What Is Hip?

Modernity and Trends in Jazz Music

“If you’re really hip, the passing years will show.”
“… sometimes hipness is what it ain’t.”

This subject arises from time to time and often enough (in my many years as a jazz educator) for me to stop for a moment to reflect and share my thoughts about it. I was so glad to read the following post from my friend and colleague, alto saxophone great, Donald Harrison. Coincidentally, I was just having a conversation with another colleague the other day about some young students who are misguided regarding their attraction to “modern” players in lieu of those who are aesthetically mature, grounded in various musical traditions, are well informed in a variety musical styles and have developed personalities of their own as instrumentalists and artists.

That word “modern” is a red flag or red herring for me. When I hear it, it’s often used to differentiate between those who are not only young and current, but who also dismiss idiomatic jazz language and blues sensibility as passé and rather, opt for technically adroit, scalar (is that a word?) and pattern-based playing. Those latter characteristics are cool (and valuable) when they’re a part of the overall mix, blended well with the other two – jazz “vocabulary” and the blues – which for us, are the lifeblood of the jazz art form.

“… the goal of jazz is to truly understand all of the contributions of prior jazz masters and all other styles of music at your highest level then integrate that understanding into a universal approach to jazz as an individual and as a group.”

Donald Harrison

What is “modern” today will be old tomorrow or next week. However, what is substantive, captivating and ‘good’, remains so for the duration. In fact, valuable contributions in jazz – whether in the form of a style, an instrumental ensemble, instrumentalist, or playing modality – never really get old and to the contrary, always feel fresh and new. These are the timeless contributions that become classic. The modal style of the Hard Bop period, funky ‘Soul-Jazz, ‘Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, Steely Dan, Miles Davis or Wes Montgomery, Trane changes, the piano stylings of Herbie or McCoy. All of these have become “classic” and are as ‘modern,’ fresh, exciting, captivating and as vital as when they first hit the scene!

I can tell a youngster these things, and I sometimes do when I’m confidant that the info will be received in the loving spirit from which it is given. However, there are those times when I feel that my concern will be seen as a useless harangue and quite possibly a turn-off (like the bitter rantings of an “old-head”). It’s in those instances that I quiet down and back off, with hope that the youngster will eventually figure things out on their own and the realizations come to them naturally and gracefully, through the music. One thing that I realize, having matured in this jazz field from a youngster to an elder, is that the elders usually only share their perspectives if they see potential in you. In that case, they’re sharing with you out of love and care for jazz music.