Chosen to stir debate

For someone whose stated intention is simply to play music, jazz trumpeter Jeremy Pelt doesn’t hesitate to express strong views regarding the state of the form.

Perhaps this is a measure of how seriously he takes his trade. Or maybe his role as a young emissary of jazz means that he cannot feign disinterest while debates rage in the exciting world of jazz philosophy.

Born in 1976, the year Soweto students famously stood their ground against apartheid education, Pelt is a jazz modernist keenly aware of what keeps jazz timeless.

If jazz critics, or indeed the entertainment business, had not abused the phrase “the next big thing”, Pelt could be described as such when he first emerged from the famous Berkleey College.

Pelt is known for his “clean” sound, à la Chet Baker, and has been anointed by some critics as the natural successor to Freddie Hubbard.

Along with the likes of Nicholas Payton (born in 1973) and Roy Hargrove (born 1969), Pelt is the keeper of the tradition that found its voice when African slaves created a new form after being shipped to a strange land. More importantly, the trio, like Terrence Blanchard and James Morrison a decade before them, dispel the ridiculous notion that jazz is an old man’s art.

As fans going to the Cape Town Jazz International will find out, the debate raised by Branford Marsalis — when he said that the jazz world has ceased to offer anything new — is far from concluded.

The respected Marsalis, saxophonist and brother of Wynton, caused waves when he decried the lack of originality in contemporary jazz.

Marsalis told a South African journalist: “For inspiration, I listen not to jazz, but the classics. Jazz does not teach me anything I don’t know.”

I relay the comment to Pelt.


“Did he say that? I couldn’t disagree more. There are fewer venues than in the 1950s and 1960s — that is the problem. There are a lot of gifted people out there. There is new music being played everywhere. It is not going to come to you; you’ve got to go and find it. The likes of Norah Jones are not brought to you; you really must go out there to hear the new music.”

Then he lays into Marsalis.

“He owns a record label, but I have never seen him … at venues where this music is being played. You’ve got to go to the trenches to get this sound, to places where you find that the band is paid $100 — for the whole band.”

Pelt says shrinking budgets and impresarios eager for an easy dollar are responsible for the faulty impression that all the possibilities of jazz have been exhausted.

As he sees it, the debate about the new sound is often obfuscated by agents and marketers overly keen to announce “the chosen one”.

Pelt is unimpressed by the self-appointed critics who announce the coming of the “chosen one”. Their choices are often influenced by marketing considerations.

“They chose Wynton Marsalis. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that he was not deserving of it, but Marsalis was young, black and played classical music and jazz. He had the ‘it’ factor.”

For these reasons, he eschews the vocation of choosing. He is his own man and will not wait for “choosers” to confirm his place in the genre.

“It is not my decision whether I get chosen or not. Things happen for a reason. Sometimes, in this business, there are honest intentions, and sometimes there are not. All I want is to prosper playing my own music. I don’t need to be associated with or be known as a spokesperson for jazz.

“All I want is play music, and I hope you will dig it.”

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