"I Know You Know":
Esperanza Spalding's receipt of the 2011 Grammy Award for Best New Artist was both historic and controversial not only because it marked the first time that a jazz artist was accorded that particular honor but because it signaled possibilities for new directions and a "re-contextualization" of the jazz aesthetic with an emphasis on vocal performance, radical genre hybridity, multilingualism, intertextuality, the marketability of women artists, and the return of socially relevant discourse in American music. There is no doubt that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences sought to honor Spalding's seventy weeks on the Billboard charts for her eponymous 2008 sophomore effort; the rise of her fourth album, Radio Music Society (Heads Up), to top five on the 2012 Billboard Jazz charts; her mainstream crossover appeal that resulted in an advertising spot with Banana Republic; and her 2009 performance for President Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. The Academy may have also stumbled across the birth of a new jazz idiom that would reject traditional gender hierarchies and corporate-influenced genre boundaries in its embrace of an open and ever-expansive music that could once again be truly relevant to a broad diversity of audiences. The irony is that this would happen in the midst of jazz music's ever-declining share of commercial music CD sales and internet downloads as well as apocalyptic debates within the jazz world about the future survivability of the idiom. Many of the jazz cognoscenti would completely miss the moment. It turns out that while jazz critics and scholars have been waiting for the second coming of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, a powerful resurgence of discursively relevant, popular jazz has been happening at the intersection of women's performance, hybridity, multilingualism, and intertextuality. It is precisely in this location that Esperanza Spalding and the New Jazz are emerging.
Esperanza Spalding's critical and commercial accomplishments beg a reconsideration of the contemporary crisis and rumored "death" of jazz. Specifically, what role can women's jazz performance, radical genre hybridity, multilingualism, intertextuality, and discursive relevance serve in an aesthetic and commercial renaissance of the jazz aesthetic? I want to build a theory from what artist/composer and Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor Jason Moran has called "re-contextualization" and his suggestion of the infinite possibilities of jazz as an umbrella aesthetic for the radical hybridization of all musical genres and the endless intertextual relationships of music and other art forms. And, finally, I want to foreground women's vocal jazz as a fundamental axis of "re-contextualization," a significant broadening of the definition of jazz music, and communication of the social/cultural relevance of the aesthetic.
Esperanza Spalding's burgeoning career is the most logical place to begin such an inquiry because her career is profoundly linked to contemporary discursive formations of the cultural hybridization of race and gender in a nation experiencing significant demographic shifts and calling into question the assumptions of American race, class, gender, and sexual identity politics. Her career has deep roots in the history of socially relevant woman-centered vocal jazz and blues music that runs through Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Cassandra Wilson to name just a few. Spalding clearly has peers at the vanguard of "re-contextualized" jazz music including, but not limited to Terri Lyn Carrington, The Robert Glasper Experiment, Jason Moran, Madeleine Peyroux, and Gretchen Parlato. What sets Esperanza Spalding apart as an avatar of a new and re-contextualized jazz music is her ability (1) to significantly broaden the definition of jazz music and advance it as commercially viable without sacrificing its core aesthetic integrity and improvisational prerogatives; (2) to deconstruct gender bias and the concomitant second class status of vocal jazz performance within the jazz world; (3) to deconstruct performatively the conflation of aesthetics and racial authenticity and advance an understanding of the radically hybrid origins and future of the jazz aesthetic; and (4) to re-contextualize seemingly disparate musical genres to suggest new communities of musicians and listeners that affirmatively transcend traditional social/cultural boundaries.
The Death of Jazz?
Terry Teachout's 2009 Wall Street Journal article "Can Jazz Be Saved?" presents an exemplary case for the commercial "death" of jazz in light of jazz's exodus from popular to high art. His commercial sales data is drawn from the 2009 National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Teachout cites the NEA's findings on declining CD sales and audiences for live performances as well as the rising median age of jazz concertgoers. Teachout asks, "What does this tell us? I suspect it means, among other things, that the average American now sees jazz as a form of high art. Nor should this come as a surprise to anyone, since most of the jazz musicians that I know feel pretty much the same way. They regard themselves as artists, not entertainers, masters of a musical language that is comparable in seriousness to classical music - and just as off-putting to pop-loving listeners who have no more use for Wynton Marsalis than they do for Felix Mendelssohn."
