Thinking about jazz

March 10, 2007


Last weekend I went to a concert featuring my old friend Fred Hersch. Fred and I were close when we met at the New England Conservatory of Music in 1976-7. He then moved to New York and began a great career as a jazz pianist.

The concert I attended was held in a museum at UCLA and was sponsored by Friends of Jazz. We were both surprised that the median age at the concert was likely mid-50s. Why no young people? Hmmm. I know that there are jazz schools in LA–UCLA, USC, CalState Northridge–so why are none of them here? I guess having a concert at 1 in the afternoon, on a Sunday, competing with a beautiful day in LA with temps in the mid-70s might be a reason.

I am not a huge jazz fan. I learned to play Monk’s “Ugly Beauty” by ear and played it for my audition into music school. I grew up hearing Dave Brubeck, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, and a few others, but it wasn’t until I moved to Boston and met Fred that I really started to learn more about jazz. Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Wes Montgomery… But still, it wasn’t “in my blood.” Jazz was for straight people, and usually, straight men. The virtuosity involved was the same energy that all the 60s rock guitarists and 70s glam bands tapped into: “look what an amazing guitar player I am. See how fast I can play. Aren’t you amazed at my virtuosity?” I was not interested in virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. For this young queer boy from the midwest, I wanted melody with effective chord progressions. Blues had no interest for me (three chords? booorrrrrringg. Blues is also for straight boys.)

Fred eventually came out as a gay man. This was tremendously courageous for a jazz musician as there just are not that many gay men in jazz. Fred later became HIV positive and has fought an admirable battle against it. Although one sees it in the lines on his face, his piano playing is better than ever and AIDS has not effected his powerful spirit nor his genius.

A strange phenomenon seems to be happening with jazz: it is turning into concert music. There are less jazz clubs and more jazz concert places. Here in LA, the old Helms Bakery is now the Jazz Bakery. You buy tickets, the concert begins at 8. At intermission, you buy coffee and rolls or cookies. No cigarettes. No alcohol. No heroin, speed, or pot. Jazz’s roots are disappearing and it is becoming another form of concert music. It is now another flavor of chamber music. Young people learn to be jazz musicians in school instead of through the school of hard knocks.

Dyske Suematsu has an interesting article called “Why Americans Don’t Like Jazz” that is worth reading. Here is an excerpt:

…American ears are getting lazier and lazier. It wasn’t so long ago that most people knew how to play a musical instrument or two. Now the vast majority of Americans couldn’t tell the difference between a saxophone and a trumpet. Thanks partially to music videos, music is now a form of visual art. The American culture is so visually dominant that a piece of music without visuals cannot command full attention of the audience. For Americans, music is a background element, a mere side dish to be served with the main course. If they are forced to listen to a piece of instrumental music without any visuals, they don’t know what to do with their eyes, much like the way a nervous speaker standing in front of a large audience struggles to figure out what to do with his hands. Eventually something visual that has nothing to do with the music grabs their attention and the music is push to the background.

[…] …songs with lyrics in your own language and paintings with recognizable objects are easier for most people to appreciate. They give their minds something to do. It is like holding a pen in your hand when you are speaking in front of a large audience; you become less nervous because your hands have something to do.

The “naughty” or counterculture vibe for jazz seems to be gone. Not only is it served up now in squeaky clean venues, recordings for jazz–starting with the crystal-clean recordings of Creed Taylor in the 60s–are perfectly recorded now. No smoke, distortion, noise, or annoying sounds of club audiences. Squeaky clean.

But jazz was born with dirt under its fingernails. Now, jazz’s fingernails and toenails are beautifully manicured. America’s first musical offspring is becoming museum music. And even though I love living in a state where smoking is banned in all public buildings, I’m thinking we should make exceptions for clubs that feature jazz. And there should be a backroom for druggies, and cocktails must be served. To hell with coffee and rolls.


