The new millennium brings with it the formal end of jazz’s 20th century, although serious historians recognize that some elements of the music trace back to roughly two-thirds of the way through the 19th. Yet even with the undeniable brilliance of much that was produced during the Dixieland, swing, bebop, and subsequent eras, as the curtain closed on the American Century, it was apparent that, aesthetically, America’s music is not in the best of shape.

Many critics believe that art benefits from a certain amount of disorder—creative chaos, some might call it. Thus, one could dismiss the unpleasantness among New York critics over charges of cronyism and even racism in trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’s stewardship of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program as philosophical differences that got noisily out of hand during the mid-1990’s. And critics, to say nothing of music industry types, are not immune from their own foolishness: Witness comments at the most recent Grammy Awards denouncing the fine singer-pianist Diana Krall as a “lounge act” or the continuing misguided attempt to define the music of Michael Jackson as rhythm-and-blues. Likewise, one could rationalize the loss of several of Gotham’s important jazz clubs in the last few years—Fat Tuesday’s, the Village Gate, Condon’s, Visiones, and the much beloved Bradley’s—as part of the eternal uncertainty of the music business.

What should be of major concern, however, is the state of the jazz repertory, now growing increasingly stale, and the absence of young new composers with a personal voice or style. In the past, jazz benefited considerably from such talented writer-arrangers as Don Redman, Neal Hefti, Ralph Burns, and many others who worked with big bands, or visionaries such as Duke Ellington, writing for his own orchestra and ably assisted, after 1938, by Billy Strayhorn, who contributed important compositions such as “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Day Dream” —to the band’s repertoire. The advent of be-bop in the 1940’s, with its smaller groups, brought to prominence musicians such as Tadd Dameron, a gifted pianist-arranger adept at reworking older popular standards by writing new melody lines over die original chord changes. In this way. Cole Porter’s 1929 London show tune “What is This Thing Called Love” became, in 1945, Dameron’s bop number, “Hot House.” Famed saxophonist Charlie Parker, although more of an off-the-top improviser than formal composer, used the same method to produce other bop tunes such as “Marmaduke” (a reworking of “Honey suckle Rose”), Ornithology” (written from “How High the Moon”), and “Ko Ko” (from “Cherokee”). These and similar contributions —not just spur-of-the-moment, riff-based “head” arrangements hut distinct, recognizable melodies—by Dameron, Parker, and their be-bop contemporaries remain important in the jazz lexicon.

Around the same time, iconoclasts such as Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk were beginning to develop their own idiosyncratic notions, out of which came the tricky, cerebral Mingus oeuvre that includes “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” “Fables of Eaubus” and “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress (then Blue Silk),” and Monk’s peculiar, atonal compositions such as “Blue Monk,” “‘Round Midnight,” “Criss Cross,” and “Straight No Chaser.” These have never been easy to play, yet they are still performed in clubs and concerts and by repertory groups such as the Mingus Big Band. During the 1950’s, Horace Silver, Benny Golson, and Wayne Shorter rose to prominence, and jazz was subsequently enriched by bluesy, carefully-written Silver numbers such as “Strollin’,” “Doodlin’,” and “Song For My Father,” and Golson’s melodic “Along Came Betty,” “Whisper Not,” and “Stablemates.” Shorter became better known to the public for his work as saxophonist with Miles Davis in the 1960’s and then, in the 1970’s, with the jazz-rock group Weather Report; nevertheless, he has continued to produce intriguing original material, including “The Chess Players,” “E.S.P.,” and “Pinocchio.”

There have been many other musicians with a talent for composition, although perhaps lacking the distinctive personal approach of a Mingus, Ellington, or Monk. A number of them (Sonny Rollins and Gerry Mulligan for example) have always been better known, at least to the general public, as instrumentalists, but this in no way diminishes their contributions. Mulligan’s “Venus De Milo” and “Godchild” are favorites with jazz players, as are such Rollins numbers as “Pent-Lip House,” “Oleo,” “Doxy,” and “St. Thomas.” In addition to countless other jazz originals, and of course the blues, jazzmen have always drawn from the vast treasure-trove of popular songs, many from films and Broadway shows, generally known to the public as “standards.” Musicians have worked with these for decades, turning them into jazz through inspiration, and many of the recordings, such as tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins’ 1939 version of the ballad “Body and Soul” or trumpeter Bunny Berigan’s 1937 recording of “I Can’t Get Started,” are regarded, deservedly, as classics. Both the tunes and the improvisations on them are distinctive and delightful; they remain, however, popular tunes adapted for jazz, rather dian written expressly as jazz.

The new players of the 1990’s, on the other hand, possess little sense of lyrical composition, turning out derivative garden-variety hard-bop numbers written from chord changes without regard for melody and harmony and often played in the same up-tempo 4/4 meter, thereby illustrating the old insiders’ joke that the two scariest words in jazz are “original material.” Even when they lend themselves to the occasional well-constructed solo, these pieces are formulaic and instantly forgettable, doing little to enrich the musical thesaurus. As musician and writer Eric Felten commented recently in the Wall Street Journal, “most jazz musicians look at the melody as something to be raced through to establish the chordal structure that will underpin the more important business of improvisation.” Veteran critic Nat Hentoff disagreed with Felton on the importance of melody in today’s jazz, but Felten’s points about chord structure are valid. And although it is easy to understand the desire of newcomers to be thought of as composers who play their own material, this cookie-cutter approach to creation, recycling pale imitations of much that was recorded and played in the past, is a disservice to music and performer alike.

An art form must perpetually renew itself if it is to remain vital. This is true of literature, of art, of drama—and of jazz. As painting evolved in the late 19th century from Impressionism through Post- Impressionism and Fauvism to other forms and styles, it brought with it new philosophies, new approaches, and new individuals who created lasting treasures. The same had been true of jazz until the last 20 years.

Benny Golson has pointed out that he composes from melody, while Horace Silver, when asked years ago whether he would prefer to play or compose, stated unequivocally his fondness for composition. In fact, the most distinctive jazz composers have usually been people whose basic creative urges led them in that direction, even if they were also excellent instrumentalists. Today, when such jazz classics as Silver’s “Song For My Father” and Ellington’s “Satin Doll,” to say nothing of standards such as “Autumn Leaves” and “The Man I Love,” have been played nearly to death, what the jazz community needs is a new group of mavericks such as Monk and Mingus, or highly articulate musical philosophers such as Ellington, each moving to the beat of his own internal drummer. They are probably, even now, working in obscurity somewhere, hoping to be heard, and the elders of jazz would be wise to seek them out and listen carefully to them. Interesting occasional compositions by other musicians will always be welcome, but nothing beats a sustained personal vision, and that is something jazz as an art form desperately needs as the 21st century arrives.