Written in the late 1990s, Eric Nisenson's Blue: The Murder of Jazz is probably the most obvious example of critics and scholars who locate the "death" of jazz in subjective aesthetic judgments of its waning creativity and innovation: "the clearest indication that jazz is fading as an art form is the increasing diminution of genuine creative vitality" (13). Nisenson specifically makes the case for the "murder" of jazz, critiquing the notion of a contemporary renaissance based on the ascendancy of the Lincoln Center or the emergence of a large crop of new, young musicians (13). He critiques both Lincoln Center and the new generation of jazz performers as "revivalists" who are "so transfixed by jazz's magnificent past that they are as paralyzed as deer standing on a highway staring into the headlights. They seem unable to move ahead, unwilling to create music made out of the grist of their own time and place" (18-19).
Certainly much can be made of the impact of jazz "revivalists" and the impact of the jazz "classicism" of the Lincoln Center. However, neither Teachout nor Nisenson nor others of their ilk appear to recognize the ongoing commercial success of vocal jazz performance, the vocal performances of women singers in particular, and the ever-transformative ability of jazz music to incorporate and influence an infinitely diverse host of other aesthetic forms and genres including, but not limited to, folk, rock, hip-hop, electronica, pop, and world music.
The persistent failure to recognize vocal performance as simultaneously commercially and aesthetically potent is principally rooted in a fundamental de-valuation of vocal performers as something other than true musicians and innovators, a phenomena shared by jazz and the European classical world. It is secondarily linked to the explicit and implicit sexism of jazz scholarship and criticism that has long relegated the extraordinary women who have dominated vocal jazz to second-class status beneath largely male instrumental innovators. The failure to comprehend genre hybridity and ever-expanding definitions of jazz music is complicated by the presence of jazz purists and conservationists who have long failed to recognize the kind of radical hybridity and experimentation that has always been happening at the margins. It may be said that Teachout and Nisenson et al. fall prey to the very same "high art" bias - with a smattering of sexism - that they so stridently critique.
Vocal Jazz, Gender, and Commercialism
Acknowledging jazz's ever-declining market share, Cummings places the burden of a commercial jazz revival on the shoulders of Esperanza Spalding: "But if there were any hope at all for a jazz artist to buck the downward trend, the responsibility would lie on the shoulders of Esperanza Spalding - the brilliant, exciting bassist-vocalist whose eponymous debut album sold a respectable 72,000 copies when it was released in May 2008, according to Nielsen Soundscan, making it the 17th best-selling jazz album of the year. No small feat, when one considers the jazz genre's seemingly endless discography of legends like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. (She also sold 42,000 digital singles that same year)."
Cummings suggestive conflation of women's vocal performance and genre hybridity is well-supported by recent commercial music sales data. Among the top ten jazz albums on the Billboard Charts during the spring of 2012, five were produced by vocalists Esperanza Spalding, Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra, and Kat Edmonson. Significantly, two vocalists on the jazz charts were women and by 2 June 2012, vocalist Melody Gardot's The Absence EP (Verve) debuted at the eighth spot on the jazz album chart. It should also be noted that from spring of 2011 to January 2012, Brazilian vocalist Gretchen Parlato's The Lost and Found (ObliqSound) spent some seventy-two weeks on the Billboard Charts, topping at number four. Three of the top ten jazz albums were produced by instrumentalists who integrated vocal performances within their compositions including Chris Botti's Impressions (Columbia), the Robert Glasper Experiment's Black Radio (Blue Note), and Arturo Sandoval's Dear Diz (Concord). Interestingly, two of the Billboard top ten jazz albums integrated hip-hop aesthetics: Esperanza Spalding and the Robert Glasper Experiment. Robert Glasper's first full-length album featured a host of vocal performers including women vocalists Erykah Badu, Lalah Hathaway, Ledisi, Chrisette Michele, and Meshell Ndegeocello.
