Monday, April 5, 2021

Is music stagnating? and for how long? [What happened to progress?]

Last Saturday I posted a video of a conversation between Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington along with some commentary and transcription. I sent it to my friend, Bob Krull, whom I’ve know since my faculty days at RPI. We’ve been emailing back and forth about music, mostly technical “how-to” stuff, but other things as well. He asked some questions, and I gave some answers.

What follows below is an edited version of the longest of those answers. It takes off from a remark that Bernstein in the middle of the conversation. He noted that tonality had become and issue in classical music. A lot of music was being written that doesn’t have a tonal center, or a coherent progression of tonal centers. This music hasn’t found a very large audience. Is there a future for music without tonality? (Bernstein thinks not.)

The question then: What’s the future of music? It’s useful to remember that this conversation took place over a half century ago, in 1966.

* * * * *

A standard history of classical music depicts it as a (logical and coherent) progression of styles. We start back in ye olden days with Renaissance, then Baroque, then Classical [Haydn to, say, Brahms], Romantic, Impressionist, and…various things. There’s the 12-tone music of Schoenberg and friends, whatever the hell Stravinsky was up to, and so forth. The thing is, after about the Impressionists the audience begins to drop off. And with Schoenberg, tonality is pretty much gone. Stravinsky was sometimes tonal, sometimes not. Bartok and Shostakovich, call it extended tonality. But then you have experimentalists like Cage who toss out all the rules and it seems like anything goes. That’s where classical music is when Bernstein offers his remarks.

Jazz has a similar story. We start with so-called ‘traditional’ jazz in New Orleans and elsewhere. Obviously they didn’t call it traditional at the time; it was just “jazz” or “jass.” Then we have swing, which had established itself as THE popular music by the 30s and stayed there into the 40s. That’s where we find Ellington. He certainly did well financially, but he was black and didn’t do quite as well as, say, Benny Goodman or the Dorsey’s, or even Harry James (where Sinatra go his start). And a lot of swing was sweet and syrupy and didn’t really swing all that hard – ever hear Guy Lombardo (who Louis Armstrong admired a great deal)? Swing was big band music and, as such, was a composer’s and arranger’s game. There were vocalists and there were instrumental soloists; but they simply took the parts assigned to them in the overall arrangement. Some of the instrumental soloists found that rather confining and they, along some fellow travels, formed bebop. Bebop was mostly a small group music given over to soloists, though Dizzy Gillespie would put a big band together every now and then. Bebop gave way to cool and hard bop and modal and then so-called ‘free’ jazz. And that’s where things stood when Ellington and Bernstein had their conversation. Ornette Coleman had come east a couple of years ago and Coltrane had gone beyond modal to free (he’d die in ’67).

The point of these two just-so stories is that they follow a coherent progression of stylistic invention, with each style following out of the previous one in an intelligible way. Of course it’s not quite that simple, things never are, etc. But it’ll do.

What happened next? Well, various things. But as far as I can tell, WHAT ISN’T NEXT is a coherent evolution from what had gone immediately before. The story of stylistic succession has seemed to come to a halt and something else is going on. Progress seems to have stopped, run into an absorbing barrier of some kind.

In jazz, so-called “free” jazz kept on going. [For an account of what it's like to play free jazz, see my post, Free Jazz: A William Perker Workshop.] A couple years later we have jazz-rock fusion, which proved very fruitful. It’s still with us. It seems to me that Snarky Puppy, for example, is out of that, add in a little funk. And then in the late 70s and 80s you have Wynton Marsalis and the so-called Young Lions, who disavowed free jazz and fusion and went back to the older styles, mostly bebop and modal, but even older as well. That’s what became enshrined in Lincoln center and other places too; as I said, that’s the core of the academic jazz curriculum. Why do you think Barry Harris (teacher of bebop piano) is all over the place on YouTube? Now, you have someone like Adam Neely (contemporary bassist with a large YouTube following) who, when he isn’t posting pedagogical material, occasionally posts some of his own stuff. That seems to come out of fusion, with some odd meters thrown in, perhaps from some forms of rock but other musics as well (the Balkans, the Middle East, India). I really don’t have much of a sense of what’s going on across the contemporary scene, but I do think it’s bebop-modal plus other stuff.

Classical? There’s lots of outside stuff going on. There’s electronic. And there’s whatever Neil Rolnick (on the faculty back at RPI) and his buddies were up to. As I recall he spent a year in Paris at Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM (?); Boulez was an arch serialist. And then in the 70s and 80s so-called minimalist music emerged, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and others. This is tonal music, but quite different from the 19th century.

And the instrumentalists are getting better and better.

You might want to hunt out a documentary on Netflix called “Quincy.” It’s about, guess who? Quincy Jones. He’s a prodigiously talented musician. He started out in jazz in the 1950s, making him a bebopper. Thus he put a big band together for Dizzy Gillespie that went on to tour Latin American for the State Department. A decade later he created arrangements for Sinatra to sing with Basie in Las Vegas. He toured with his own band for awhile and then became an executive in some music company and somewhere along the line wrote film scores. He’s best known, of course, for producing megabits for Michael Jackson. Very inventive guy and still active in nurturing and producing new talent.

* * * * *

But, as I say, there’s no obvious sense of stylistic progression either in jazz or classical. Both seem to be marking time, remixing and matching all over the place. Is musical progress over? Is this all we’re ever going to have until the end of time?

I think not, but I don’t really know. For a more considered account of classical music and jazz, one constructed in terms of cultural ranks theory, see:

William L. Benzon, Stages in the Evolution of Music, Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 16(3): 273-296, 1993,


  1. Is there a reason you focus only on Classical and Jazz in this assessment of whether musical progress is over? Over the past ~30 years it seems to me there's been huge progress in electronic and hip hop music

    1. I concentrate on jazz and classical because the conversation was precipitated by a conversation between a jazz musician (Ellington) and a classical (Bernstein). I note, however, that both electronic music and hip-hop are new forms, which is different from advance in existing forms, though jazz is only decades older than electronic & hip-hop, while classical is older by centuries.