Yeah, I know – Jazz is the only American art form. It ties together all of the strains of American life from the civil war to
the present the late 1950’s. It’s the apogee of American music.
And I’m straining to think of any American jazz in the past forty years that’s really grabbed me.
And when I say “grabbed me”, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate all music in one or both of two ways. One of them is, as a musician, appreciating technical virtuosity and musicianship. The other is, “does it grab me in the liver?” And most jazz of the past fifty years is the former; I can appreciate virtuosity, and – better yet – musicianship. I can appreciate Miles Davis or Larry Carlton in about the same way I do Steve Vai; yes, indeed, they are very good at what they do. Of course, nothing they do grabs me by the liver and says this tells you something about life, love, the universe, and everything, the way Darkness On The Edge Of Town or “Boulder to Birmingham” or “I Cover The Waterfront” or Mahler’s Tenth Symphony or “Duke’s Place” or “Hand of Kindness” or “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down” do.
Or the way jazz did, for a long time; stuff from the twenties through the fifties, Billy Holiday and Sarah Vaughan and Benny Goodman and Count Basie and Peggy Lee and Duke Ellington and the Dorseys all made music that was intricate and inventive and accessible.
Two things, I think, happened to jazz.
First: it ceded “accessibility” to the rest of pop music, and became a tight-knit, self-referential little club full of people who were all in on the same joke and loved keeping the uninitiated out of it. Sort of like Simpsons fans who’ve shot too much smack. Along about the time of Elvis, pop took the “accessible” route, leaving jazz – the form of the day was “bebop”, all quirky and technical and really really dull if you weren’t actually busy playing it yourself – to those who really cared about, well, quirky and technical and just plain holier than thou.
The other? It became “art” more than just music. Jazz became an audio museum more than a living, breathing art form.
And I know – the jazz buffs will squawk “but jazz is alive and well and living and breathing”, to which I answer “Really? When was the last time you saw a bunch of kids get together in a garage to start a jazz band to set forth and take over the world? No, not a bunch of prodigies like the Marsalis brothers, normal people? When was the last time you saw a kid play air saxophone in the hall at school? And no – I don’t mean that music has to aspire to the lowest common denominator, or be a “do it yourself” thing with no barrier to entry; most of music would be better if kids actually learned how to play these days. But there you have it – how long has it been since you heard a normal, regular kid say with a straight face he aspired to play like Brandford Marsalis or Joe Pass or Charlie Parker?
How long has it been since a jazz – not “jazzy”, not “jazz-inflected”, but jazz – album captured the imagination of anyone who isn’t a musician in the first place?
Put another way; once people started getting National Endowment for the Arts grants to do jazz, and once it became the province of college music departments, jazz became to music what Latin did to languages.
Put another another way: When was the last time jazz was any couple’s “song?” Indeed; most jazz of the past fifty years is exactly like the scene from Jerry McGuire, where Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger are gettin’ happenin’, and for whatever reason Cruise took the advice of the creepy jazz-fan friend (!) and put on some Miles Davis mix CD to help close the deal on the big seduction – and stops in the middle of the hot scene, and breaks up laughing; “What the hell is that?”, as Davis honks and blats abstractly away in the background. Jazz has been a mood-killer since Charles Mingus supplanted Billie Holiday; Nine Inch Nails is better date music.
So jazz is fine. I just…can’t stand it, too.