In Defense of Jazz
Jazz, once revered as America’s classical music, has come in for a beating lately at the hands of popular culture. How did it go from such an august status to one where it exists in the imagination simply to be mocked?
Jazz, once revered as America’s classical music, has come in for a beating lately at the hands of popular culture. A music with its origins in the poorest enclaves of American society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, jazz rose to become a symbol first for a kind of celebration in the face of oppression, then a renegade cool, and—increasingly—an intellectual richness and artistry. How did it go from that august status to one where it exists in the imagination of American popular culture simply to be mocked?
The trend may have begun with The Simpsons, whose creator is a musician himself, and whose portrait of jazz is, if often critical, nonetheless loving. One of the main characters, second-grader Lisa, is a baritone saxophone player and jazz aficionado. One episode features a scene at a record store, complete with detailed renderings of jazz album covers in the background from Coltrane, Dolphy, and even Carla Bley. Yet in that same episode (wherein Lisa’s mother has to pay one of Lisa’s friends to go listen to jazz with her), and throughout that series’ long life, there have been many barbs directed at jazz, from comments like Bart’s grumbling “no one actually likes jazz that much—even the guy playing it had to take drugs” to the motto of the local jazz station: “154 Americans Can’t Be Wrong.”
A somewhat harsher reproof came on September 20, 2006, with Stephen Colbert’s parody of John Zorn. Zorn had just won the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and Colbert played a clip of one of Zorn’s more abstract flights on saxophone, followed by himself trying to make some sounds on the horn. Finding (as one would) the results not dissimilar, Colbert defiantly holds out his hand and, looking squarely at the camera, says “Genius Grant, Please!”
Some years later there came the out-of-nowhere broadside on an episode of the TV series The Office, in which one of the characters is sitting on a park bench with another, a woman who is upset and feeling stupid. Her sympathetic co-worker, trying to assuage her, ventures a non sequitur: “You’re not stupid…jazz is stupid.” To which she responds, “I know. Jazz IS stupid!” Sobbing, she continues, “Just…play the right notes!”
Even the comic genius Jack Black, married into jazz royalty as the son-in-law of storied jazz bassist Charlie Haden, got in on the act, devoting an entire album—an entire album, released on Columbia records no less!—to a humorous takedown of jazz. The two 20-minute tracks feature Black’s guitar noodling over an up-tempo rhythm section while he sort of sprechstimmes an absurdist rant about jazz, along the way mocking the emptiness of aimless improvisation and the genre’s inherent unpopularity.
In the blogosphere things have not been much better. A wickedly sarcastic blog appeared not long ago called jazzistheworst, intending to expose the current state of the music as one in which supposedly deep but actually intellectually arid musicians with an overly inflated opinion of their cultural worth are awarded grants of great financial magnitude, so that they might play for a vanishingly tiny audience of mostly music students. The blog is not as far from the jazz mainstream as one might think/hope—it is avidly followed by such important figures of today’s jazz world as Christian McBride, who seem sympathetic to its ideas.
Things really came to a head with the 2014 New Yorker piece entitled “Sonny Rollins: In his Own Words,” wherein Sonny Rollins, supposedly speaking for himself, regrets his wasted life, saying that he hates jazz music and that Miles Davis felt the same, among other things. “Jazz is the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with” is among the lines.
This strange, not-very-successful satire really got the juices flowing among jazz lovers. Much to the surprise of the writer (a part of what one might call Generation Onion, who take for granted a subgenre of spoof written from the perspective of a public figure imagined to be saying things they would never actually say), there were many jazz fans who simply didn’t get the joke.
So The New Yorker later published a disclaimer stating that the article was a work of satire (indeed, the piece being not that funny didn’t help the confusion). Various pundits weighed in, some supporting the article and saying that jazz had lost its sense of humor, some saying that a Great American Art Form had been gratuitously slandered.
These may seem like isolated incidents, but they are not the only examples in an alarming pattern of offhand derision and dismissal of jazz in popular culture. Why are these media denizens suddenly picking on jazz? What does it mean?
1. What’s Wrong with Jazz?
Jazz has been an art form in perpetual evolution, since its most embryonic appearances in the late 19th century. However, things changed significantly in the genre in the late 1960s, for three principal reasons: first was jazz’s growing awareness of itself as a capital-A Art form and the concomitant rise of an avant-garde wing of the music; second was the beginnings of jazz education, from play-along tapes to university programs, which marked the entrance of jazz, formerly a music taught through a kind of apprenticeship system, into the academy; and third and not least was Beatle-mania and the ascendance of rock ‘n’ roll, which precipitated jazz’s traumatic loss of cultural dominance. The rise of jazz fusion, an attempt for jazz to regain its footing in the popular imagination, which, despite generating some interesting music, was overall not a wholly successful enterprise.
Avant-garde jazz, whose formation was nourished by the political changes and general freedom zeitgeist of the ‘60s, did not, by and large, share the intellectual substrate of much avant-garde classical music, where freedom was nonetheless constrained and wholly governed by invisible and inaudible—but no less real—compositional techniques. An effort to find freedom through emphasis on improvisation and tonally exotic playing was created and then sustained by some immensely strong musical personalities—first mavericks like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, then more centrist, galvanizing figures like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. With Coltrane’s death and Miles’s departure into fusion, and then from the scene generally, there was a vacuum at the top that was too often filled by epigones who profited from their associations with these masters to purvey what often amounted to a brand of musical snake oil.
