Friday, May 28, 2010

Let all of us Jazz Nerds destroy ourselves

While the jazz culture wars (or "jazz wars" for short), have involved "retro" as a slam on those predisposed toward traditional, straight-ahead jazz, at this point it seems pretty "retro" to even speak about the jazz wars. That was a 90s thing right? People got over that, right?

Well, what you might say is that the jazz wars have been dormant, but they've never completely gone away. There's too little prosperity in jazz not to have some predictable crabs-in-the-barrel effects. A recent YouTube rant by drummer Jason Marsalis shows there's still enough resentment and hurt egos around to keep some flicker of the wars going.


Marsalis' rant is about his perception of an academic jazz establishment whose nefarious plot is to….play in odd time signatures, play angular solos (i.e. Steve Coleman, Osby) and of course- to not swing.

This is an interesting twist on the jazz wars as they've been carried out traditionally because Jason isn't attacking those wild-eyed free jazzers or the commercial smoothies, but the "straight eighths" crowd who sit a lot closer to home and whose transgressions against "the tradition" are comparatively mild. Some of their icons have even spoken out against free jazz or avant-garde music.

So for Marsalis to go out of his way to slam these musicians…..either he's unhinged or this an indication of just how desperate the jazz situation has become, when you not only attack the guy down the street, but your next-door neighbor as well.

In the rant Marsalis calls this school of musicians "Jazz Nerds International" and mentions that the only audience for this music is "other jazz nerds." He claims that it's "selfish" music which is being played just for other musicians, as opposed to being played for people (what are other musicians? Martians?).

He blames this situation on young musicians being groomed out of an academic cocoon rather than learning from experienced jazz musicians about how you connect with an audience. Fair enough, there's certainly something to the criticism that jazz has become too academic. But- Jason's remedy?? Marsalis alleges these jazz nerds clearly don't want to "connect with people" because they don't want to swing, play blues, and won't learn the traditional repertoire like Irvin Berlin and Cole Porter songs.

And this is where his critique seems more than a little inane and just a tad bizarre. Invoking a populist tone on behalf of the standard songbook seems about as in-touch as lamenting why people no longer write many hand-written letters. For however we feel about the standard songbook, there is no longer any popular demand to hear this music and there probably never will be again, unless it's by way of some aging pop star (Rod Stewart anybody?) taking his adoring fans on a nostalgia trip they'll go on just because it's....(Rod Stewart)

So to talk about the difference between the audience for straight-ahead jazz and the audience for "jazz nerd music" is merely to talk about individual preferences, not about who has more of a "common touch" and is able to relate to Joe Blow better.

It's purely wishful thinking to believe that the main reason why more people aren't becoming and remaining jazz listeners is that musicians have simply gotten away from the basics "of what works" in connecting with an audience. If this was so, then the many piano trios and singers in towns across the U.S. playing standards the standard way would enjoy packed houses every night. I enjoy classic standards, ballads, and blues but I can also see why the sensibilities therein are woefully out-of-touch with contemporary culture.

All of the criticisms about young people today not having enough of an attention span and being too fickle and novelty-oriented: let's face it, they're all at least partially true. But the more important overriding fact is that today's young people are no different than any previous generation: namely- they want something that is uniquely their own, and which they perceive to speak to who they are in these times. So whether it's true or not that swing or standards or Ellington are "timeless" is ultimately a moot point if younger people simply don't hear what they're "supposed to hear." We can lament how they're not given enough exposure to quality art, how arts education and the larger cultural sensibilities are shallow, so on and so forth- but in the end you can't brush back these larger currents. You can either choose to deal with this hand, or be stubborn in your aesthetic idealism and pray people will somehow "wake up" to what you're doing...all while American Idol continues to dominate the public imagination for what music is and can be.

And....the only musicians in jazz with a legitimate claim to a populist orientation these days would be ….Medeski Martin & Wood? Trombone Shorty? Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey? Oh wait….right- they're not jazz.

But Marsalis may be right about the audience for non-swinging, angular jazz. It's a lot of other musicians and their friends and girlfriends. But hey…..wait, hold on-- it's an audience!!! Whaddya know! Are we really in a position to be picky about who the audience is?? It's also, I would venture to say, quite a bit younger of an audience than the audience for straight-ahead music.

As recent listenership statistics will even confirm, Marsalis is seeing the hair in his audiences get progressively whiter with each passing year….and he may see that the "jazz nerds", for whatever they're guilty of, actually have some kind of youthful audience (whether it's simply other musicians or not). And maybe he's mad about that; maybe it stings.

