Ever since "jazz" was coined as a slang term in the early 1900s, its musicians have been innovators.
And while writer Rick Mitchell – a former Houston Chronicle music critic – acknowledges the particular period between 1915 and 1975 as its Golden Age, he refuses to liken the end of that era as the death of jazz. Thus the title of his new book, "Jazz in the New Millennium: Live & Well."
The theme recurs throughout Mitchell's book: Musicians should resist any rigid definition of what is, and what is not, jazz.
"That's a point I felt I needed to make, and I needed to weigh in directly in the introduction," Mitchell says. "That jazz is alive and well.
"So much pop music is about finding the next new thing and then abandoning that thing. I hope to reintroduce the concept of jazz as the hippest music alternative out there. If you want to impress your friends with a piece of music, hand them the headphones and play them John Coltrane's 'Live at the Village Vanguard.'"
"Jazz in the New Millennium," profiles more than 50 musicians who have played in Houston – some of them homegrown talents – from 2000 to the present. They were all brought to town by Da Camera of Houston, an organization that presents jazz and classical music in concert-hall settings. The book was assembled in partnership with Da Camera from the programs Mitchell wrote for many of those shows, which he began doing after he left the Chronicle in 1999 after 10 years on the job.
Da Camera, which was launched in 1987, has enjoyed smart, diverse and forward-thinking programming by Sarah Rothenberg for the past 20 years. During that time, the organization has presented such legendary figures as Wayne Shorter and Roy Haynes. The program also has put a premium on young, rising talent.
"We tend to be always looking ahead to our next jazz series," Da Camera's Leo Boucher says. "But Rick's book has been a chance to look back and realize how comprehensive we've been in presenting the mainstream of jazz to Houston audiences."
Mitchell has been writing about music for more than 40 years. He also has taught high school and college, and spent more than 10 years programming music for the Houston International Festival. He traces his interest in jazz to his mother's old, three-LP collection of Duke Ellington's music. "It was full of hisses and pops, but it had these classic songs: 'East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,' 'Black and Tan Fantasy,' 'Mood Indigo.' That was my portal into it."
He delved deeper into the music after seeing saxophonist Charles Lloyd (who is featured in the book) perform in the late 1960s. He immediately bought Lloyd's "Forest Flower" album, which Mitchell calls "my desert island disc." Free-form radio – a once-popular format in which disc jockeys could play any music they wanted – also enabled him to hear progressive jazz acts like Rahsaan Roland Kirk alongside pop artists like songwriter Joni Mitchell.
As Mitchell began his long career writing about music, jazz began to suffer an identity crisis. Its musicians had long put a premium on innovation, which facilitated its evolution from ragtime to big band to bebop to fusion and the avant-garde. But by the 1980s – for the first time in its history – jazz did not have a dominant new direction.
"There wasn't a new identifiable sub-genre," Mitchell says, "but there were people saying there was no innovation after 1965, which is total (expletive)."
A boring debate ensued between jazz traditionalists, who were protective of the music's past, and those committed to the vanguard. "It consumed so much critical energy, and it just ended in a truce," Mitchell says.
He paraphrases a quote from legendary bassist and composer Dave Holland, who is profiled in the book: "Lots of people have opinions about what jazz should or should not do, but what happens is the music carries on. I don't see one overriding style, but I do see a lot of wonderful statements being made. … I think we need to rejoice in all the different ways this music can be made."
The artists featured in "Jazz in the New Millennium" don't make a collective statement about what jazz is. Taken as a whole they instead ask, "What can't it be?" The answer isn't limitless, but it extends beyond the shores of the United States. In additional to traditional players, Da Camera has booked acts that incorporate sounds from Central and South America, eastern Europe, Africa and the Caribbean into an art form that sprang up in the United States from African-American culture.
Houston musicians also have a strong presence in the book and not simply because they performed at Da Camera shows.
Drummer Eric Harland and pianist Jason Moran bridge past and present. Both are Houston natives and graduates of the storied jazz program at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which has become a feeder for first-call jazz players in New York. Both have not only performed here with Lloyd, but have headlined their own shows.
Moran returns February to premiere "The Rauschenberg Project," a piece commissioned by Da Camera. Drummer Kendrick Scott, another HSPVA alum, will play in March.
The book also features another graduate of the school, Robert Glasper. The pianist enjoyed crossover success with his album "Black Radio," which won a Grammy and was a strong seller, fusing jazz with R&B and hip-hop.
"He made the point that even the avant-garde isn't the avant-garde," Mitchell says. "The avant-garde is 50 years old. So what he's doing is more avant-garde than the avant-garde: taking these jazz impulses and putting them with R&B and hip-hop in a way that's not watered down."
'Jazz in the New Milennium' book signing
Music by Woody Witt and Mike Wheeler
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Cactus Music, 2110 Portsmouth
Upcoming Da Camera performances at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 10
Cécile McLorin Salvant
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 8
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 7
Kendrick Scott Oracle
When: 8 p.m. March 7
When: 8 p.m. April 18
Tickets: 713-524-5050, dacamera.com