Jazz Under Fire
Recent conversations about the relevance of jazz have inspired me to write a different perspective that I hope will cause people to see the discussion from a fresh vantage point.
One thing I would like to say first is that the New Yorker reposting the Onion article was disrespectful to an amazing musician, Sonny Rollins, who has been an inspiration to many. His mastery of the saxophone has been an inspiration to musicians the world over and the example of self-introspection he set by re-inventing his sound at the height of his career, should be a lesson to anyone who feels that they have mastered something.
I understand the purpose and role of satire but it is possible to cross the line of respectability especially if the article is published in a magazine that is considered “respectable.” Yes we live in a free society and you can say anything you want but there is a reason fringe commentary is called “fringe.”
Jazz is part of a people’s culture and identity. It’s as if someone published a satire about famed Indian Classical musician Ravi Shankar saying that he disliked playing his own cultural music. Yes you can write a satirical piece on that topic but it is distasteful to say the least, just like the New Yorker article was.
There is an amount of reverence for jazz just as there is for any other indigenous cultural art form. Yes Jazz is part of American music history but more to the point, it was created in and is a part of African American history. It was a way for African Americans to define themselves within a society that historically devalued them.
Similar to the New Yorker article the Washington Post article was just as irreverent but more importantly this article was not satire but a bona fide opinion. It calls jazz “boring, washed up and overrated.”
When some people refer to jazz they think they are just talking about a style of music that is disassociated with a cultural group. Jazz like the Blues, Funk and Hip Hop, is a gift to the world from African Americans. If you don’t understand it, think it’s boring, or “overrated” that’s more of a statement on your inability to dig deeper to see why you think that way when so many have been enriched by it.
The author states:
“I studied jazz while an undergraduate at Wesleyan University and had the privilege of learning from, at varying distances, some of the genre’s great performers and teachers, including Anthony Braxton, Pheeroan akLaff and Jay Hoggard. I appreciated that these generous African American men deigned to share their art at a quite white New England liberal-arts school. But I just didn’t get their aesthetic. Like cirrus clouds or cotton candy, I found jazz generically pleasing, but insubstantial and hard to grasp.”
His inability to grasp jazz may be because he learned it in school and not in the environment from which it was born. Jazz came out of the clubs and the hunger for musicians to express more of themselves than what the repetitive arrangements that they were playing allowed them to. After playing stock arrangements in Cab Calloway’s band all night Dizzy Gillespie wanted to dig deeper into the chord changes and fellowshipped with other like-minded musicians like Charlie Parker to do so. Jazz was their mode of survival, of communicating and sharing their emotions. It was hardly insubstantial to them and if you want to grasp it, then I suggest learning about the context that it was created in.
Let me address his concerns point by point. The author’s reasons for not liking jazz are:
- Jazz took away the lyrics
- Improvisation is not what it’s cracked up to be
- Jazz stopped evolving
- Jazz is “mushy”
- Jazz let itself be co-opted
Jazz took away the lyrics
The reason the musicians took away the lyrics was to be able to explore the harmonies and intricacies within the song. Yes lyrics are an important part of a song but removing them doesn’t make the performance any less, just different.
Improvisation is not what it’s cracked up to be
Depending on who you’re listening to, improvisation can be inspiring. To spontaneously create something profound in real time is exhilarating not just in jazz but in any art form. That’s what makes watching a skilled dancer create moves on the dance floor so fun. That’s what makes watching sports so engaging. We know the plays but it’s the audibles that create the drama. Jazz is just as inspiring. Hearing Dexter Gordon come up with funny quotes of nursery rhymes or listening to Coltrane blaze through a complex passage lets us know the possibilities of human creativity and musical mastery.
Jazz stopped evolving
Jazz is always evolving. It incorporates any music that it comes in contact with. Just like the Yoruba religious practice of recognizing saints and deities from other religions as forces of energy and incorporating them on their altar, jazz recognizes other music forms as viable expressions of music ideas and incorporates them to create new forms of jazz. Hence we have Latin Jazz, Jazz Rock, Jazz Funk, Hip Hop and Jazz, Pop Jazz, Jazz Klezmer, you name it. The only time jazz will stop evolving is when music stops evolving. There will always be an improvisational form of any existing genre of music.
Jazz is “mushy”
I’m not sure but I think his implication here was that Jazz incorporates too many other styles and is thus undefinable. That’s why there are suffixes and prefixes. We all know that Latin Jazz will sound different from Pop Jazz. The terms New Orleans Jazz and Hard Bop refer to different historical styles and that’s why these terms are around, to define the various styles of Jazz that people create. There is unity in the diversity however and the key elements are swing, improvisation and Blues, these exist in all styles of Jazz.
Jazz let itself be co-opted
This is an interesting statement. I don’t think anyone “lets” themselves get co-opted. I think what happens is that people realize they need to make a living and start making compromises that they wouldn’t make if they had the income they needed to survive. That said some artists genuinely want to create more popular music and that’s not a co-optation, that’s a choice.
He also says that Jazz has “left the nightclub for the academy.” Even though there are less jam sessions as there used to be, they are still happening and musicians are still coming together to share the experience of musical improvisation.
One statement that I felt stood out was the one that said:
“[Jazz] is shielded from commercial failure by the American cultural-institutional complex, which hands out grants and degrees to people like me.”
If commercial success is his only marker of success then what does he think about art in general? Personally I feel art plays an important role in society by pushing the boundaries of creativity and showing what is possible within various art forms. Jazz has done that consistently in music and yes for the most part without commercial success. Being musically creative is the focus in Jazz not commerciality.
Jazz could find popularity and commercial success if there was a broader understanding of music in our society. Our society’s low tolerance and understanding for more complex music is most likely due in part to a lack of support for music education in our schools.
The true spirit of Jazz is not about dollars but sense. The music is about making sense and meaning out of life’s events and performing it on your instrument whether you get paid or not. Unfortunately, that’s what creates problems sometimes because club owners and labels know musicians love to play and play for the love, so they have historically taken advantage of that. But I digress.
Jazz is like a hard-earned and well-deserved relationship that took time to build but has a solid history and its own code of inside jokes and unspoken understanding. There is depth to the music that has to be sought after to be appreciated. As an elder told me, “it won’t come to you, you have to come to it.” And when you do the reward is not an “elevator shaft” experience as the author described but a mountaintop moment of hearing new vistas of sound and rhythm.
Let me be clear, I by no means want to force him to like a certain genre of music. I respect anyone’s right to like or dislike any music because we all have tastes. However, not liking something and disrespecting it are two different things. The writers of these articles should know and respect that Jazz is part of an historical lineage and that there are those who do like it, scratch that, love it.