Fact is, no musician really wants to think they're only playing for an aging audience, and yet this is the reality for most musicians involved in straight-ahead jazz today. Do you think there are many 20 or 30-somethings, hell—even people in their 40s, going on the many summertime jazz cruises? Been to a local jazz club lately? It looks a lot like the breakfast room at the rest home. Sure, you can spot a young couple here or there out for a novel "sophisticated" outing, but that ain't the stuff audiences can be built from.

But anyway….back to the term "Jazz nerds." Doesn't that pretty much cover everybody involved in this general area of music now, whether it's straight-ahead, straight eighths, or free jazz? To my understanding, a nerd is someone who takes their own interests a little too seriously relative to the larger perception of their importance. Like debating for hours and hours whether Star Trek I or Star Trek: Next Generation is the better series. Or whether something is or isn't jazz, and what the best hypothetical way for jazz to become popular again is… (all after we've been having that same armchair debate for the last 20 years and they've had no positive effect in determining why people don't like jazz anymore.)

Point is, anyone playing anything resembling jazz is in very much the same boat these days. You may feel like you're playing "the real thing" and that others aren't, but ironically- just like Marsalis himself says, no one but other musicians even care. The American public has such a negligible appreciation for jazz or even instrumental music in general, that we're all just one big nerdy treehouse "club" (as Marsalis derides) whether we like it or not.

So, here's a thought. Instead of continuing to fall prey to self-important aesthetic booger fights....We could actively choose to appreciate the fact that ALL of us trying to play instrumental music in America are essentially outsiders and on the margins of what is culturally valued.

We could will to set aside aesthetic and philosophical differences, and then make a recognition of a more essential reality that we all share. Namely, that playing instrumental music in America has practically become a heroic act. If you want to be culturally valued, it makes no sense at the present time to be an instrumental musician. And yet, collectively instrumental musicians are at the forefront of the battle to show that "dialing up" a sound or a rhythm will only take you so far. So, bluegrass, jazz, classical, and folk musicians may be (collectively) up to the task of rescuing the country from vocal harmonizers and bad drum tracks! We're the only ones doing any home cookin' while everything on the radio came right out of the microwave. So on one level, no matter how traditional your music is, you're a part of the vanguard. And no matter how avant-garde you are in what you play, you are not the forward guard, just a part of a larger counter insurgency.

But all of that would make entirely too much sense. Plus, it does nothing for the ego. It's much easier to just continually posture and compete for prestige from within the flock. If you can't be popular in a meaningful sense well, you can still be the king of a small hill of turds; there's always that basic human temptation. True enough, what all of these internal philosophical and aesthetic debates often boil down to is who's getting props- like "Jazz may not be popular, but dammit!--- I deserve to be on the cover of DownBeat, not that lame-o media darling Dave Douglas!!" This is essentially what people reduce themselves to when they buy into the illusion that someone else's idea of jazz is what keeps their jazz from being popular or important in a larger sense. Musicians are fighting for symbolic scraps, forsaking the larger, community-wide struggle to bring attention to the larger music scene, cynically saying "Well, I'm at least going to get mine." The neighborhood is burning to the ground, but hey-- there's a TV in that store's window so I'm going to grab it.

The only thing that offers any explanation of this (beyond plain old egoism) is that musicians have gotten so frustrated with the lack of public attention paid to the music that they've essentially turned on themselves. And true enough, there's always been some factionalism in jazz but if you read enough jazz history, you'll see that musicians used to support each other more in principle for simply being another dedicated working musician. Being a working musician wasn't an easy life so even if you didn't like what someone was doing musically, you still respected them as someone having essentially the same struggle. If you didn't like what they were doing, you'd say "I couldn't get with it" and leave it at that. Maybe since musicians aren't able to work nearly as much today though, it simply frees up a lot of time to have these epic aesthetic debates that produce, um...such enlightening self-realizations.