What recent Billboard charts appear to suggest is the responsiveness of modern audiences to jazz music that integrates the structures (i.e. melody, harmony, rhythm) and texts (i.e. lyrics) of other musical art forms and genres. Additionally, jazz audiences appear to prefer the integration of non-jazz structures and texts when presented by women performers and, in many cases, women vocalists. Esperanza Spalding's use of Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish-speaking vocalists featured by Arturo Sandoval, Maria Farantouri's Greek and Byzantine folk songs, or the Brazilian Portuguese lyrics sung by Gretchen Parlato further suggest that jazz audiences may not be averse to the integration of multilingualism and that they may well be able to tolerate the confluence of all of these factors in one composition.
Perhaps in light of the Billboard success of vocal performance and woman-centered performance, Esperanza Spalding is beginning to appear on the critics and audience rankings for the establishment publications Jazz Journal, DownBeat, and JazzTimes. In 2010, Chamber Music Society (Heads Up) was ranked at the thirty-fourth position on the JazzTimes Top 40 list. The DownBeat 2011 Reader's Poll honored Spalding as best new jazz artist, mirroring the Grammy Awards; however, the DownBeat Critic's Poll only recognized Spalding as a Rising Star on electric bass. Spalding did not appear on the 2011 Jazz Journal new issues critics list, but she was the cover story for their January 2011 edition, an accomplishment that is certainly extraordinary in light of Jazz Journal's overwhelming preference for male artists as cover stories.
JazzTimes and DownBeat readers and critics are also beginning to come around on the broader categories of vocal performance, women's vocal performance, multilingualism, and contemporary genre hybridity. On the 2011 JazzTimes Top 40 new releases, the Charles Lloyd/Maria Farantouri Athens Concert (ECM) English-Greek collaboration appears at number six; Terri Lynn Carrington's Mosaic Project (Concord) featuring all-women jazz performers and vocalists Esperanza Spalding, Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Sheila E., Nona Hendryx, Cassandra Wilson, and Geri Allen appears at number fourteen; Gretchen Parlato's The Lost and Found (ObliqSound) appears at sixteen; Kurt Elling's The Gate (Concord) is nineteen; Elling's collaboration with Theo Bleckmann and the Claudia Quintet on What Is Beautiful (Cuneiform) is ranked twenty-one. Jazz Journal did recognize Kurt Elling's recording on its 2011 critics list of new issues.
The overall relatively "lower" rankings and infrequent regard for vocal performance, women's vocal performance, and genre hybridity are indicative of the role that JazzTimes, Jazz Journal, and DownBeat have played as lagging indicators of the critical importance of these movements for the future survivability of jazz music. The critics who write for these establishment publications have not been at the vanguard predicting the role of such artists as Spalding. However, the mere recognition of such magical recordings as the Charles Lloyd/Maria Farantouri collaboration, in which jazz music is integrated with Byzantine sacred and folk music as well as the sounds of the lyra (pear-shaped fiddle) and the laouto (Eastern lute), is indicative of an awakening amongst the establishment to the infinite possibilities of extending the very definition of the genre.
In fact, Esperanza Spalding's particular achievement as an innovator and avatar of a new jazz has been held in dubious regard by the jazz establishment and reflects the notion that much of the jazz establishment is in a transitional moment. In a JazzTimes article in May 2012, Giovanni Russonello wrestles with the perceived "contradiction" of audience expectations of Spalding as jazz "savior" and her personal, artistic interest in hybridity and broader avenues of musical expression: "Slowly but surely, the jazz world is realizing that she may have already moved past its boundaries. At the very least, she is ignoring them."
