The Future of Jazz Is Here

A status update on America’s signature musical art, from jazz legends to artists tangentially related to the genre.

John Zientek

“Jazz is always moving forward,” legendary pianist Kenny Barron said. “That’s the beauty of our music.” He was right. Because it isn’t tied down to specific instruments, song forms or settings, jazz has grown to encompass an incredibly diverse array of groups and musicians over the 20th century. Regional hotbeds — New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago, New York — quickly developed unique styles and legendary performers, and as the decades passed, musicians forged new paths through the changing landscape. “They are expressing themselves in the only way they know how,” drummer Mark Guiliana said when performers in the 1970s seamlessly incorporated amplification, electronic instruments and elements of rock music into their recordings. “They’re just using the tools they’re presented with at that given time, but the most import thing is the artistic statement, as opposed to the tools.”

The diversity of the jazz world is openly displayed at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, a 10-day celebration of jazz featuring thousands of artists from over 30 countries in more that 650 concerts. The festival takes place in the heart of the city, with sprawling outdoor stages and intimate indoor venues, shutting down major streets and painting prominent buildings with light shows. Drawing an audience of millions — local families, European tourists, jazz lovers from the States — the festival has programming that is wide in scope, but refined in taste. It’s the portrait of jazz in 2016: the legends have headlining concerts, up-and-coming international artists play on outdoor stages and musicians tangentially related to jazz widen the age demographic. Through the evening concerts, the Place des Arts buzzes with a diverse crowd of people, and after the festival’s concerts end for the night, crowds move to small bars and clubs to listen to Montreal’s local jazz talent late into the night.

“The cross-section of artists they bring in is second to none,” said guitarist Adrian Raso, backstage after headlining the outdoor main stage. And though contemporary jazz artists can, at times, seem worlds away from the genre’s roots, they are firmly rooted in the genre’s tenets: experimentation, improvisation, the fusion of influences.

In the world we live in — filled with a constant bombardment of information, talking heads pinning one side against another, rampant injustice, shrinking attention spans — it’s of dire importance that artists continue to make powerful musical statements. You could easily make the argument that jazz music’s diverse and compelling perspectives today are some of the music world’s best reminders of our humanity. Just ask the performers of the 2016 Montreal Jazz Festival.

Ben Jaffe

Photo: Benoit Rosseau
Benoit Rousseau

The creative director of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Ben Jaffe grew up in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The son of the Preservation Hall’s original founders, Jaffe was immersed in the musical culture of New Orleans from a young age. After attending Oberlin College for a degree in music, Jaffe returned to Louisiana to lead the band into the new millennium.

For me, it’s been about capturing the moment in time.

Every now and then someone emerges who takes the genre and elevates it and finds something that makes the experience more robust, and more reflective of what’s happening and the people that are making it. That’s what I’ve always imagined new songs doing for the Preservation Hall Band: instead of us interpreting music, I wanted to find compositions that reflected the personality of all of the band members, and something that captured the energy of where the band is today.

It hasn’t been one gigantic step at the very end; it’s been these incremental movements over the last 50 years. Starting with my father back in the early ‘60s being one of the first white musicians to openly perform with black musicians in New Orleans, which was illegal and unheard of at the time, to that first wave of jazz pioneers gradually passing away, you saw the torch passing on. It’s a beautiful process.

That’s the focus of a lot of our energy: keeping that aspect of tradition alive and intact. The music takes care of itself.

Janne Halonen

Photo: Victor Diaz Lamich

The leader of the Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble, Janne Halonen traveled to Benin in 2009 to learn about the music of the West African country. After teaming up with virtuoso singer/percussionist Noel Saizonou, he learned about the culture surrounding Voodoo and its musical rhythms, and infused them into new musical pieces.

The rhythms from Benin are all related to Voodoo. Like all religions, Voodoo is an extremely structured religion, and so is the music there. All of the rhythms and all of the grooves have a purpose. They are all linked to certain ceremonies: this ceremony, at this time of the year, for this reason, you play this rhythm.

The sound is new. It hasn’t been commercialized or simplified. It’s a little difficult to grasp, but on the other hand you realize that there’s something very specific going on there.

In the ’80s, when people were hearing Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” did they think that this was going to be the signature sound of the ‘80s? When you are living it, you do not necessarily realize what you are a part of until you look back.

The post-millennium time, through the internet revolution, has brought challenges to musicians and the music industry that they haven’t faced before. So I guess those are the questions people are really struggling with: how are people going to get by in the future, how are they going to make a living, what are the income models for future musicians?

