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John Comerford on 'Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense'

April 13th, 2009

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Icons Among Us Jazz Documentary
Courtesy of Sacks & Co.
Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense, sheds light on the contemporary jazz scene. Through interviews with eminent jazz musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Nicholas Payton, Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, The Bad Plus, and more, Icons Among Us examines jazz today as an active, evolving art form, not merely a far-removed extension of its gloried past.

The 4-part documentary picks up where Ken Burn's Jazz leaves off, and touches on some sensitive topics, evidenced by the level of agitation reached in some of the interviews with musicians such as Robert Glasper and Matthew Shipp. The film is packed with insightful arguments by key figures in contemporary jazz, as well as great clips of them in performance.

I interviewed executive producer John Comerford about the film and the issue of defining jazz today. Although the answers are never quite reached in the documentary, Comerford points out that it's the questioning that's important: "We hope that folks get something out of this that inspires them and maybe sheds some light on the artform, but most important, helps them to listen in a deeper way. There is always much more than you think when you really get into it."

  • Jacob Teichroew: Why has the discussion about the relationship of improvised music to “jazz” become so intense in recent years?

    John Comerford: Well, there are a lot of factors at play, but I think the core issue is that present day improvisational music, such as rock and hip-hop for example, have now advanced to the point that they posses individual histories, and as a result have generated reflection. That reflection has led musicians to consider the roots of the styles' origins. This in turn guides them to the fountainhead of improvisation in our American culture, jazz music.

  • JT: The question of how great a role tradition should play in contemporary jazz is one that evokes countless fervent opinions among jazz musicians and critics. How did the idea come about that the argument could be the basis of a documentary?

    JC: Co-director Michael Rivoira gets special credit here for really tapping in and hearing what folks like Eric Revis and Chris Thomas were talking about as they were reacting to historical treatments of their artform. Since that time, our team has tried to focus on the artists’ thoughts and let them tell their stories and be honest conduits of personal insight.

  • JT: Some of the artists interviewed, particularly pianists Matthew Shipp and Robert Glasper, seemed to get quite riled up. Did you see a universal change in the artists’ demeanor as they tried to express their thoughts on this matter?

    JC: I don’t believe there was a universal response. If you want to talk about those two in particular, they both have exceptionally strong viewpoints on the topic and really don’t hesitate to express themselves. Those guys, that energy, is unadulterated.

  • JT: Why do you think musicians get so aggravated, so intense when it comes to the definition of jazz?

    JC: Some do. Some don’t. I think it’s simple – they don’t want to be put in a box. Jazz inherently is about playing with and/or moving boundaries.

  • JT:At one point during the film, saxophonist Donald Harrison suggests that unless you’ve played with some of the masters of the “golden age” of jazz (the 1950s and ‘60s), you don’t have the knowledge to make a real musical statement. At some point, though, none of the masters will still be around. Does he mean that jazz will inevitably die?

    JC: I don’t believe so. People will speak from their own personal histories; and be, if you will, “of their time.” And the salient issue in this instance is that Donald is speaking from his generation’s truth. As you move past that point in the program, however, many of our subjects speak on point about this. Paul DeBarros comments about the differences of how music might move through an age-group or a generation – the difference between the jazz of Ornette or Coltrane and that of someone today like Bill Frisell - and the way the music can create interrelationships, and assigns importance within those groups. There is a lot of fertile ground there and I think those transitions feed the growth of the music, rather than inhibit it.

  • JT: What is the discussion really about? Is it about what the term “jazz” should refer to? Is it a question of musical legitimacy? Is it about biases in jazz education? I get the sense that as heated as people become when discussing traditionalism in today’s jazz scene, there is still a lot of confusion about what is actually being debated.

    JC: Undoubtedly, there is confusion. I suppose people want to be free of constraints and simultaneously are interested in experiencing the potency of the historical jazz cannon. And perhaps it is important to point out, not everyone in the discussion is really speaking the same language.

  • JT: As you mentioned, in the film, Paul de Barros points out that one issue that jazz faces today is that it isn’t associated with an underlying social movement the way jazz in the 1950s and ‘60s was with civil rights and integration. What is the heart of his point?

    JC: Movements tend to draw on different resources through different channels at different times. Just look at social movements – in the 50’s and 60’s music, social gatherings, marches, these things were at the heart of organizing. Today you are more likely to be a part of MoveOn and exercise your political will through online channels than you are to be out in the streets organizing. And as Obama showed us, it’s an incredibly effective tool. But the real question about the music is “What does it stem from? Where do players find their inspirations?”

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