It would be a little dramatic to proclaim that jazz is back at the Pitchfork Music Festival, since it was at best a minor part of the lineup when it was included at all. This year’s roster features two jazz acts: rising-star LA saxophonist Kamasi Washington and venerable space-jazz collective the Sun Ra Arkestra (if you really want to stretch the genre’s borders, you could also include electric bassist Thundercat). That makes 2016 the third time Pitchfork has hosted jazz or improvised music—it’s also the first time since 2007, when Craig Taborn’s Junk Magic, Fred Lonberg-Holm’s Lightbox Orchestra, the William Parker Quartet, and Ken Vandermark’s Powerhouse Sound performed. In 2006 the lineup included 8 Bold Souls, Chicago Underground Duo, and the Jeff Parker/Nels Cline Quartet.
In those early years, festival organizer Mike Reed tried to include artists outside the broadly defined spheres of indie rock and electronic music covered by Pitchfork Media. “The reason we stopped doing jazz,” he says, “was mostly because I realized that I wasn’t booking shows for me.” Ten years later, jazz does seem to be getting more consistent attention from Pitchfork’s writers, though there’s never much at once—especially notable are the frequent contributions of Seth Colter Walls. The latest issue of The Pitchfork Review is dedicated to jazz, with pieces on Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk, Donny McCaslin, Albert Ayler, and Tomeka Reid, among others. Nearly as often as jazz has been declared dead by one media outlet or another, it’s enjoyed a rediscovery by fans, and that may be what’s happening now. Says Reed, “Having more jazz acts at the festival this year is just a reflection of something that’s moving through pop-indie culture as a whole. It’s not unique to Pitchfork.” Indeed, this summer Washington will play at a slew of other rock festivals around the world.
Kamasi Washington and the Sun Ra Arkestra are special cases, though, not just on the Pitchfork roster but also in the world of jazz. Washington, who meticulously channels the cosmic early-70s jazz of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders and has built a studio and a circle of musicians outside LA’s jazz establishment, has become a major attraction thanks in part to his ambitious 2015 three-album debut, The Epic (Brainfeeder). But the public’s interest in him had already been piqued by his significant contributions to popular records by Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus. The Arkestra, which was crazily busy last year leading celebrations of Sun Ra’s centennial, is the ultimate evergreen crossover act, a dynamic and hugely entertaining big band that creates an instant spectacle. It’s been magnetizing rock fans for nearly five decades, and 92-year-old alto saxophonist Marshall Allen has never been better at directing the group through its thrilling mix of free jazz and cosmic weirdness. v