So if you should read about a Trekkie punching out another Trekkie because they had a disagreement over whether Scottie or Sulu was a better second officer…..think also about the jazz nerds. From Jason Marsalis to Keith Jarrett to Matthew Shipp, an others you can count on for a periodic divisive outburst-- trying to throw an elbow at the other guy's side while eying that last crumb on the floor. Sadly, even as it may come and go, the verbal stink bomb thrown in close quarters is on the verge of becoming a part of the "jazz tradition" itself.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Hoping that "fire music" will carry on strong-

I'm finding myself in the ironic position of wanting to advocate for, defend and safeguard a previous period of free jazz. See, I realize that this whole avant-garde thing is supposed to be about relentlessly pushing forward against conventions and beyond whatever was safe or that which becomes safe. But, I've heard a lot of what is being played today, vs. what was being played in the late 60s and the 70s, and well— I'm at a point where I've just got to sound my own Wynton-like alarm against "progress."

Philosophically, I wish I wasn't saying this, because it's not very idealistic and I want to have faith in generation and all….but what it comes down to for me is that the fire and the soul just isn't there. There's plenty of intellectual exploration going on, and plenty of clever concepts, but I'm really missing the meat and potatoes. FIRE MUSIC. My touchstones for free jazz are Archie Shepp, late period Coltrane, Pharoah, Sonny Simmons—I guess you could say I'm an "Impulse" free jazz guy. For me this music was the perfect brew— it had abstractions for the mind, but blues feeling for the soul.

Now, I know I'm sounding even more like Wynton to suggest that "it's got to have blues feeling" but to be clear—I love the duality, it's what made the early free jazz so happening in my view. The duality....of really out there / dissonant / angular / erratic musical qualities, sharing the same space with something as pure and elemental and clarion-clear as the blues. I realize it's totally cliche to say something is "Yin and Yang" but I feel this is an apt metaphor for the early free jazz.

So what occurs to me though is that we're living in the last days of the first wave of American free jazz musicians. Rashied just passed not so long ago, though Archie, Fred Anderson, Marshall Allen, Roswell Rudd, Pharoah, Sonny Simmons, they're still alive but definitely getting up there in age. Now, it's true as well that not all of these guys still play the fire music. Some like George Lewis and Bill Dixon have gotten more and more into the whole minimalist thing. Cecil and Braxton's ensembles seem a lot more chamber-oriented these days too. I guess it's cool on one level that they're still curious and wanting to explore different things and move on to new territory, but I miss the FIRE. Give me something for my mind, but make sure you hit me in the gut too.

So all of which…is why I appreciate a Sonny Simmons even more. Or a Michael Carey or Hasan Razzaq. These are saxophonists in the Midwest who I've had the chance to play with and are from scenes in Detroit and Cleveland that never caught up to New York or Europe.....which is good in a way because they never got SOOO hip that they lost sight of their grounding. They've always had blues as the main fulcrum of what they do. Players like this can be looked at now as mere throwbacks or even as passé by the "true believers of innovation." For me, that only tells me that they're jaded and cut off from their own emotional response to music.

Which raises my main question….what is the cost of progress if you lose balance in the process? I know there's no going back to 1968, and that these are different times with different sensibilities, but I am concerned that this balance is not going to be perpetuated after the greats are gone. I sincerely hope that younger musicians will look back on the first wave of free jazz as a touchstone for how improvised music can reach the mind and the soul, and that you don't have to sacrifice emotive/expressionistic content to be more hip. This unfortunately has often been a Western instinct-- strip the emotional content if you wish to be perceived as truly modern. Or is that just what happens when Victorian attitudes towards emotionality and sexuality are still washing around and coming out in weird ways? I will get flamed for this I'm sure, but I think a lot of modern art and music is not a contrast to Victorian repression, but simply its abstracted franken-child.

But, this isn't meant to be an anti-white/anti-Western screed….because for better or worse, non-black people are the future of jazz. One of the few things I'll agree with Branford Marsalis about is that the most creative black kids go into hip-hop anymore, they don't go into jazz.

Since I opened the can of racial/cultural worms, I'll close by saying I don't believe black men have any monopoly on heartfelt blues expression. I do think that the community context these artists came out of makes this a more natural outcome than say, for an Asian kid from the suburbs. But to play this way is still a choice you can make…and that if it moves you enough to want to make it part of your essence and your being, it doesn't matter where you came from. I hope that the younger musicians today will hear the same thing I've heard in that first wave of free be forward-thinking, but also be true to the fact you're an emotional human being.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Expose and Survey: a challenge--

Here's a challenge. Try to introduce as many people as you can to free jazz and outside music. Let's make an artificial deadline of the 1st of the new year. When you've given someone a piece of music, or when they come out to a live set, make a point of getting their feedback. Ask them about both what they liked and didn't like. You could even create a survey form, because people tend to want to keep open-ended comments to a minimum. Jot down notes, and we can compare the results later. This could be eye-opening.....or maybe not, but it's worth a try.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The follies of Jazz history/appreciation programming

Columbus State, a community college based here, is putting on a six-part jazz history program series in association with the American Library Association, which is offering grant money for this kind of programming.

