Back then, jazz was far from being the most popular music in America, but (at least witnessed through the misty lens of nostalgia) there was a palpable sense that it was a music of "the now." Mingus's "Fables of Faubus" skewered Arkansas's segregationist governor, Miles's classic quintets spoke to an anxious, seductive city life, and Coltrane scored his most popular album by covering a tune from a recent Broadway hit, The Sound of Music. When critics and musicians talk about wanting jazz to "matter" again, they're largely talking about this mystical fusion of music, culture, society, and politics—a state in which jazz can move listeners in ways beyond the purely aesthetic.
It's not that jazz musicians have stopped trying to comment on The Way We Live Now, it's that those attempts have felt somehow out-of-touch, forced, or, most often, have fallen on deaf ears. In jazz's "brink of death" phase (Coltrane's death to present), the way the general public perceives jazz has been, increasingly, as an historical artifact of mid-20th-Century America. Segments of the music have never stopped innovating, but mainstream jazz has, by and large, been way too content to keep trotting out "All The Things You Are" (71 years old), "Body and Soul" (a cool 80), and all those other wonderful Tin Pan Alley tunes. When the public thinks of jazz as a music with an already codified language, it's easy to cast attempts at growth as either not jazz (as in the case of the avant-garde) or a kind of pandering to the kids (as with the Bad Plus).
The case of the Bad Plus has been especially vexing. Every time the band releases an album, a few critics accuse it of being "too clever by half" for covering rock and pop songs. To this way of thinking, covering David Bowie is smug because it deploys jazz as a silly novelty (the musical equivalent of the Shakespearean rewrite of The Big Lebowski's script) but covering Jerome Kern is serious because it deploys jazz on the familiar territory of the masters. (Ethan Iverson, the Bad Plus's pianist, addressed the issue a few years back on his blog.)
The idea that jazz is fundamentally a music of the past has a widespread following, fueled, in part, by the way in which jazz is covered in the media. When a general-interest periodical writes about jazz, it's almost always to name-drop its greats: Satchmo, Duke, Bird, etc. A magazine I know well has run two pieces on jazz in the last year: one was about Jason Moran's Monk tribute show at Town Hall (illustrated with a big picture of Monk) and one about a Miles Davis boxed set. Slate's military correspondent Fred Kaplan also serves as its jazz critic; and his pick for the best jazz CD of 2009 was Ella Fitzgerald's Twelve Nights in Hollywood, writing, "the best jazz album of 2009 was recorded in 1961 and '62." Last year was generally considered excellent for jazz recordings with the best albums coming from young, innovative musicians (Darcy James Argue, Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman), but Slate readers could be forgiven for thinking the music to be about 50 years past its prime.
Into this rather depressing state of affairs steps this weekend's Undead Jazzfest. The name is a direct bow shot at those who have long predicted the music's demise. The Undead is everything a jazz festival usually isn't: it features young guns not aging greats, it's cheap ($30 gets you an all-access pass for both nights), and it's in jazz's native habitat (three clubs within a block of each other on Bleecker St., not a sprawling fairground in Newport or Monterey). Among the more than 35 acts are bands like Happy Apple and Fight the Big Bull that could just as easily fall under the "indie" umbrella as the jazz umbrella—a key part of the Undead's audience-outreach plan. Selling jazz to young audiences as a cutting-edge music is audacious and may prove naively optimistic, but it's starkly, glorious opposed to what will only lead to greater decline: the vice-grip of history obsession.
Bonus: Check out the Undead Mixtape: streaming audio from many of the festival's bands