Jacob Collier and Snarky Puppy are defining musicians for what’s going on at the moment. They have this big internet presence, and they really use the technology to get their message by. These are smart people, and they have really figured out their way, how to navigate in this new environment.

Musically, I think jazz is more like an attitude than a genre. I guess it’s been like that always. Obviously, to get that attitude, you need to know something about the tradition and you need to have an adequate skill set. But more or less, I think today’s jazz has to do with the attitude behind the music-making.

I’m really happy to see that there are still boundaries to push and still new frontiers to find. I think there’s a lot of interesting things going on in the world of jazz, but the traditionalists might not call it jazz anymore.

Kenny Barron


Honored with the National Endowment for the Arts in 2010 as a Jazz Master, Kenny Barron is one of the most important jazz pianists of post-bebop jazz. Born in Philadelphia in 1943, he has an extensive discography and has been nominated for nine Grammys. Education was a major part of Barron’s career — he taught at Rutgers for 27 years and now teaches at Julliard — and he has mentored a new wave of jazz musicians.

I started performing in jazz over 50 years ago when I was 19. As much as the world has changed, so has jazz. Jazz always changes because it is a reflection of what is going on in the world, in our society at that time. Since I’ve been performing, we’ve experienced the election of the first African-American President, the launch of the internet, the destruction of the Soviet Union, globalization of enterprise and so many other things. As an artist, I reflect some of these developments in my music.

I learn from my students and am inspired by them. There are some who just blow me away with their ability to synthesize their skills with their emotions.

Some of our audiences are coming from other genres because they hear music that appeals to their soul.

I love that the Montreal Festival is both broad in its reach and specific in its intention. They always present musicians that are new to the scene, so I get a chance to meet people who I haven’t known but want to hear. Then there is the openness where the audience can roam from one space to the next and hear something entirely different — all from different parts of the world, but speaking the same language.

Some of what you hear in jazz today is from the head, not from the heart. A part of it is due to jazz education where music has become increasingly intellectual instead of emotional. You need a balance of both mind and emotion.

For a lot of young players it’s like a science project and not so much about connecting. It’s how many subdivisions can I do instead of how can I make someone cry or laugh.



Quebec rapper Wasiu has created a name for himself in Montreal for his own brand of hip-hop. After the divorce of his Nigerian Muslim father and Haitian Protestant mother, he was torn between two worlds, and his music reflects his multicultural upbringing. Wasiu’s new upcoming release, MTLiens features a number of up-and-coming Quebec artists.

I haven’t listened to strictly jazz at all. I grew up listening to pop, gospel, hip-hop/rap, and R&B. I do know, however, that all these genres have incorporated jazz elements or influences into their own. I’d say quite a significant percentage of the beats and rhythms I may use are jazzy themselves. When I make music, I try to give it a balance or wide spectrum of sounds, so I fiend for jazzy elements for sure.

As of right now though, it’s only material from childhood as far as music goes, and my life experiences. My producer friends provide me the canvas, I paint the words and rhythmic flows on it, we work on the post-production and figure out what fits best in this collage of sounds.

The masses will buy into hype or fakeness, but it’s something that I call “fast food music.” You can’t eat McDonald’s five times a day for a month straight. It’s junk food, junk music — you’ll need that real meal eventually.

Adrian Raso


Hailing from Guelph, Ontario, Adrian Raso is the 2012-2013 recipient of the Ontario Arts Council Grant in Popular Music. A versatile musician, Raso can easily jump from Gypsy to Mediterranean without sounding out of place. Teaming up with Gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia, Raso recorded Devil’s Tale, a melding of Eastern-European and Western Traditions.

I originally picked up the guitar after seeing Prince’s video for “Let’s Go Crazy.” I never knew that a guitar could make that incredible sound.

I don’t think much has really changed over the past twenty years. It’s just easier to find the music you’re looking for. I think the fusion of styles is so much easier to conceive these days because of the technology that we’re surrounded by. You can basically source any style of music on the internet within a few clicks. You can collaborate with musicians anywhere in the world. As great as that is, I also believe this has really hurt the music; because things are so easy to acquire, I don’t think the same amount of appreciation goes into experiencing them anymore.

I’m most excited by the traditional folk music of different countries. I find it to be the most pure form of music around today.

It’s a very frustrating time for any genre of music these days. People don’t buy music anymore. You can’t have a world without jazz. But unfortunately it will have to be funded by someone if it’s going to continue to exist. The Arts have been totally eradicated throughout our education system so the younger generation is not being brought up with an appreciation of music history. Having said that, I think jazz artists have to find a way to reach out to the general music listeners. Meeting them halfway is the key to keeping the style alive.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Audio