen’s evocative descriptions, in list form at the end of each chapter, and in an appendix of “The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far).”

Chinen grew up in Honolulu, short of jazz hot spots but in a musical household. As a Penn English major in the 1990s, he was among the first generation of students to be involved with Kelly Writers House and worked there as assistant coordinator. He returned to campus in October for a reading and conversation with rock critic and Penn faculty member Anthony DeCurtis. (You can find the video in Writers House’s invaluable online archive of events.)

Gazette editor John Prendergast caught up with Chinen while he was on book tour a few weeks later with some questions about Playing Changes and about how his interest in jazz, writing, and writing about jazz developed.

Can you tell a little about your parents and how you got interested in jazz—generally and as that relates to your growing up in Hawaii?

My parents were nightclub singers who had a touring act in the 1960s and early ’70s, when there was still a lounge circuit crisscrossing North America. They moved to Honolulu to start a family and became popular local entertainers there. So I spent a lot of my early childhood around rehearsal halls and showrooms. Music was alive for me as a social experience, and a working discipline, before I formed any relationship with a record collection.

At Writers House you talked about getting CDs from Columbia House as an introduction to the music. What’s your take on the advantages and disadvantages of that kind of curated experience, as opposed to the present, when all of music history is basically available all the time on the internet or music streaming services.

As a teenager, I would have killed for the access to information that we now take for granted. But there was an upside to the restrictions, in that I had an old-fashioned exposure to the jazz canon. When the faceless experts behind the Columbia Jazz Masterpieces series sent me Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives & Sevens in the mail, I had little choice but to live with it, hear past the crackling static and figure out why it was such a watershed. And through the liner notes on those albums, by writers like Nat Hentoff, I encountered my earliest jazz criticism.

You were an English major at Penn and involved in Writers House. How did that affect you as a writer and later as a music critic?

My major was creative writing with a poetry emphasis, but the rigors of the Penn English program ensured that I would also encounter a lot of critical theory. I had terrific faculty mentors like Greg Djanikian [“The Moment and the Poem,” Sep|Oct 2014], and my time at the Kelly Writers House was deeply inspiring, because of the range and quality of artists who came through. I was really fortunate to have had that breadth of experience, because being a decent music critic requires not only sharp analytical skills but also a certain descriptive flair.

How did Playing Changes come about? Say a little about the structure you ended up with, and how writing this was different from, say, the music writing you’ve done for the Times and others.

I’ve been covering jazz at ground level for the last 20 years, and so much of that work is hyper-specific and of-the-moment. I wanted to pull back and provide a broader view of the art form, without losing the power of specific characters and details. And as I thought about that, it became clear that there wasn’t a book that contends with the culture of jazz in this time period, from the late 20th century into the early 21st. Then the structure and sweep of Playing Changes came into focus through conversations with Erroll McDonald, my brilliant editor at Pantheon, who also encouraged me to think about building narrative momentum.

Do you have a sense of the audience for the book? What do you think someone who is steeped in the current jazz scene will take away from it? What’s there for the curious listener?

We’re living in an incredibly exciting moment for improvised music. It can also feel like a confusing moment, because so much is happening, along so many different frequencies. People who are steeped in jazz have told me they’re glad to have this book as a chronicle. But I’ve also heard from a lot of readers who are just coming to the music, and they’re using the book as a roadmap or a listening guide. It’s gratifying to receive these different responses, because my intention was to strike that balance. The main conviction here is that jazz is not only still alive, but worth following right now. I’m proud to be advancing that message.

One of the threads running through the book is the tension between the general notion of “tradition” vs. “progress” in jazz, which you characterize in terms of Manhattan geography: Uptown/Downtown, represented by Jazz at Lincoln Center and a venue like the Knitting Factory, respectively. What qualities in jazz do you most sympathize with?

Jazz musicians have always embodied the principle of grace under pressure—not just through their art of improvisation, but also in terms of an elegant negotiation of difficult circumstances. That’s an ideal worth emulating. And as Ralph Ellison beautifully expressed some 60 years ago, the jazz artist endlessly strives toward personal expression within a collective, drawing on tools and traditions even while transcending them. At its best, I think this art form shows us how to pursue innovation and change without losing our foothold on a common bedrock of knowledge.

What’s next?

The prevailing new winds in jazz involve various forms of hybridism. Whether you’re talking about hip-hop or ancient Arabic maqam or state-of-the-art spectral music, artists are bringing a range of dialects into the jazz lexicon, often with thrilling results. At the same time, we’re seeing new iterations of jazz traditionalism, infused with celebratory élan rather than dutiful study. What’s most exciting to me is the feeling that these different strains of the music no longer assume oppositional terms. The idea that a musician has to choose a camp or a clique, it’s no longer the norm. Quite the contrary: musicians today are coming up with myriad proficiencies, accustomed to drawing connections. There’s a spirit of possibility in the air, and whatever the future holds, that’s what will get us there.

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