Thursday, April 29, 2010

Blog Responses


I received a few great email responses to my last blog that I wanted to share. Some great perspectives on the State of Jazz and reactions to my question 'Who Killed Jazz?':

I read your blog; I would say it is a little dark and would caution to not fall into a normal hypothesis on who killed jazz, because the media is an easy target. I have every reason to be totally disillusioned when it comes to jazz and performing. This question you asked I have asked myself for many years. At this point I don't consider myself a jazz musician, nor do I care to label what I do, if people ever like it enough to make it possible for me to make a living doing it than great.
Sorry, I digress, to answer your question. I think the death of jazz was perpetrated and set into motion by the founders of bebop. They took the music out of dance halls and held it over peoples heads. This isn't bad, but no fan, no matter how much they love Charlie Parker, could grasp the genius he had, no writer, no critic, no booking agent, he was above them. So what happens, the mass populace embraces it because there is societal pressure to not be left behind by the new sound. I think it was easier for jazz fans at the time of charlie parker and eventually miles davis to embrace jazz because the evolution was happening so quickly and by such large strides that even the most ignorant jazz fan could tell something changed between duke ellington to charlie parker to miles davis. Add to that excitement, people still enjoyed jazz as a popular music during that time, so it would be like there was some not danceable hip hop, as if some hip hop artist would not want people to dance but listen to the words of their songs.
Finally, you have to analyze culture and it's progression. Since the 1960's, American culture has been one of speed and ignorance. We want things fast, easy, and unintelligent. Look at the progress of food in this country. How many fast food restaurants were around america in 1960? So I believe the bebop guys that forced the music into high art indeed got what they wanted, but at the price of demanding how fans interalize and enjoy their music.By this point, generally, the only 20 something year olds willing to learn all they can about jazz are students.
So that is my 2 cents, I am sure blaming Charlie Parker for the demise of jazz is a strange view point, but that is where I am at as of now.

In general, I agree with your point that the jazz media takes some responsibility in promoting a mentality that overly lionizes or annoints certain special musicians. It concocts PR-like stories that resemble not so much people as characters from a story book, or myths. A compelling personal narrative gets good press, but I wonder if the focus on the music doesn't get lost. Then again, to some extent you can't separate the music from the person.

Although I think the media plays a role in jazz's current state, there are any number of reasons why it is the way it is. These factors holistically influence each other, and none of them are independent; everything in the environment exists as one simultaneous whole. It's the audience, it's the media, it's the culture, and it's the musicians. The world is changing. The air we breath is different, the food we consume is different, the political environment is different, and the universe is in flux.

Although "great music" is hopefully universal and timeless, it also arises from a cultural milieu. In one sense, the general culture that birthed jazz has moved on. The classic "American popular standard" format that made jazz (and the jazz language) has changed. Since the 1960s (with certain exceptions, like the Beatles), pop tunes have become less harmonically rich, and they are driven more by lyrics than melodic content. They are engineered for a dance environment (which is not a negative thing). The social dynamics and context at the time of jazz's origins have certainly changed. The function of the radio in disseminating the music is quite different now, if it even still has a function.

Jazz emerges from a general worldview in the culture. In the USA, this is capitalism. The United States is dominated by an acquistive, materialistic outlook; we're a nation of consumers. Money is king. If there is a state religion, it is capitalism (not democracy). We are so conditioned to think in monetary terms and to have a financial outcome in mind for our actions and output.

(Incidentally, I credit Michael Moore in recent years for bringing a significant awareness of the consequences of capitalism, as well as an open critique of its practices, to a more mainstream audience. In recent years, the arch capitalists (the banks which control the government, etc) have racheted up their greed to such heretofore unprecedented levels that the masses finally couldn't ignore it any longer.)

This creates the environment that produces the music. The music industry AND the music is a reflection of our collective cultural values. The main intent of the pop music industry is to sell product. In the past, many artist types generally didn't think like business people; I would submit the music *business* is run merchants, not artists. The
industry people had their eyes on the prize early on, arguably starting with sheet music sales in the early 20th century, followed by "race records", then rhythm & blues, and rock (which it could be said was an attempt by the industry to market white musicians mimicking black artists). Perhaps what is happening today is simply business as usual, albeit on a bigger scale.

It's interesting to note that record companies used to put out albums by artists who, though they were records the company knew wouldn't sell well in the short term, were viewed as an artistic investment. The music world is fortunate that John Coltrane had Bob Thiele as a producer, because Thiele definitely went to bat for Trane in the hierarchy of ABC/Impulse. Can you imagine an album like "Meditations" being recorded and sold today
on a major label by a major jazz artist?

Jazz doesn't make money, but it *could*. Think about it: we have collectively been sold products which are outright dangerous and hazardous to our health (e.g. cigarettes) to enhance our image. The public has been hypnotized to believe they have a need for unnecessary consumer goods to feel complete or to feel secure in their sense of self.
The same people who sell you wars, politicians, or snack foods could most definitely sell you jazz.

Given the right budget, publicists, and media outlets, jazz would sell. It's not a huge stretch of the imagination. NBA basketball sells. If people were exposed to jazz and educated about its practices, it would sell.

So why doesn't jazz sell? Besides being misunderstood, it hasn't been marketed. The jazz media try their best with their resources, but they are selling to a very niche market. (But on the flip side, if one were to water jazz down to a mass market, would it the same thing anymore? Or worth doing at that point?) There have been a few efforts - most recently, Ken Burns' Jazz series on PBS.