Russonello specifically cites Spalding's 2010 release Chamber Music Society (Heads Up) as a turning point, confusing her attempts at expanding the very definition of jazz with rejection of the jazz idiom: "On Chamber, Spalding's pastiche was suddenly inundated with new colors, mostly muted grays and browns thrown onto a canvas of classical undertones. No longer did Spalding the jazz musician seem interested in expanding genre; she was trying to ignore it." Dramatically likening Spalding to a wandering lover, Russonello further mischaracterizes Spalding's expansion of the genre as rejection: "All of this ought to be telling jazz's diehards something - what they already knew but didn't really want to admit. It's a little like silently realizing that, sure, your girlfriend still loves you, but she's been across the room dancing with somebody else all night. The reason Spalding took home the Best New Artist Grammy is the same reason why she can't possibly be what most purists want her to: She won it because she has novelty - a crucial figure in the pop music equation - and that much-maligned asset known as crossover appeal. That's a term that really means jazz accounts for, at best, a slim majority of an artist's influences."
However, much to his credit, Russonello acknowledges that Spalding's work promises a bright future for jazz, in spite of the dubious regard in which she is held by the establishment: "With the arrival of her two most recent albums, 2010's Chamber Music Society and the newly released Radio Music Society, both on Heads Up, it's become clear that trying to understand Esperanza Spalding as 'this' type of musician who makes 'that' type of music is going to be futile. We ought to approach her from the other direction: Every bit of work she offers is just another light she's turned on for us, illuminating one more room where she's been laying her plans and charting her way."
Re-Contextualization, Hybridity, and Broadening the
I want to extrapolate from Moran's brief comments and build a theory of "re-contextualization" that can be used to measure the significance of Esperanza Spalding's work and many of the new voices responsible for a re-birth of contemporary jazz. For me, "re-contextualization" refers to radical genre hybridity, intertextuality, multilingualism, and a return to the connection between music and socially relevant discourse. I use the spirit of Roland Barthes post-structuralist interpretation of "intertextuality" to explain the interpretation of meaning of a particular text (i.e. lyrics) by a listener in relation to other text. "Radical hybridity" refers to meaningful and evocative juxtapositions of musical genres and speaks to the compositional form in which lyrical texts are presented. In many cases, meaning may be rendered through an intertextual interpretation of the juxtaposition of lyrical texts against musical forms or even against language, where "genre" or "language" and "dialect" become another "text." I have chosen to use the term "radical" in this context to emphasize multiple and unexpected genre juxtapositions that fall outside of the norm of expected and now "traditional" pairings (e.g. Brazilian jazz, jazz-rock fusion, etc.). My attention to "discursive relevance" is a call to music that matters and either initiates or substantiates real-world discursive practices.
What Moran is specifically referring to is the need for a significant broadening of the definition of jazz. He is suggesting that in fact jazz music is such a fundamental aspect of music generally speaking - American and global music - that jazz is everything and can encompass anything. His own experimentation with hip-hop and soul vocal performance speaks to this "re-contextualization" of the music. Indeed, Esperanza Spalding clearly concurs with this view of the jazz aesthetic. In an interview on Riz Khan's One on One, she says: "These days it seems that jazz is the word that is open enough that it can encompass almost what anybody does."
Jozen Cummings echoes Jason Moran's notions of hybridity and "re-contextualization," suggesting that Spalding's ability to remain aesthetically as well as commercially relevant to diverse audiences of listeners rests on her ability to play with a host of different musical genres. Cummings writes: "Spalding sees her surging popularity differently. Just because her audience is probably more familiar with Motown than Monk doesn't mean she will cater to their ears. As an example, she points out 'I Adore You,' a song from her album Esperanza. 'I remember having discussions, and [some would say,] "It's too much scatting, it's too jazzy." And now all the time, people say it's their little kids' favorite song,' Spalding says. 'And there are no words. Parts of it are complex, but aspects of it speak to their kids, too.' And for Spalding, therein lies the challenge: to speak to audiences of all ages through a variety of genres. 'Obviously, the audience that shows up to [Austria's] Vienna Opera House is going to be different than the audience that shows up to [New York's] Joe's Pub,' says Spalding, who has played at both venues. 'I guess I'm really blessed that it's very diverse, and it will be a blessing as long as I stay relevant.'"
