What Is Jazz? Revisited: A Millennial Look inside Pandora’s Box

Always one to open new areas of inquiry, searching out pristine topics glistening with intellectual dew, I recently posted this question on Facebook: "What is jazz?" Actually, one or two others before me may have given the subject some glancing bit of thought. I seem to recall blogging about it myself in the past. Wars may even have been fought over the matter. So maybe the question isn’t so novel after all. In fact, I'm quite certain it's not. Back in the nineteen seventies and early eighties, when I was studying music in college, the subject kept resurfacing with boring predictability in the letters section of Downbeat magazine. There’d be an article on some fusion band that had strayed from the sanctioned strictures of swing, bop, and tradition, and next month, you’d read one or two samples of the indignation felt by jazz purists. “THAT CRAP AIN’T JAZZ!” they'd opine helpfully. But their views would be countered by other letters from the Bold And Free who welcomed new trends and defended fresh approaches. At first such exchanges were interesting. But after a while, as the same thoughts kept recycling from both ends of the jazz/not-jazz spectrum, the argument got old and then irrelevant. After all, what did I care? I still loved rock music, something many jazz musicians of the time detested. And much as I wanted to excel as a jazz saxophonist, I sucked. So from a practical standpoint, I couldn’t relate to the vitriol behind the statement “That ain’t jazz!” In Light of Today Thirty-five years later, much has changed in music, to say nothing of the world at large. Between jazz and other musical genres, the lines have blurred to the extent that the term jazz has become almost meaningless. Perhaps the jazz police had a point after all, then, in trying to preserve a sense of definition for a word which, in coming to mean so many things to so many people, now means almost nothing at all. Though, is that really the case? I can still listen to Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker and say, with confidence, “That’s jazz.” And I can get an earful on YouTube of my favorite classic rock bands, such as Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd, and say with equal conviction, “That ain’t jazz.” Great music, absolutely; improvisational, without question; but jazz, no. It doesn’t have to be jazz to be good. There’s a powerful lot of fantastic music in this world today, with superb musicians of many stripes bringing their influences and contributions to the table. And it is a table, an art table. It's not a melting pot. For all the kinds of music available to my ears today, I don’t hear homogeneity arising as a result of allowing different genres to interbreed. Instead I hear creative combinations; and for the many different forms, both pure and hybrid, and for their practitioners, I see an appreciation and respect that didn’t exist back in my college days. You can spend your emotional and intellectual energy defining the color blue, speaking out on its behalf and defending its sacredness. Ditto the color green, if you’re a lover of green; or red, if you’re of the red camp; or yellow, or purple, or what have you. Or you can take some of this color and some of that and some of those and make a painting. Why not? The days of jazz/not-jazz haven’t entirely disappeared, nor are they likely to. And that's not a bad thing. Conceptually, jazz does need a perimeter, fuzzy though it may be, if the word is to have meaning. But I think fewer people care to make it into a heated issue. So maybe now "What is jazz?" can simply be an honest question that merits interesting, insightful, and enjoyable discussion. In part 2 of this article, look for some of the different responses I received to my Facebook inquiry "What is jazz?" as well as some of my own thoughts on the matter. (To be continued.)

On Beyond Rhythm Changes: Kurt Ellenberger Addresses Underlying Issues of Jazz Culture

In a couple of recent posts, pianist and jazz professor Kurt Ellenberger and I traded salvos on the strengths and weaknesses of that ubiquitous jazz form, rhythm changes. In a nutshell, I enjoy playing rhythm changes and Kurt can't stand them. However, that summary is cosmetic; scratch below the surface and you'll find that Kurt and I think on a very similar frequency. Kurt is the one who came up with the idea for a point-counterpoint dialog on the topic, with each of us sharing opposing perspectives in the interest of exploring an issue from different angles. I really liked his idea and I'm pleased with how it has opened up a much broader conversation. Kurt has responded to my last post in a way that I think brings this particular discussion to a satisfying conclusion, albeit one that makes me want to find my stone axe (where on earth did I put it?). I feel, however, that the issues that have been raised may provide material for more exchanges in the future. Without further ado, here are Kurt's closing thoughts on...

Rhythm Changes: Looking Deeper Than the Form

I find myself almost entirely in agreement with Bob’s thoughtful and well-written response to my post on rhythm changes. As he points out, my dislike for rhythm changes is simply an aspect of my personal tastes, which run the gamut from Scarlatti to Skinny Puppy and all points between and beyond, but do not include rhythm changes. If you like the form, that’s great—love the music that moves you, and never apologize for any of it.  (The corollary of that is to never pretend to love or admire something that doesn’t move you.) Bob’s response identifies what (I think) bothered me the most about this form—namely, the tendency of many in the jazz community to be very doctrinaire in matters that should be left to personal taste. If you’re a “jazz musician” then you must publicly profess your love for all the sacraments of the jazz church,* which include the following:
  1. Louis Armstrong
  2. Dixieland
  3. Dance bands of the '30s and '40s
  4. Jazz vocalists
  5. Blues, rhythm changes, and Cherokee (all in 12 keys, of course)
  6. All Ellington (but not necessarily Basie, Kenton, or Herman)
Of course, I’m being somewhat facetious, but there is a kernel of truth in this list that most jazz musicians will recognize. There are elements of stylistic intolerance in the jazz community, which is not surprising given how marginalized it is in the modern world. The more unpopular a genre becomes (or the more ignored it is), the more important its mythology becomes to its adherents; nothing demonstrates this more than the romanticized history of jazz and the sacraments (as I call them) contained therein. That said, I’ll end my counter-counter-point post with one observation: When jazz is referenced in popular culture, it is generally used as a symbol of sophistication, detached coolness, and intellectual refinement. Rhythm changes, however, are not the chosen form for this highbrow signifier, but they are found in at least one prominent position. Where? As the theme song for The Flintstones! -------------------------------- * Lest I’m accused of exaggerating about the “jazz church,” I would point out that the term “jazz police” (which originates, I think, from a wonderfully odd tune by Leonard Cohen) is well-known to all jazz musicians. The Jazz Police are (metaphorically, I assume) the “enforcement arm” of the jazz church, desperately trying to maintain order and stylistic purity within the genre. As hard as it is to believe, there is even a Jazz Police website.