It seemed like an apocryphal moment. Summer of 1998, Medeski, Martin and Wood were playing Town Hall and the patrons looked a little different from your usual JVC Jazz Festival crowd. Scruffy, neo-hippie-ish Phishheads and the like danced away in the side aisles as the trio bounced through its set of jazzy grooves. Only a few years earlier, the group had announced its populist intentions to jazz elitists by interpolating Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself” into Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” and now they were reaching a big new audience, selling out without actually selling out. Many of us in the jazz community had longed for a moment like this. We were weary of jazz’s consecration as an institutional art. We longed for those days when the music felt organic and dangerous and, well, not so goddamned middle-class. As the trio launched into Horace Silver’s “Cape Verdean Blues” to fans who included folks dancing—dancing!—it seemed as if we’d found it. During the keyboard solo, John Medeski dug deep into the gospelly chords, Billy Martin and Chris Wood dropped out, and just as suddenly as the sermon began, he went into an inspired series of raucous free-jazz dissonances. To me, this was just getting better and better. I smiled at my hardcore jazz-loving friend, who grinned back. But then someone in the aisles yelled, “Stop fucking around!” It appeared there would be a few speed bumps on the road to real crossover.
And there were, but not enough to keep MMW from harvesting the constituency that they have barnstormed across the country for years to cultivate. The likes of guitarists Charlie Hunter and John Scofield and trumpeter Steve Bernstein followed suit, crisscrossing the land to bring jazz that was too wanton for the prim concert halls to juke joints and nightclubs from Boulder to Birmingham and beyond. There was the promise of a new egalitarianism in which leading jazzmen would work with rock instrumentalists and the categorical divide would blur; it would parallel the ’70s, when Duane Allman jammed with Herbie Mann, Jerry Garcia recorded with Merl Saunders, and David Grisman and Joni Mitchell led bands featuring Wayne Shorter, Pat Metheny, and Herbie Hancock.
Six years later, it’s fair to say darn that dream. Some jazz bands were able to cross over into what became jam-band territory, but it was a one-way street. Despite honest efforts from Karl Denson and the Greyboy Allstars, no one from the jam-band circuit crossed back. While chops were an issue, a bigger problem was that most jamsters doted on the jazzfunk of the early ’70s, and while that music is strong enough to support several club nights at APT, it’s not going to fill the Village Vanguard for a week. In the jazz world, which had already gone through a period of ’60s hard-bop revivalists, ’70s revivalism seemed cute, but only just. At least as important, the incentive for the jammers was slight at best. The jazz world was increasingly marginal and exclusionary; it was much more fun and rewarding to play for large numbers of dancing flower grandchildren than to jump through hoops to appease a few snots.
The concept of an effective fusion of jazz and instrumental rock didn’t die, however—it was just lying low. In stark contrast to the broad populist strokes of the jam circuit, a cadre of musicians in Chicago were paving a better road. The latest generation of improvisers from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians were finding their way into bands with post-rockers from the Thrill Jockey and Drag City circles and vice versa. Both circuits had an abiding love of austere lyricism and minimal grooves. From this fertile alliance have sprung bands like Chicago Underground Trio, Gastr Del Sol, Sticks and Stones, Town & Country, and Tortoise. The complaint most commonly thrown at Tortoise about their latest CD, It’s About You, is that they sound like a jazz band. Maybe they’re just fucking around.