There is no better example of intertextuality and radically hybrid genre juxtaposition than Spalding's third CD release Chamber Music Society (Heads Up). Ostensibly a nod to the early years of her classical training and the foundations of classical music as a more communal style of acoustic playing without horns and with limited orchestration, Chamber Music Society incorporates an adroit hybridization of jazz, soul, funk, world music, and western classical concert music. Her composition, "Little Fly," is indicative of the kind of radical time-space intertextuality that Spalding embraces. The intertextuality of "Little Fly" integrates the fundamental existential questions posed by the eighteenth century poetry of William Blake within the musical context of soulful vocals; a European chamber music composition for acoustic bass, cello, violin, and viola; and a brief improvised jazz bass solo outro. Spalding wraps a multi-textured lyrical meditation on time and the balance between life and death within a hybrid musical composition that itself draws attention to the meditation on time and space. Musically, she blends contemporary NuSoul lyricism with a pre-Baroque medieval musical form and jazz improvisational approaches that have defined the American experience since the dawn of the twentieth century. Here, Blake's meditation on life meets Spalding's journey through musical time and genre.
The specific musical pairing of chamber music and jazz improvisation suggests significant linkages between the contrapuntal prerogatives of the former and the polytonal and poly-rhythmic group improvisations of the New Orleans and free jazz, all of which are strongly suggestive of Spalding's emphasis on community. Taken as a whole, Spalding's hybridity and intertextuality deftly integrates community within Blake's poetic rendering of the delicate balance between life and death, suggesting that community operates as a fulcrum in that delicate balance and perhaps even the broader community between human and animal life/nature offered by Blake. Furthermore, her use of hybridity and intertextuality challenges both time and space, suggesting not only possibilities for present community formation but also the blending and re-contextualization of historical traditions.
Spalding has spoken about chamber music as a form most suitable for emphasizing community, underscoring the implications of her music in formal interview settings and providing further discursive cues for listeners. In an EPK for the release of Chamber Music Society, Spalding comments, "Chamber music is music for people. It is often described as music for friends." Here, Spalding insists again that the music is about community and implies that intertextuality and the hybrid interplay of genres potentially draws together new forms of community, bringing musicians who may heretofore have never considered performing together an opportunity to do so in a meaningful musical conversation across time and space.
Socially Relevant Discourse
In her interview with Riz Khan's One on One, Spalding responds to a question about her own African-American, Latino, Welsh, and American Indian ancestry as well as her ability to sing in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Her characterization of her own ancestry and youthful cultural experiences informs us of her very genuine and perhaps "natural" appreciation of cultural hybridity and "re-contextualizatio." She states: "Those cultures have influenced me in this way. Growing up I didn't identify with any of those specifically. So I think the way that that has influenced my art is really in kind of being cultural identity neutral, which is good and bad. It's helpful, as we all know, to be a part of a defined identity, defined way of expressing yourself, interacting with your ancestors and with your story, how to behave in the culture. Without a very strong foundation you end up looking for examples from other cultures of how to act, how to speak, how to sing, how to play, everything. And that can be good and bad. I think in the music it's really good."