It looks pretty well-conceived for what it is and I may attend a couple of these myself, but unfortunately-- and I find myself thinking: "predictably", there is no attempt to discuss or focus on any music after 1965.

Really, looking at the programming one could rightfully come to the conclusion that jazz is just an artifact of yesteryear, something that already happened and has seen its glory days gone and past. The most current development covered in the programming is the evolution of Latin jazz as a hybrid music form- and what are we talking about there--- mid 60s??

It kills me-- in spite of "grown folks" good intentions to try and interest younger people in jazz and the history of the music, they either simply don't understand or they are just in denial----Young people are only really going to get hooked into jazz by some music that speaks of NOW, or at the very least--- "RECENT." (recent as in, younger folk can clearly relate more to the ethos/aesthetic of 70s jazz fusion than 1950s bebop.)

Trying to get college kids interested in jazz simply by thinking it need only speak on historical terms--- trotting out its storied past and presenting a parade of all the "great men" my mind this only reinforces the notion in their minds that jazz is something of the PAST---- it's something to be preserved but not to be pursued in the here and now. There's undeniable beauty and greatness in the history of jazz but with no clear connections made to the present, we're looking at a museum of any other kind--- art deco antiques, classic roadsters, what have you. It's beauty at a distance.

It's hard for a lot of jazz people to face up to this, but taken as a lump sum, the historical styles
of jazz- bebop, swing, what have you-- have no real relevance to the sensibilities and outlook of younger people today. You can make the argument that historic jazz is "timeless" and that there are values in the music which need to be recovered by the culture at large, and I myself agree with that on some level---- but you're ultimately just beating your head against the wall.

- Because time marches on, the culture changes, and people change.

What else is new? And yet we always have a hard time conceiving of this when our own sacred cows are at stake. It's quite clear through my experience and countless anecdotes I've heard through others that younger people today think jazz is pretty corny and dare I say-- dated. There is the issue of young people today having a lower attention span, but regardless of the reason, young people today simply find a lot of historic jazz to be too slow, too "retro"(read: not even tangential to the realm of their sensibilities and the way they choose to express their emotions), and just too darn schmaltzy.
Why is it so many younger people hear jazz and automatically opine "that sounds like background music" or "porno music"?? You can say this is just lack of awareness but I also think there's a certain validity to how they're processing it. Keep in mind that for better or for worse, jazz IS so often used as background music in stores, romantic comedies, the Weather Channel, and that jazz IS cliche to them for these reasons. --- but also just for the simple fact of people playing bebop and swing 50 years on end to the point it's become ingrained in the public imagination--- and not always in a good way...

Bottom line though is "grown folks" need to ask themselves whether they're really concerned with expanding the jazz audience and reaching younger people, or
whether these kinds of programs are ultimately more for themselves--namely to feel good about themselves that they are trying to pass on their love for jazz to younger generations, never mind if they haven't really asked whether the approach they are comfortable with is the approach younger people are trying to hear. These people are not really stretching themselves to meet young people where they're at. They have a "build it and they will come" mentality, believing naively that the inherent riches of the jazz tradition will one day overcome the clear indifference the public has toward it.

But let's just say they were serious (about reaching younger people...)

Then in my mind you would be having discussions like these---

- The dialogue between jazz and hip-hop that's been going on every since ats started sampling classic jazz records, and onto today where some jazz musicians are actively integrating turntablism and hip-hop beats . I know there are a lot of kids that dig El-P High Water, MM&W, Soulive and more. Use this interest to make connections within the jazz and hip-hop traditions. Taking trips down memory lane is totally on-point if the purpose is to provide context for what people are hearing in current music. Too much jazz history/appreciation makes investigation of past music for it's own sake, the point. AND SO IT STARTS TO SEEM ABSTRACTED.

- The tie-in between the energy/aggression aesthetic of punk rock and metal, with free jazz??? There is a reason David S. Ware got mad love from the Sonic Youth crowds his band opened for. There are a lot of social and musical parallels between free jazz and punk, and the free jazz musician is in some important ways very different from tchetypal jazz musician, playing standards in a lounge. The history of free jazz involves a great deal of political and social awareness and activism. Younger people would surely find this compelling.

