I recently attended a local jazz performance comprised of musicians who had been a part of Atlanta’s jazz scene since the 60s. One performer had even been playing in Atlanta for over 55 years. I was eager to use their experience to trace the timeline of Atlanta jazz, considering cities like New York and New Orleans have such fascinating histories with the genre. The one question I posed to all five musicians led me to the disturbing realization that one of the last American genres was dying fast in Atlanta.
Q: How have you seen Atlanta’s jazz scene evolve over the decades?
A: It hasn’t.
I was stunned. How could a genre be performed in the same area for over 55 years and not change even remotely? Certainly jazz is not easily digestible and its foundations are anti-radio, but even the most difficult music manages to eek out a few distinctive differences among generations.
What depressed me more than the stagnation of Atlanta’s jazz scene was the musicians’ resigned acceptance that their sound had been limited to background music for fancy brunches and the few remaining venues dedicated to jazz survive with steep cover charges or wealthy benefactors.
As a wellspring for hip-hop trends, Atlanta needs to embrace a more thriving jazz scene. The two genres have been bedfellows since pioneering rap groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul constantly referenced jazz legends in their rhymes and especially their production.
Modern producers such as Madlib and Kanye West, especially with his recent track “Blood on the Leaves,” continue to incorporate the moody ambiance of jazz luminaries into their work. Fusing Atlanta’s strong hip-hop tradition with the spontaneity and relentless energy of jazz could birth a new musical niche in Atlanta.
Already, a dedicated class of diverse, young musicians has started to fill in the gaps between the old and the new. The Elliot Street Pub jam session, hosted by Kevin Scott, gathers every Tuesday night to offer promise for the eventual rebirth of Atlanta jazz. Musicians are allowed to explore the improvisational limits of jazz without feeling confined to playing crowd-friendly covers and conforming their sound to maximize tips.
Their jam session starts off with a single, uninterrupted set that typically goes for around 45 minutes, but the only real time limit is decided by the wild impulses of the jam. Unlike typical jazz performances where a band is comprised of a pianist, drummer, bassist and one or two horn instruments, Elliot Street Pub invites guitarists, conga players, electronic instruments and even spontaneous spoken word pieces into the mix.
Following the unwieldy directions of their impromptu solos is like watching a train veering off the rails, flailing in whatever direction gravity dictates. Over the course of one set, the jam session can jump from jazz, funk, noise rock and electronic breakbeats to sounds that genres can’t begin to adequately describe.
Maybe Elliot Street’s ever-changing, ragtag ensemble will mark a new vitality for Atlanta jazz. Maybe their fearless commitment to improvisation will finally take jazz out of the overpriced clubs and the five star restaurants – and give it back to the people. At the very least, I hope that in another 55 years Atlanta jazz musicians will finally be able to say that their music has a new face and a healthy, ever-beating heart.