Spalding's "Black Gold" duet with Algebra Blessett - a contemporary R&B singer with gospel roots - from the 2011 release Radio Music Society (Heads Up) - is illustrative of the ways in which Spalding infuses hybrid aesthetic juxtapositions and intertextuality with social meaning and relevance. Spalding's composition is an affirmative and upbeat fusion of jazz, NuSoul, and gospel music and serves as an affirmation and encouragement to young black men, insisting on the critical importance of an Afrocentric reading of history:
The official video for "Black Gold" features an African-American father picking up his two sons from elementary school and, after learning the substance of their history lessons, informing them about the greatness of African civilization. At home, the father shows his sons his African history scrapbook, entitled "Black Gold," and highlights the achievements of such diverse figures as Sundiata, Miriam Makeba, Salif Keita, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Fela Kuti. The video concludes with the father taking his sons to hear Spalding and Blessett as they sing to these two young men from an urban block party stage. The video has an urban community feeling of racial, gender, sexual identity, and age diversity as people gather around the stage wearing t-shirts bearing the faces of many of the different figures in African history in the father's "Black Gold" history book. Against the video backdrop of an urban and largely African-American community block party performance, Spalding's lyrics suggest that a re-contextualized black nationalism and Afrocentricity can be used as a contemporary racial affirmation of African-American youth that may serve as a foundation for building healthy communities. The message is clear: self-love through historical awareness is the first step toward enfranchisement in a democratic society.
Although "Black Gold" reasserts discourses of black nationalism and Afrocentricity of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, the video importantly fails to visually or aurally represent the specific historical contexts that gave birth to these ideas, and, in so doing, it purposely decontextualizes and inverts these ideas and re-presents them for a new and broadly inclusive politics of self-love. The video's particular presentation of many of the core figures of Afrocentric discourse and its assertion of the popular Afrocentric phrase "Africa was inhabited by Kings and Queens" by the father is unmistakable, but its re-presentation of these figures in the father's well-worn scrapbook - a classic example of how relationships between texts affect interpretation and meaning - re-locates them in an undefined future and re-contextualizes them for the contemporary audience of two school age African-American boys in an urban American environment; these images are now used to inform these young men that they are beautiful. That the community they participate in appears inviting further suggests that black enfranchisement through a re-contextualized black nationalism is fundamental to broader issues of inclusive coalition building and racial harmony.
Spalding's "Black Gold" composition not only broadens the definition of jazz music but it also engages socially relevant discursive practices. She not only "re-contextualizes" the music, but the message as well. Spalding's lyrical manipulation of Afrocentrism alludes to specific expressions of the burgeoning "golden years" of hip-hop in a pre-gangster rap era marked by such artists as Afrika Bambaataa, KRS-One, and, later, A Tribe Called Quest, and Public Enemy. Spalding draws the listener's attention to hip-hop's long lost ability to engage affirmative messaging and its initial and profound connection to community. She also deconstructs the hyper-masculinity of hip-hop and prescriptively suggests the significant role of women in the development and positive encouragement of young black men. Most importantly, Spalding's embrace of genre hybridity challenges the conflation of racial authenticity and aesthetics in hip-hop, suggesting that music in general and hip-hop in particular have always been the product of racial encounters and diaspora and cannot legitimately support claims to racial authenticity.
Nowhere was the discursive relevance of Esperanza Spalding's music put to a greater test than her performance at the Nobel Peace Prize Award Dinner for President Barack Obama. Spalding performed "Espera" from her eponymous sophomore album. In a relatively straightforward jazz trio (piano, bass, drums) and with simply a tease of multilingualism in the title, Spalding unloaded a deeply moving plea for peace, consistent with her aesthetic and social/cultural message of polyphony before the newly installed American President:
All the world is helpless sorrow
Now as I learn how I must work for change
All the sorrows will consume me
I'll keep faith
I have faith in mankind
I don't expect to ever taste the fruit
I WON'T GIVE UP
Obama walked a rhetorical tightrope in his acceptance speech, weighing peace as the glorious yet impossible ideal of the likes of Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. against the political and, in his view, very permanent realities of conflict and the existence of evil in the world. Cognizant of his role as a politician, he contrasted himself with the storied idealists of peace: "I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago - 'Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.' As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak - nothing passive - nothing naïve - in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."
Obama outlined a pragmatic doctrine for the use of force and explicitly dismissed the pacifist idealism. He evoked moral and strategic imperatives, asserted America's commitment to global security and nuclear disarmament, prioritized human rights, and suggested a path to honor through adherence to these principles and defined rules of engagement. But his measured justification of war embraced contradiction and patronized Gandhi and King as naïve in spite of his stated regard for their lives and work. In response to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s absolutist and indeed radical notion that injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere, Obama retorted, "We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace."
