Ed L. recently did a sweet post about Eric Von Schmidt and the Cambridge folk scene of the 1960's. I commented thusly:
Growing up in Boston/Camb., I was a jazz, not a folk guy, but the "jazz life" seemed a mixed blessing, and the group of people you talk about here represented a way of approaching life that was very compelling to me.
Also, in our teens, we're drawn to artists slightly older than us in a way that I don't think we ever feel again; the romantic promise of Art, I suppose, that experience erodes.
So: Given how important the cultural mythology of a particular music and its makers is to young people, it might seem astonishing that anyone under 40 continues to want to play jazz. The audience shrinks. There is no Miles. There is no Trane. Nor is there an Ella or a Sassy; only boxed set relics. Wonderful musicians abound in 2011, but none represents that kind of gravitational cultural pull.
I've posted often about the special case of New Orleans, but this phenomenon is national. Yes, the mass of young musicians has gravitated toward guitars, rap, DJ'ing, etc. but somehow, despite its detachment from the cultural mainstream, jazz continues to carry enough weight to strike a chord with young musicians. That a 16 year old in 2011 should be compelled by a saxophonist who played in 1941 might seem odd, but really, how should we measure a 70 year musical cycle of influence?
It's reasonable to assume that an Ionian flutist in 350 B.C. played pretty much the same way as one playing in 250 B.C. Or, that Lute players improvising madrigals used the same musical framework for at least 100 years.
Yes, I know, the accelerated pace of life, etc., undermines the comparison. But, even though the Next Great Gizmo goes from version 1.1. to version 22.2 in months, slower cycles continue to remain at work. The earth still takes about 365 days to orbit the sun. Human gestation remains 9 months. And most importantly, perhaps. our hearts have probably been beating at the same rate for millions of years.
Music is heartbeat. Improvisation is assuming the heartbeat will be there and deciding to take a risk and see what happens.
Something essentially improvisational has been hard-wired into homo sapiens. There has always been jazz and always will be and the distance between 1941 and 2011 is less than you might think.