Talking all that jazz

In the run-up to the Dubai Jazz Festival, we take a look at the conflict between staunch traditionalists and avant-garde players.

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It may come as a surprise to casual fans of such a seemingly joyful genre, but the world of jazz is at war. A war of words, primarily, and yet things have become rather heated over the years, with instruments smashed, insults hurled and families split down the middle.

Like many conflicts, this one is an ideological clash between traditionalists and modernists. In one camp stand those artists and acolytes grimly trying to keep the soul of jazz pure, by preaching a strict adherence to the classic swing sound. In the other is a varied array of performers following what they believe to be the original ethos of jazz: innovation, improvisation and the integration of sounds from other genres.

"I like both 'new jazz' and traditional jazz," says Lars Horntveth, the leader of the Norwegian crossover outfit Jaga Jazzist. "For me it makes no sense that people want to keep the music like it sounded in the 1960s. I can't think of one traditional jazz recording from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s or later that sounds as good as the original ones. But I totally support that musicians want to play that kind of music. It's just silly when people criticise artists for abandoning traditional jazz. The music is preserved on great records and will never disappear."

It had all been going so well, too. Jazz was originally conceived via the confluence of African rhythms with European instruments and continued to cross-pollinate happily during the first half of the 20th century, from Dizzy Gillespie's Afro-Cuban beats to Miles Davis's 1950s experiments with classical arrangements. The likes of Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman began to find the old rhythms restrictive, however, and by the early 1970s Davis was experimenting with electronic trumpets, jazz-rock and generally freaking people out.

Come the 1980s and a backlash against the fusion era was - literally - in full swing. While the noted saxophonist Branford Marsalis worked with pop acts and pushed the boundaries, his brother -Wynton led a revival of pure jazz and a purge against those who crossed the streams. Things came to a head when the filmmaker Ken Burns' much-hyped documentary Jazz emerged in 2001, with Wynton as co-producer: free jazz and -fusion were all but airbrushed from -history. It would be easy to cast the traditionalists as blinkered bad guys here, but they may have a point: jazz has been suffering an identity crisis in recent years. The marquee acts at the upcoming Dubai Jazz Festival, for example, are the popular singer-songwriters David Gray and James Morrison, following James Blunt's appearance last year. This trend is mirrored elsewhere. In 2005 the long-established London radio station Jazz FM caused a national outcry by renaming itself Smooth FM and relaunching with a Barbra Streisand record. -Dedicated jazz publications worldwide are struggling despite a -relative scarcity of online -competition and even the most famous jazz venues are being forced to diversify. "There are certain jazz clubs that don't really have jazz there any more, they have pop music that's vaguely jazzy," agrees the Brooklyn-born vocalist Kay Grant. She once sang at New York's legendary Carnegie Hall, is now a fixture on the improv scene and can see both sides of the argument. "Loads of people get away with it because jazz is so open-armed, so you could have people doing stuff that they could never get away with in a rock venue. But it isn't really jazz." That may frustrate the self-proclaimed guardians of the genre's legacy, but keeping musicians reined in by strict rules can be tricky, particularly those who view jazz as a pioneering force for change. The percussionist Seb Rochford is one of the UK's foremost jazz-crossover artists, twice nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize with his bands Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland. Such ensembles have helped introduce rock fans to an edgier side of jazz, but have also fallen between stools. "We're too jazzy for the non-jazz reviewers and have not enough jazz for the jazz reviewers," he admits. Rochford is currently trying to drum up interest in the new Polar Bear record, Peepers. He has worked with everyone from fusion legend Herbie Hancock to Pete Doherty, and knows the pitfalls of mixing styles. Playing rock-style riffs in a jazz -venue can cause problems. "I remember we did a gig as Acoustic Ladyland once. We'd just come off stage and this guy came up to us and said: 'So what kind of music do you call that then?' and we were like: 'Er, I don't know' and he said: 'You know what I call it? I call it ****.' We were shocked. But the guy stayed, and he came up to us after the second set and went:'That was amazing, I loved it' and he's completely turned round. Such an extreme reaction, but it's good that he stayed." "But even people I think are great got massive criticism, people like Ornette Coleman. I remember reading that someone got so upset with him that they smashed his saxophone up at a gig. At the end of the day I think everyone's entitled to their opinion, but to me having an open mind is quite important in jazz because that's how music progresses and that's how all this great music got created in the first place. All the jazz from the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s was to do with people being open to their surroundings, the African-Americans meeting the Europeans and them all mixing." In one sense the traditionalists may be winning the jazz war, as the new breed often refrain from using the word at all, Rochford now prefers to refer to herself as "a musician" rather than a jazz artist. Grant prefers the term "free improv". She may play at jazz clubs and with jazz musicians, but her vocal style is several steps removed from even the most -improvisational of classical jazz singers and can be quite an experience for the uninitiated. This is the sort of distinctive sound traditionalists dismiss as "noise". Grant won a scholarship to sing with New York's Oratorio Society early in her career but found more kindred spirits in the avant-garde underground, including the free-jazz maestro John Zorn, who has often been portrayed as Wynton Marsalis' nemesis. Meanwhile, the conservative world of trad jazz was proving an almighty turn-off. "I wanted to do something that allowed me to use all parts of my voice," she explains. "The thing with the downtown improv scene, it was kind of punky and anarchic but also allowed for total experimentation and open-mindedness." "I rejected jazz outright for many years, but that's because I grew up in the States. In the 1980s, jazz in New York was the yuppie music. It signified something altogether different. It doesn't have that underground status, and therefore it just signified money, the opposite of what it started out to be." "The thing is, if you get too -stringent about what is and isn't jazz, then you lose one of its -greatest -advantages, which is its open-mindedness and its -willingness to be innovative and to create new things and to experiment. That's where improvisation comes from." While notable figures in the jazz industry - the top brass - debate the whys and wherefores of old versus new, Grant suggests that the actual audiences are already instinctively attached to one or other camp. The majority like to hear music that has recognisable rhythms, "repeated patterns that make it comforting", but fusion and -improv work on a whole different level and attract a very different type of patron. An improv performance is "more like a sporting event", she explains, "you're watching to see who does what and when, and you don't know how it's going to turn out". The analogy is a good one, -although Grant has endured more arcane comparisons. "I did a gig about a year ago with someone else's band, it wasn't a brilliant gig but some people from my choir came - I also sing with this chamber choir - and we had this really heated conversation for about two hours afterwards, about whether it was even music. One of them said it was like a horror show and it -reminded her of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. I just thought the show was kind of polite and limp and not very exciting, and they were thinking it was like the fires of hell!" Perhaps an end to the conflict is close, as those on the fringes of the jazz scene sever their ties and leave the classicists to do what they will with the hallowed term. Even Jaga Jazzist, despite the name, "have actually never regarded our music as jazz", according to Horntveth, "as it has always had so many other styles in it". His Oslo-based ensemble came to global prominence when their 2002 release A Livingroom Hush was named jazz album of the year by the BBC, but the new one, One-Armed Bandit, is equally in thrall to prog-rock and old 1960s soundtracks. And yet Horntveth remains fiercely opposed to the traditionalists hijacking his first love. "For me jazz means improvisation," he says. "The jazz music I like the most is totally improvised free jazz, especially live. But I also like much of the more conservative jazz. It doesn't have to be one or the other. I think coming from a jazz background is a good starting point to always try to expand and make new kinds of music." Whatever they wish to call these curious crossbred scenes, then, and whatever odd new noises emerge, one common thread will link them all: the good old-fashioned spirit of jazz.