In her position as an artist, Esperanza Spalding's performance of "Espera" reasserted pacifist idealism and the critical importance of the human striving for the ideal. Spalding's use of the phrase - "Now as I learn how I must work for change" - signified Obama's central campaign theme and signaled her interpretive intentions. Key phrases such as "real power"; her dubious evaluation in the phrase "I'm not sure enough"; her lyrical recognition that change rests not in the power of one leader but in the activities of many in the phrase "I have faith in mankind"; and her powerful declaration that ends the song "I won't give up" - all combine to form an evocative assessment and plea to the Obama presidency to reassess his blanket rejection of pacifist ideals. In context, it was an incredibly courageous counter-narrative to Obama's measured political pragmatism. Spalding further demonstrated the real substance of democratic free speech - often confused with the unfettered ability to spew meaningless vitriol - as an exercise in speaking truth to power.
Certainly, there are vastly different responsibilities in politics and art, but Spalding's willingness to engage the political reminds us how American art and music have served as important social/cultural initiators and how critical the production of artistic counter-narratives are for the healthy functioning of a pluralistic democratic society. Through the creation of a new "re-contextualized" jazz music that recaptures the discursive relevance and social/cultural viability of American art, Spalding firmly locates herself within the history and evolution of jazz music, a once profoundly relevant musical form born of the gumbo of hybridity, intertextuality, and multilingualism in turn of the century New Orleans, Louisiana.
New Orleans jazz reflected the broad diversity of the region, the complicated racial hierarchies of French Catholic society, and the newfound freedom of African Americans who created this art form. Jazz defined the new social ethos, reflected changing gender dynamics and social mores of the Roaring Twenties, and emerged in the midst of significant technological advancements in communications including the development of the radio and phonograph (Nisenson 58). That jazz emerged in the midst of significant technological developments in communication cemented its modernity. The great swing bands of the 1930s and '40s spoke a light and danceable language of escape for a generation suffering under the Great Depression and seeking sources of aesthetic energy to fight World War II. The frenetic pace of post-WWII bebop and the contrasting relaxed feel of cool jazz simultaneously spoke to a Cold War generation living under the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, Communist witch hunts and the broad expansion of American capitalism (Nisenson 126). The Afrocentric allusions and return to the cross-rhythms, the call and response of free jazz spoke to the northern and western urban manifestations of the Civil Rights Movement and were unmistakably political.
There are many specific compositional examples of linkages between the formal aesthetic evolution of jazz music and the evolution of jazz's meaningful engagement and interaction with relevant social discourse. As David Evans notes, Bessie Smith's socially relevant 1927 recording "Back-Water Blues" about the 1926 Cumberland River Flood in Nashville, Tennessee, reminds us of the intimate linkages to community that the blues, the ancestral precursor of jazz, has always had. Consider Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," first performed in 1939 at the Café Society Club in New York City or Charles Mingus's "Fables of Faubus" on the 1959 release Mingus Ah Um (Sony), an explicitly political piece that served as a response to Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus, who in 1957 dispatched the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine African-American teenagers. Consider "Hiroshima: Rising From the Abyss" by Toshiko Akiyoshi, a stunning musical portrait of the chaos and horror of war and the lessons one must learn in its aftermath.
The improvisational engine of jazz music assures its continued presence in American and global cultures. Improvisation is a fundamental discourse, particularly germane to immigrant and diasporic experiences and certainly central to the experience of enslavement of the African-American creators and innovators of jazz music. However, contemporary times require another substantive link between the jazz aesthetic and relevant public discourse that might be inclusive of the modern day realities of the welfare state, poverty, chronic unemployment, endless war, the crisis of racialism and the promise of post-racialism, the crisis of the nation-state and the advent of globalism, etc.
