International Jazz Day

Today (1 May 2012) is International Jazz Day. The first ever! And Herbie Hancock, UNESCO’s new goodwill ambassador, has been spruking the day in the world’s media. UNESCO’s decision marks yet another incredible milestone in the ever expanding reach of this most improbable art-form.
It’s interesting too for what it might have to say about a touchy subject that’s weighed heavily on jazz for over two decades. It’s the debate about what jazz really is.
On one side, articulated beautifully today by Herbie, jazz is now a truly global phenomenon. In one interview he observes that it is “in a sense, a loss for America because finally UNESCO is proclaiming that jazz is not just American but it’s international.”
The other side, often championed by Wynton Marsalis, argues that jazz has always been and will always remain an African-American music. Many sub-styles have been derived from it, and this music might have been good, but it hasn’t been “jazz”. Marsalis wants jazz’s origins honoured for all time, as an achievement that Americans (and especially a dispossessed African–American poor) can take pride in, be inspired by, learn from and celebrate.
While every person of good will would want this too, the casting of a rebel music in iron runs the risk of marginalising the very foundation narrative the centrality of which Marsalis wants preserved. The problem is that today this narrative simply isn’t the key driver of jazz; a music that continues to explode unpredictably on the world stage in ways that can only partially be explained by its New Orleans origins.
Maybe the best way to honour jazz’s unique past is to revel in every reemergence of its incredible creative power, as if now permanently at play in the present. That’s what Herbie Hancock and UNESCO are doing today.
Happy International Jazz Day!

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