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Kirkus ReviewsNisenson (Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest, 1993, etc.) adds another voice to the increasingly shrill debate on the future of jazz and the role of Wynton Marsalis and his friends in that future.
Tom Piazza's Blues Up and Down (p. 1443) denounced critics who rejected the neoclassicism of the young musicians around Marsalis, hinting that those critics' emphasis on emotional statement and innovation had an unspoken racism underlying it. Nisenson has written a virtual manifesto for the opposing view. He jumps into the fray with both feet, accusing the "revivalists," as he calls Marsalis and his coterie, of "smothering the heart and soul of jazz with their love." He repeats the often-made accusations against Marsalis, his primary mouthpiece, Stanley Crouch, and their mentor Albert Murray, that there is implicit racism in their insistence that only African-Americans can truly play jazz, that jazz has its roots exclusively in the African-American experience. He also repeats the claim that Marsalis's hiring practices at Lincoln Center, where he directs the jazz program, have been both racist (few white musicians hired, only one—Gerry Mulligan—feted) and ageist. Then he offers a canned history of the music, designed to provide evidence for his own understanding of jazz a view that is no less essentialist and no less limited than the one he assails. The basic problem with this book, indeed, with this entire debate, is that nobody is offering a definition of jazz, based solely on musical analysis. Rather, as in Nisenson's book, what we are getting is a potted mix of half-understood sociology, half-digested musicology, and half-baked mythology. Nisenson compounds the felony with a writing style that is drenched in clichés.
Will someone please step back from this fight and offer a dispassionate assessment of the state of jazz, the history of jazz, and the future of jazz? This book certainly isn't it.