- Spirituality and eastern mysticism--- a great bridge for your more conscious young people (or if you must--- "hippie college kids") looking for music that engages them on this level. There is a whole pantheon of music in jazz history from Sun Ra to Alice Coltrane to Pharaoh Sanders that is STILL very relevant in this regard.

- Miles Davis' fascination with Hendrix and him wanting to record with Hendrix. To me, this is full of all kinds of implications for jazz and rock fans, and would be a really good hook for some younger people familiar with Jimi but less so with Miles. "Jazz people" tend to look at Miles' explorations of popular music as detours or even outright deviance, but somehow it was acceptable for earlier artists to play music from Tin Pan Alley and actively mine popular song. No contradiction there...

So the other thing that really should be said is that the jazz or jazz-influenced music that a lot of younger people would actually be into and can relate to isn't what jazz institutions and jazz educators want to encourage or propagate.

Jazz hip-hop, free jazz, world music-jazz fusions---- these are anathema to some in the jazz institutions and simply not on the radar screen of others because a lot of these people are simply out of touch with youth culture (
how can you portend to connect with young people when you don't have any real understanding of what they care about???).

If I haven't made myself clear here, I think these organizations and institutions that put on this kind of programming certainly have good intentions, but I think they're terribly misguided if they honestly believe you are going to reach young people, and not just give them a pleasing dose of romantic nostalgia but actually get them to stick around - in these ways.

I wouldn't care so much if it weren't for the fact that some of these institutions are being so very well-funded and being given large platforms by other higher institutions. Did you know that NEA is going to be passing on the buck to Lincoln Center to craft the official NEA jazz curriculum?? Please write NEA if you, like myself, are concerned about this.

- As if it isn't bad enough that THE jazz documentary of recent years, Ken Burns' "Jazz"--- which for a lot of the public was the only exposure to the music through broadcast media, was basically a pulpit for Wynton Marsalis, (to propound his reactionary, nostalgia-huffing version of jazz history), now Wynton and Lincoln Center are being given the charge of designing the curriculum which will be used by public schools to educate future generations about jazz.

And we can talk about misinformation and biased agendas, but all this development will really do is cement the place of jazz as a bourgeois concern. Jazz became the province of middle-class suburban kids a while ago, and this has fed right into the jazz education industry--- which trains kids to be proficient in all of the requisite historical jazz styles, before they then go on to, in many cases, become jazz educators themselves. There are hordes and hordes of jazz studies graduates but you don't see much evidence of their impact on a local scene---- be it Columbus, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, St.Louis, what have you. I'm sure you're like me when you actively wonder--- where do all of these people go??? Billy Pierce (formerly with Tony Williams), a professor at Berklee, has asked this very same question even as he is part of one of these instutions. Maybe because cities no longer have several clubs where ne can play bebop on any given night, and haven't for over 40 years, these graduates find it hard to make use of their "performance" degree.

On a side note, the great irony about Marsalis' whole project too is that he (properly) wants jazz to be recognized as an African-American art form and a great cultural contribution by blacks to this country but seems to have no answers that could lead to constructive actions when it comes to why jazz lost the black community. All he does is wring his fists like the cliche angry gramps at "those darned kids" for being all about Lil'Wayne and 50 Cent. And then he makes a point of defining jazz hip-hop and other fusions involving jazz as effectively being outside the boundaries of "true jazz."

It's obviously important to him that black people can feel proud of the legacy of jazz, but it's far less clear whether he's willing to meet black people, specifically young black people--- where they're at today in trying to make jazz important again to the black community. That jazz might not look like bebop but like a new synthesis of jazz and hip-hop, is clearly unpalatable to him though.

Such happy irrelevance! Heads firmly in the sand, and they'll keep getting funds and forums, but from where I'm standing nothing that's being done now is going to prevent jazz from becoming a certifiable museum music in the same way that classical music is.

So when people think like this it is really hard to feel sorry for them if they should complain about the lack of interest the public has in jazz.

But hey--- finally--- we don't have the resources or organizational level that the Columbus State program does, but we can say that in April at Milo we will be talking about these hard issues. No extended nostalgia trips here!! Definitely no lack of interest or coverage given to more recent developments within the jazz continuum!! We are just a small group of people but we have no illusions about how irrelevant jazz is to most people and to younger people especially--- and I know all of us would like to change this picture. Hopefully we will have some dialogues this month that
give us a better idea of what needs to be done.

Peace out-