Setting aside the show's ideological predisposition, one particular episode was instructive vis a vis the issue of audience exposure. The show quoted a Cecil Taylor remark that his audiences needed to prepare for his concerts before seeing him play, and then cut to Branford Marsalis criticizing that as "self-indulgent bullshit". I would contend, however, that there are concrete reasons that Cecil was grounded in fact, and these reasons are relevant to a discussion of why jazz does or doesn't sell.

Many, many activities and objects within our daily lives are learned or conditioned. They are acquired tastes. Drinking wine, for instance, is an acquired taste, as is generally abstract expressionist art. Cecil is merely saying that to understand his music, you have to understand what he is doing in the first place. (This means preparation.)

Take our example of team sports. In order to understand a baseball game, say, I need to understand what a pitcher is, or what a catcher is, or what a line drive is, or what a pop fly is, or what a homerun is. I need to understand the general rules and flow of the game, or meaning will be missing. Obviously this is a simple observation, but one must understand the terms by which the game is played, or otherwise there is no game. It is all perception. If I do not know the rules of baseball, if I have not done my homework, I cannot appreciate a baseball game on the level of an casual fan, let alone an astute afficionado.

The only reason why the rules of baseball or basketball or et al are so well known is because of their mass popularity. Everyone knows how these sports are played because they are deeply ingrained in the popular culture and psyche. Sports are also body-oriented (as opposed to intellectual) which makes them accessible to a huge audience. Most communities have organized sports teams, and most families probably have at least one sports fan who exposes the children to sports from an early age.

Jazz could be no different. Like team sports, most jazz has a discernable format which could be collectively understood. If the public could gain an appreciation of the head-solos-head format, or the concept of improvising off of a melody or a tune, or the concept of "trading 4s", etc, there's no reason why jazz cannot be appreciated. If people can understand and discuss ad nauseum NFL football plays, there's no reason they can't do the same with a 12 bar blues. Just like sports, the inherent physicality of jazz (the rhythm, groove, body movement, foot tapping) is easily appealing to a general audience.

How does one then encounter or learn to appreciate jazz? For me, it was in a music program in public school. It doesn't help that these programs have been under assault by certain (conservative) social forces for years.

I'll relate another anecdote I found instructive. A good friend of mine in college was from Pittsburgh. During the summers, he would go home and play sessions, hanging frequently with some of the elders or doyens of the community, including Roger Humphries, who used to play with Horace Silver.

My friend learned something from them that stuck with me. Many of the jazz musicians in Pittsburgh cited Ronald Reagan's administration as being responsible for drastic cuts in music education which all but terminated musical training for black people. Apparently they felt that opportunities for jazz or the scene were never the same after that.

This loss of education and exposure has an effect, particularly on the people who might stand to make the most difference. In general, black culture in the United States has been a huge driving force for music in the 20th and now 21st centuries. Truly, the music of the African diaspora has traveled the globe and enormously influenced musical
output. I think the deterioration of the original culture and social context that spawned jazz has had an effect, too.

Even though the case can and should be made that people of various ethnicities (i.e. white, Hispanic, Native American) have contributed to jazz in profound ways (jazz wouldn't exist without Western harmony - you don't find that in Africa), the vitality and vigor that black culture imbued jazz with has been greatly diminished or displaced.
The black community is the original environment from which jazz emerged. This is not to say jazz or its definition cannot evolve or change, even radically, or that people of other backgrounds cannot play as well, but merely that jazz has a historical point of origins that influenced the aesthetic and values of the music.

Since the 1960s, the social cohesion and family structure that existed within the black community in previous eras (and the white community, too...) has become fragmented. There are any number of causes for this, although employment issues (also connected with immigration), widespread social apathy, and dismantling of social institutions have changed the landscape of the black community at large.

So, I think the black community has largely largely moved on from jazz. Black youth, who might be in a position to carry on the music as a cultural heritage, don't receive the necessary equipment, exposure, or training, and so they move on to hip hop or other forms of expression. Nothing against hip hop, but the situation for the art of instrumental music might be very different today if the greed and reverse social engineering of the 80s hadn't happened. And is the majority of hip hop today really saying anything meaningful beyond "get rich or die trying" (i.e. marketplace values)?
What is the future of a culture that embraces these values? But to return to the original question: is jazz dead? Again, it always comes back to how we define dead. I'm not so sure jazz is dead. There may be no more innovators (this is an unknown) making seismic shifts, so in that sense one could say it has lost much of the creative vitality it once had. It's possible that in trying to define it and restrict it to particular definition, one may end up killing it. I favor a
definition of jazz that is as wide as possible.

But in another sense, schools churn out more players (albeit with fewer gigs, as you know) than ever. There is a definite booming market for jazz education (maybe as big as the market for recordings? or bigger?). Despite the fact that the market share is shrinking, and jazz album sales more miniscule than ever, people continue to devote great quantities of their lives and energy to the artform. Somebody, somewhere has to listen to this music. Something else must drive jazz musicians than purely financial motives.



  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I have edited the mentioning of a specific musician from Michael's response due to a reader comment. Although I feel uncomfortable censoring ANYTHING, I understand the mentioning a certain musician could affect their career. Also the statement made in the response has no way of being proven, so at this point its all just gossip and I am interested in opinion, not gossip.

    -Jon Crowley