Things I’m Supposed To Love But Can’t Stand: Jazz

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.

11 thoughts on “Things I’m Supposed To Love But Can’t Stand: Jazz

  1. Agree wholeheartedly! Once the academics got their greasy little mits on it the dominance of mediocrity was inevitable. For those who protest, name a composer in the last 15 years who is even moderately comparable to Duke Ellington or Count Basie for arrangements.

    Today some fool insists on playing “My Funny Valentine” or “Stormy Weather” on a tuba and you’re expected to take the moron seriously.

    Jazz *WAS* the only American art form

  2. I’m a “jazz guy” but I agree with Mr. D. Most of my stuff is pre-1970. I caught Jazz-fest this past weekend and the best music was the old traditional New Orleans dixieland stuff (Southside Aces) and reworked rock songs in a jazz vein (New Standards). They actually pulled off a jazzy Replacements & Beck songs! Anyway, got to agree, there hasn’t been any new “essential” jazz artists for quite a while.

  3. PDog,

    I used to listen to a fair amount of jazz in my car when I was car commuting; the traffic/jazz station was pretty much an essential. I was driving down 55 one day, and almost drove off the road, when I heard a familar theme done by a piano/bass/drums/guitar combo.

    It took a while to place it.

    Detroit Rock City.

    I laughed my butt off.

  4. It is an academic pursuit… and some of it is neat, from what I hear.

    I suspect it started to die (or actually died) as soon as folks started trying to preserve jazz.

    I love the music used in the theme, credits, and behind all of the scenes in the delightful series (with Stephen Fry and “Dr. House” himself Hugh Laurie) “Jeeves & Wooster”… but no one is doing it other than over educated folks who took loans out to study the stuff.

    God help blues… I pray no one ever tries to preserve it.

  5. I have no idea why this is, but for me, recorded jazz does nothing for me, no matter what sub-genre or instruments used. Radio, cd’s, nothing.

    However, I have heard live jazz (mainly in college), and that is quite pleasant to listen to. Something about the musicians actually performing in front of me makes it better.

  6. I’m not as big into Jazz as others, but I’ll take it over rap 😛

    “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?”

    Fair point, although I’m trying to remember that last time a bunch of kids got together in a garage to start a Rock band to set forth and take over the world. Thanks to American Idol and a bunch of preening emo kids in guyliner, they pretty much do it just for the girls and the fame these days — it’s about a good 20+ years since “rock” meant anything revolutionary. I’ll concede Rap has its “world dominating” status about 20 years ago, but even that got sucked into self-importance after a short while.

    Jazz got safe, just like Rock got safe. Unlike Jazz, every few years Rock attempts to become dangerous again and the results are either interesting (Nirvana) or hilarious (Nickelback) depending on how the tides turn.

    I couldn’t make it, but Hiromi was playing last night at the Dakota. I’ve heard her CDs, and she’s fantastic. A few more cute girls in their 20s doing Jazz would probably change a handful of opinions about the music these days.

  7. I can’t totally disagree, because there’s no doubt that jazz is not mainstream as it once was. But that’s not because there’s not good stuff. More than half of the jazz that I own is from the past 15 years. Kurt Elling is a fantastic vocalist from Chicago (went to school at Gustavus). Bad Plus is a trio from MN and WI that is excellent (though I’m only familiar with their first album.) There are jazz artists out there, but society has moved on. In fact, society moving on is as much a factor as anything that jazz is about these days. Too bad.

  8. The New Standards didn’t do Detroit Rock City, but they did do Cheap Trick’s I Want You to Want Me. It was really good. It’s the Suburbs Chan Poling on piano, Trip Shakespeare/Semisonic/Twilight Hours/etc John Munson on upright base and Steve Roehm on vibes. So, mostly they stuck in that alt-retro-punkrock genre. Velvet Underground, Clash London Calling, etc. Although, they did do Britney Spears Toxic. Chan said it was on one of his wife’s mixed cd’s and they ended up doing a jazz arrangement for it. Who’s his wife? I didn’t know either. So, to bring it back full circle to politics, it’s Eleanor Mondale.

  9. Wow re The New Standards. I’d lost track of all those guys.

    I was in a garage basement band that did a really bad jazz-ish cover of “Bastards Of Young” once. That, and a country-like cover of “Erotic City”.

  10. There’s just so much more music out there now that jazz gets buried in the mix, and it’s not as easy to “get” as heavily promoted, simple repetitive pop songs with lots of promo. It’s not easy to learn, either – which is why you don’t see kids in a garage cutting their teeth on Giant Steps. It takes a while to be able to play it, and most young musicians don’t have that kind of time…
    Really, though – it’s about the groove. If a new “Take Five” or “Canteloupe Island” were to come out, with a hooky groove that you couldn’t deny – performed by the right artist, at the right time etc. who could improvise in a way that didn’t sound like a college thesis and excited people – odds are good that it would catch on.
    Jazz just needs a new genius superstar hookmaster model spokesfigure.

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