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.