In Defense of Jazz

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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?

HOW DID JAZZ GO FROM ITS 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.

 

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