The problem with a lot of jazz today is that, absent any living discourse outside of the discourse of nostalgia, the individual notes played by improvising musicians no longer carry the same broad cultural meanings that they bore when jazz was America's popular music. Hence, the effective "death" of jazz music as a popular cultural art form. Much of jazz no longer informs us on broader, national and international cultural levels, no longer provides moments of euphoria and escape in the midst of a challenging economy or war-torn years, no longer speaks the language of the speakeasy and the flapper, no longer resonates the onomatopoeia of the railroads carrying migrants north and westward from the Mississippi Delta, no longer speaks to the complicated multiculturalism and brazen lawlessness of New Orleans, no longer speaks to the Cold War and the nuclear age, no longer speaks to our longing for freedom. Further, many jazz musicians no longer produce compositions like "Alabama" or "Fables of Faubus." Jazz hasn't necessarily "died" but in order for the music to connect with people on a larger, national, international, popular discursive level, jazz music must incorporate an even broader and increasingly more diverse range of meanings around a progressive and determined movement of "re-contextualization."
Hybridity, intertextuality, multilingualism are, in my view, the relevant discourses of the new millenium in this an age of globalization and rapid technological advancements in global communication, the emergence of China and India as world economic powers, the decline of the European economy, the re-appraisal of sexual identity difference and gender, transnationalism, significant demographic shifts, and the crisis of a diminishing European-American majority. We are nearing the twilight of racial, gender, and sexual identity bias. It is the age of the Occupy movement and the critique of American colonialism and corporatism. We need a jazz music that speaks to the chaos of our times and assists us as listeners with the process of interpreting meaning and sifting through the noise.
In my view, Esperanza Spalding is speaking to contemporary discursive formations of cultural hybridity, intertextuality, and multilingualism that are broadly inclusive of many of these tensions. Her work suggests that jazz improvisation is a fundamental discursive practice that undergirds and incorporates endless other musical forms, extra-musical texts, and languages. The new aesthetic of Spalding's re-contextualized jazz communicates an important and timely social message about cultural hybridity, suggesting possibilities for alternative community formation and creative new cultural/social alliances in a world of ever-changing alliances, particularly as the Enlightenment legacy of race, gender, and sexual identity wane. Furthermore, Spalding's work is suggestive of the vanguard leadership of women in building a new future. The question of the survivability of jazz rests in large measure on the ability of musicians like Esperanza Spalding to continue to draw an ever-expanding circle around this thing called "jazz," create new and previously unheard of communities of sound, and connect their art to that which is socially and culturally relevant.
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image-Music-Text. New York: Hill & Wang Publishers, 1978. 142- 148.
Cummings, Jozen. “The Root Interview: Esperanza Spalding on Taking a Big Risk.” The Root 30 August 2010: http://www.theroot.com/views/root-interview-esperanza-spalding-staying-relevant
Erlanger, Steven and Sheryl Gay Stolberg “Surprise Nobel for Obama Stirs Praise and Doubts” New York Times 8 October 2009: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/10/world/10nobel.html?_r=2&
Evans, David. “Bessie Smith’s ‘Back-Water Blues’: The Story Behind the Song.” Popular Music 26.1 (2006): 97-115.
Nisenson, Eric. Blue: The Murder of Jazz. Cambridge: MA: Da Capo Press, 2000.
Obama, Barack. "Remarks by the President at the Acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize." The White House Website 10 December 2009: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-acceptance-nobel-peace-prize
Russonello, Giovanni. "Esperanza Spalding: Star Time."JazzTimes 7 May 2012:
Spalding, Esperanza. EPK. Chamber Music Society. Montuno Artists. Uploaded 22 July 2010: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKcTuqO8FSk
---. Interview. Riz Khan's One on One. Al Jazeera English. Uploaded 18 September 2010: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duiDsimsJLk&feature=related
Teachout, Terry. “Can Jazz Be Saved?” Wall Street Journal 9 August 2009: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204619004574320303103850572.html