Meanwhile, jazz fusion and its commercial descendant smooth jazz, occasionally rising to the levels of popularity that were unknown since the days of Armstrong and Ellington, met with derision and scorn from the jazz establishment itself. This backlash was itself not sufficiently interrogated, as Columbia jazz scholar Chris Washburne has noted. After all, Miles Davis himself never went back to acoustic music after his initial experiments with jazz-rock in the late 1960s. But it’s difficult to argue that most smooth jazz has the musical sophistication and nobility of spirit of the greatest jazz that came before it.
As the ’70s rolled on into the ‘80s, a neo-traditionalism also emerged as a reaction to both electronic and avant-garde jazz, wherein musicians like Scott Hamilton and Harry Connick, Jr. would unabashedly attempt to re-create the jazz of an earlier time. This contributed to the perception in some quarters that jazz was a thing of the past, strictly nostalgic. And while this style of jazz continues to produce artists who are able to have strong careers (Gregory Porter and Melody Gardot would be examples), it often struggles to capture the “je ne sais quoi” of the great masters of the past that it strives to emulate and, whatever the case, it doesn’t really contribute to a sense that jazz is a vital art form, relevant to contemporary society.
A more “modern” but still ultimately traditional group of musicians worked in the aesthetic space opened up by Miles and ‘Trane in their acoustic, mid-‘60s avatars—the Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams on the one hand, and the Quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. These musicians worked at codifying and building on the intellectual facets of their visionary progenitors’ work, and it was this strain that was taken up so wholeheartedly by the academy. But in the absence of the volcanic presence of its creators, the music began to feel less like a unified whole, thus more easily broken down into technical features that, in isolation, did become mockable—the way-too-long solos, the formal and harmonic obfuscation in the name of freedom, and the cascades of theory-inspired, virtuosic, but ultimately self-involved and uninteresting improvised lines that began to just sound, indeed, like a bunch of wrong notes.
As a musician coming up in jazz music in the 1990s, I was extremely sensitive to jazz’s genre-wide issues and had many more qualms than most of my peers regarding the music. Long before these pop-culture parodies emerged, it was vividly clear that jazz was not moving in a direction that would lead to broader cultural relevance. And indeed, the genre continues to thrive in largest part thanks to its increased presence in the academic context, a radical increase in foundation support, and the benefits accorded to specialist forms by the web and narrowcasting.
There are numerous reasons for this decline, socioeconomic factors perhaps foremost among them. But the jazz community does tend to treat its artists with a lack of critical distance. The great legends can do no wrong. There’s an odd defensiveness behind jazz lovers’ insistent idolization of their favorite players, as if they need protection from something. I’m convinced that this lack of critical distance has played a part in jazz’s decline. If we aren’t willing to see things as they truly are—if we aren’t willing to treat our greatest jazz musicians as human—how can the art form move forward?
2. But What’s Even More Wrong with Pop Culture Itself?
Okay, so we can all agree that jazz has problems. But does this justify the attacks to which it’s been subjected in the popular culture?
I’ve been thinking a lot about what exactly has made me so uncomfortable with these critiques. It feels to me that in order to be critical of something you have to have something better to offer.
I looked up the definition of “profound.” What makes something profound? Dictionary.com gives as its first definition “penetrating or entering deeply into subjects of thought or knowledge.” I doubt if the well-paid writers of commercial comedy shows such as those mentioned earlier, for all their talent, consider such thorough explorations of their subjects to be a goal.
This is manifest in the critiques’ lumping of jazz’s various and diverse strands under one umbrella. They necessarily gloss over the fact that there are so many varieties of jazz, each with its different strengths and foibles. Underpinning this is the idea that it’s okay to mock something one doesn’t understand. That encourages a complacency that’s completely at odds with any kind of spiritual or intellectual growth.
What all the snarky attacks on jazz have in common is a cleverer-than-thou nonsensicality. When the goal is to be nonsensical, any thought or idea is defensible. Down that path lies nihilism. Disconnected from any higher goal, unwilling to assert positive belief, much of today’s pop culture surrenders any claim to a deeper significance.
At least jazz—indeed, even at its worst!—is aiming for higher goals. Jazz music springs from a rich tradition, it is rooted in the best work of the past, and is tasked with somehow encompassing and expanding on that enormous intellectual and spiritual tradition, in a way that resonates with a culture of ever diminishing attention spans, of ever diminishing ideals.
3. What’s RIGHT About Jazz?
If even the worst of jazz seeks depth and meaning in a way that quirky pop culture is at pains to avoid, the best of today’s jazz can be transcendent.
I’ve had the pleasure to work with some really wonderful artists from the jazz world, and the most successful among them—people like Luciana Souza, Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, the great drummer Jeff Ballard, Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus—all evince an acute day-to-day concern over the pitfalls of jazz. These are not, by the way, the musicians that come in for a mocking at the hands of blogs like jazzistheworst. They take it for granted that engagement with an audience is paramount. But they also are daily trying to better themselves musically, to make the best artistic statements they can muster.
These musicians subscribe to the idea that the best art is born from a true humility, a constant opening of the senses, a constant attention to the reports of everyday experience, a constant striving for excellence, an obsession with not only craft but with wit, pathos, humor, charm, and ultimately with the highest artistic goals.
So let’s heed the call of these pop-cultural armchair jazz critics. Let’s play shorter solos, and yes, let’s play the right notes! Let’s pay attention to what’s outside ourselves, and not just play for vanity. Let’s take a stand for what really matters, what’s really most important, let’s give only the very best of ourselves to our art. But in doing so, let’s know that we’re aiming to go way beyond those who are content to take others down by a kind of weak cynicism and a cowardly hiding behind absurdity. All of us, jazz artists and critics alike, can do better than that.