Crossover Realities


Crossover—the word reached my desk with startling and annoying regularity when I edited Jazziz magazine during the late 1990s. Judging from the articles and reviews submitted by critics of widely varying ages and stylistic predilections, every musician was a “crossover artist” who bridged some heretofore forbidding divide, tackled the demands of an alien genre, or reached a previously untapped audience. Publicists uttered the word incessantly in the hope that record-store clerks might file a given recording in multiple bins, that general-interest magazines might pay attention at all.

When a term or phrase pops up so often, we’re wise to question its usefulness. More often than not, I crossed over “crossover”—highlighted it, pressed Delete, and asked the writer to be more specific.

But to some degree, these folks had a point. The crossover achievements to which they referred fell largely into two categories: style, meaning a musician had merged jazz with another genre or embraced that genre style altogether; and appeal, signaling that a musician had—through originality, accessibility, or extra-musical charisma—reached listeners beyond the jazz crowd.

Crossover dreams are common among disenfranchised minorities for several complicated reasons as well as the obvious one: the material gain otherwise denied ghetto dwellers. And by the mid ’90s, jazz’s bottom line was sobering: The music accounted for less than 5 percent of record sales. Jazz was once popular music, history tells us. But for at least the past three decades, jazz has needed to cross over just to get heard or bought.

Still, market analysis can obscure a powerful aesthetic argument—one closely related to the existential question of what jazz means (and whether it’s shattered into stylistic shards that can no longer be combined to reflect a single image), not to mention the will to change that has driven jazz since the beginning.

If you’re a jazz fan, does that mean you enjoy the “hot jazz” of the ’20s, the swing of the ’30s and ’40s, the bebop of the ’40s and ’50s, or the free jazz of the ’60s? Whatever your answer, it’s significant that there’s an assumption of linear development and, for lack of a better word, purity inherent in this familiar succession of styles. Not so for the fusion that followed in rock’s wake, or for what’s commonly termed Latin jazz, which I’d argue is really a complex array of styles, sounds, and approaches that have been elemental to jazz since Jelly Roll Morton invoked the Spanish tinge back in the ’20s—and, if Morton is right, before. In any case, sometime after the middle of the 20th century, jazz’s rapid formal mutations led naturally to crossbreeding that took the music further from its insular community with each passing decade.

Crossover implies divisions, and its occurrence in jazz often sifts and separates fans of the most widely admired figures. How many Louis Armstrong fans still treasure his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, yet deride “Hello, Dolly”? (Never mind that these folks miss the integral connection between Armstrong’s voice and his horn, not to mention his erasure of the line between high and low art.) How many Miles Davis fans adore everything he played up through his mid-’60s quintet, but deplore everything from Bitches Brew on? (Never mind that such listeners don’t grasp the trumpeter’s wildly inclusive, don’t-look-back philosophy.) Indeed, Armstrong was the great avatar of jazz crossover, and Miles perhaps the best example of crossover as credo.

The most eloquent spokesman for jazz’s crossover mandate was Duke Ellington, who usually buried the issue beneath his assertion that there were only two kinds of music—”the good kind, and the other kind.” Yet in a 1947 interview, he told readers of the music-education journal Etude this about jazz: “It requires, basically, two separate kinds of awareness. First, the thorough musical awareness that 25 years of steady development have brought in jazz. And, in the second place, an awareness of the contemporary scene with all its shadings of feelings.”

By the late 1960s, however, what defined the contemporary scene was rock, and the allure of pop has been suspect for the jazz faithful ever since. Was Miles interested in Sly & the Family Stone simply because he envied their income? Or did he sense a new expression of black identity in America that interested him?

The 1969 Newport Jazz Festival presented Sly and other pop stars together with jazz musicians for the first time. But in his autobiography, producer George Wein called the event the “four worst days of my life.” He explained, “Jazz—the music I loved—was being poisoned and stamped out, and I had served as an unwitting, but willing accomplice in the murder. So while it’s possible to look at the 1969 Newport Festival as a pioneering step in programming (probably the only time Led Zeppelin shared a bill with Buddy Tate), I still consider it the nadir of my career.”

Miles’s post-Bitches Brew music inspired an endless wave of fusion, occasional glimmers of creativity subsumed within a sea of banal sound, and in the years since, jazz has not successfully crossed into non-jazz venues. It’s thoroughly absent from commercial radio playlists. Yet there’s an active legacy of jazz musicians playing in pop bands. This is yet another source of anxiety for some jazz devotees. But isn’t it utterly natural, even wise, for Greg Osby to hop onstage with the remains of the Grateful Dead, or Roy Hargrove to tour with r&b visionary D’Angelo?

When Branford Marsalis left his brother’s band to tour with Sting, he was accused of selling out. Maybe he was just briefly cashing in while broadening his horizons. Meanwhile, Wynton is seen as the antithesis of a crossover star. As the primary voice of Ken Burns’s Jazz, the trumpeter narrated a largely purist history of jazz. Actually, Ken Burns Jazz is itself a major crossover phenomenon, and Wynton himself the latest, greatest crossover story in jazz. For all the early press about his New Orleans roots or the nod Art Blakey gave him, what made him a star above all else was his simultaneous 1983 Grammy Awards in jazz and classical music. In the years since, Marsalis has helped to engineer a third kind of crossover—into institutional respectability, which in the end may well be the most commercially viable in the sense of bringing jazz musicians funding and steady paychecks rather than large-scale sales.

Jazz crossovers that seem new or even radical may in fact mark a return to some of jazz’s core values. Diana Krall’s wildly successful trio owed a huge debt to Nat King Cole. Cassandra Wilson’s cherry-picking from recent pop history isn’t a far cry from jazz takes on Tin Pan Alley songs a half-century ago. The many American jazz players looking to Cuba and Brazil these days retrace a diaspora that gave rise to jazz in the first place. And those who embrace hip-hop honor an idea that critic Martin Williams wrote about decades ago—that jazz development comes from rhythmic innovation.

No music is pure. But jazz, more than any other form, celebrates miscegenation, thrives on it. And in the sense that both African philosophy and postmodern thought express identity through dualisms and multiplicities, jazz takes this idea and runs with it. The best jazz these days is and isn’t jazz. So we needn’t run from the crossover impulse. It’s cursed us with some miserable music. But trust me—it’s a blessing.