The Battle Lines of Contemporary Jazz: A Review of Icons Among Us

by tigermanifesto


One contradiction all documentary films have to navigate is that between breadth of scope and depth of analysis. Dwelling on a single aspect of a subject for a long time will take away from the finite time for other aspects. Attempting to summarize an entire genre of music, even just its contemporary moment, could lead to a weightless work, one that skims over so much so quickly that it fails to make substantial points about its subject matter. Icons Among Us, released in 2009, guides listeners through the fractious, often obscure and esoteric world of contemporary jazz. Despite lasting only ninety minutes, it manages to hold its dazzling array of content together because the whole project is grounded in a fascinating conflict. It develops the conflict through interviews, musical excerpts, and historical digressions, presenting the listener with a coherent, though necessarily complicated and incomplete, picture of the struggle for the future of jazz. In the process, Icons Among Us manages to depict jazz as it should be: an open debate, both friendly and highly contentious. Unlike the borderline hagiographical classicism of Ken Burns’ turgid Jazz documentary, Icons Among Us finds a way to present the art form as a living being rather than a museum piece. 

To simplify greatly, the documentary devotes attention to four perspectives on jazz. These perspectives all must grapple with the cultural and commercial decline of jazz in the United States. The latter gets special attention, especially given the fact that, under capitalism, culture gets its funding through surplus value production. Record labels expect jazz to conform to the same profitability standards as Top 40 radio, though on a lesser scale, meaning that musicians are put in a bind. This contradiction between profitability and artistic integrity receives more than a few mentions, with musicians either meekly coping with financial pressures, outright rejecting the importance of money to their art, or accepting it as a normal part of their business. The four perspectives are:

  1. Classicism in the Wynton Marsalis/Jazz at Lincoln Center vein. Notably, this is the only jazz institution mentioned in the film that seems financially solvent. White patrons, it seems, are more willing to fund the Marsalis’ suit-and-tie formalism than radical experimentation.
  2. Europeans. Though pianist Robert Glasper scoffs at the trend of Europeans playing jazz, noting how their classical training restricts their ability to understand the music, interviews with Dutch musicians show that the European market for jazz is far healthier than the American one. One often hears these days about American musicians playing to sold-out venues in Europe far larger than the claustrophobic clubs that have to do the legwork of financing much of the American jazz scene.
  3. New blood. Musicians like bassist Esperanza Spalding and Brian Blade talk about the simple joys of making music despite the difficulties. In contrast to the fourth group, which is also composed of mostly young musicians, this group is less political and tended to be associated with more accessible music.
  4. Anti-classicists. Robert Glasper, Matthew Shipp, and Nicholas Payton represent for this group, though the latter has been far more vocal since the documentary wrapped up. Glasper openly mocks the idea that jazz no longer produces geniuses, defiantly suggesting that those who don’t think you can be as good as John Coltrane are mistaken. Shipp, meanwhile, offers a “fuck you” to those who want to pin jazz down to a single sound or cultural scene. Readers should know I am most sympathetic to this group.

All of these perspectives get roughly equal shares of time, and the documentarians do not indicate their own allegiances. In tone the film is optimistic and breezy, giving air to the arguments but focusing on the music first and foremost. Given that the music forms the subject over which the debate is raging, that seems correct. After all, what better argument could you have for your own interpretation of a musical genre than a piece of music? Though I would, predictably, have preferred a more politicized piece combatting the crust of traditionalism––and exposing how it’s complicit in the white bourgeois attempt to redefine black music for its own purposes––I concede that the presentation here is elegant and at least acknowledges that jazz is in a great deal of trouble without slipping into defeatism. Even if you are pessimistic about the future of jazz in the United States, the music found in Icons Among Us, complemented by special features on the DVD, should convince you that there’s no shortage of brilliant talent still working in dialogue with the tradition.

While it’s nothing spectacular and for much of it stiffly adheres to the informational documentary form, Icons Among Us brings the music and the debate to the center. I would encourage those interested in jazz today to give it a watch. It’s one of the few documentaries to summarize such a broad topic in a dialogical and coherent manner, and for that it should be commended.