“Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense”
When “Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense” originally aired on The Documentary Channel in April, 2009, it was a much-heralded and long overdue look at jazz as a modern art form with a history; one that, much as its spirit has always been, relentlessly breaks down artificial borders of gender, genre and culture, and continues to renew and redefine itself. It’s possible to now see jazz as a global entity without ignoring its undeniable roots in the African-American tradition, a point that directors Lars Larson, Peter J. Vogt and Michael Rivoira do in this theatrical release of the film. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard says “History will tell a tale…there’s a movement about of some young guys, that’s the quietest revolution in jazz I’ve ever heard in my life.” The film then proceeds to show the size of this “quiet revolution” with artist interviews that, in addition to Blanchard, include big names like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Bill Frisell, Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Greg Osby and Donald Harrison. But for each high-powered jazz name, there’s footage with emerging artists like Aaron Parks, whose appearances onstage with Blanchard show just one example of how jazz is evolving thanks to the mentoring of artists like Blanchard.
Jazz has always been an oral tradition, passed along from elder to younger in a fashion hearkening back to tribal tradition; but with the club scene drying up in many cities, it’s increasingly difficult for young musicians to get to established players. Parks’ success, despite the unmistakable building blocks he showed when Blanchard recruited him at the age of 18, is a direct result of lessons learned on the bandstand with his mentor. How people perceive jazz is a subject takes up a great deal of the film. The film also touches on the controversies that continue to plague a form that has always been hotly debated. Bebop was hated when it first emerged, as was free jazz; now both of these are the standard against which contemporary innovations are sometimes erroneously measured.
The film shows that there’s still plenty of work to be done and suggests that even when the reverence to the tradition is overt, as it is in some cases (and, in others, not), the music being made today is music of today, and not something so tightly tied to that tradition that it loses its creative edge. Interviews with artists like Matthew Shipp and Greg Osby only further position that, while not denying the tradition from which it came, it’s equally important, in some ways, to reject it, so that the music is unencumbered and free to move forward.
Many feel that this is the best documentary on jazz that’s ever been produced. In just 90 minutes it makes it clear that there’s never been as exciting a time as right now, with artists from around the globe ensuring that jazz will not only remain viable and vital into the future, but that it will continue to reshape and reinvent itself in ways that nobody can predict.
It was filmed at various locations including New Orleans, New York, Vancouver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Portland, and Seattle. What started as a documentary about up-and-coming contemporary jazz artists is actually a celebration of the roots of the creative process and is “a huge part of our US identity.”
Artists and other contributors include:
The Bad Plus
Paul de Barros
Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe
Dirty Dozen Brass Band
Dave Douglas and Brass Ecstasy
Garage a Trois
Garfield and Roosevelt High School Jazz Bands
Donald Harrison, Jr.
Harry Bu McCage
Ali Jackson & Ted Nash
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
Medeski, Martin, and Wood
Jovino Santos Neto
Huub van Riel
Johnny Vidacovich, George Porter, & Eric Krasnow