In 1959, when Whitney Balliett, the New Yorker
's jazz critic, published a collection of his columns, he titled the book The Sound of Surprise
. The promise of the unexpected, wrote Balliett, was jazz's most precious quality. In a year which went on to include the release of trumpeter Miles Davis
' Kind of Blue
(Columbia), saxophonist John Coltrane
's Giant Steps
(Atlantic), pianist Dave Brubeck
's Time Out
(Columbia) and saxophonist Ornette Coleman
'sThe Shape of Jazz to Come
(Atlantic), you could say Balliett was stating the obvious.
Five decades on, surprises in jazz are harder to find; great swathes of the music are locked in replication, the endless rehashing of past glories. And five decades after Balliett's book, the DNA of the musicians has changed, too; college courses churn out alumni for whom jazz is more a career than a calling. There is nothing wrong with the preservation of repertory or the acquisition of technical excellence, but without passion, and an engagement with the wider world, no music will prosper.