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-