Update: If you are in NYC, jazz is very much alive. Avant Music News announces an embarrassment of riches.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Brad Wood March 10, 2007 at 10:17 am

I grew up much enamored of jazz, in parallel with “classical”, at soon as music became a principal focus in my early teens. And my first instrument, selected primarily out of expediency because my father had an old Conn that he’d played in Depression era dance bands, was the alto saxophone. I took to it with an enthusiasm that evoked immediate concern and resistance from the pater, as it was clearly tapping energies that would have been better spent fulfilling my “genius” in the hard sciences (and helping the US catch up with those Godless commie bastards).

In time I’ve come to think of intensely improvisational music as being primarily for the performers, and to the extent it appeals to the listeners, it is as they are able to imagine themselves doing the performing. The pursuit of dazzling technique is something of a rite of passage, but the great players come to place it in the service of expression—at least on a good night! The not-so-great players fall back on clichés and torrential flurries, and often have little sense of phrasing and the use of space. Hodeir has some good examples in Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence.

It is also interesting to realize, as Alden Ashforth pointed out, that in its early days, jazz was considerably less improvisatory—many players played a quite similar solo every time on a particular tune. As one follows the transition from “traditional” to swing to bebop there is movement toward requiring every solo to be “new”; one can see parallels in the history of fully composed so-called serious music. I think the music often suffers when the newness factor predominates.

But jazz does indeed demand the ability to hear, and in that way will never become a terribly popular form. I have one friend who would really like to know what I enjoy in some complex solo. He has even learned to play guitar and studied with someone for a while. But when the changes are flying and the notes too numerous, he admits that it just sounds like noise to him.

When jazz did have its counterculture vibe, which waxes and wanes but of late is certainly all but extinguished, then a certain number of people will be drawn to it out of that appeal, and may not even much care about the music per se (a Terry Southern short story comes to mind, about this man who hangs with a musician for “just the scene and the sounds man”—and who is spurned, finally, as the musician realizes that the relationship is not meant to get any deeper, by design).

But you are right—it’s become an almost antiquarian devotion now. It’s not disrespectable, and the respect it does get is not for its vitality and relevance.

DJA March 10, 2007 at 6:39 pm

Jazz was for straight people

Damn — good thing nobody notifed Billy Strayhorn, Wilbur Ware, Roy Haynes, etc…

As for the demographics for Fred’s hit, I don’t mean to slight Fred in any way — he is an amazing musician — but compared to someone like, say, Brad Meldhau (who I believe studied with Fred), he appeals to an older and more traditional crowd. He is best known for his solo piano recordings of Rogers & Hart, etc, so naturally his audience is primarily people who know and love standards.

Roger Bourland March 11, 2007 at 7:05 am

Yes, I know: there are handful of gays in jazz, but I know it was difficult for Fred to break into that world. He did, but it wasn’t easy.

I didn’t mention Smooth Jazz which has an enormous following. It also seems to only be an object of derision from mainline jazzers. Whether they admit it or not, smooth jazz seems to be in a much stronger position than mainline jazz.

DJA March 11, 2007 at 9:12 am

know it was difficult for Fred to break into that world

I know, and I don’t intend to minimize the incredible difficulties Fred has faced, being not just out, but HIV+.

At the same time, the gay jazz musicians I mentioned above are not marginal, token figures — they are absolutely central to the music, and are some of the most widely admired musicians in jazz. Everyone knows Duke Ellington wouldn’t have been Duke Ellington without his decades-long collaboration with Billy Strayhorn, and Roy Haynes and Wilbur Ware are two of the greatest rhythm section players of all time. Both of them contributed to countless classic records (and Roy is still going strong — he’ll be 81 this Tuesday). They may not be well-known to the public at large, but every jazz bassist spends serious time checking out Wilbur Ware, and likewise with jazz drummers and Roy Haynes.

As for “smooth jazz,” it really is a completely separate world, a wholly independent entity that has nothing to do with jazz beyond the word itself. Saying that smooth jazz is in a much stronger position (i.e., sells more records) than mainline jazz is certainly true, but it’s also not particularly relevant. Celine Dion sells a lot more records than any jazz artist, as well. (In fact, there’s some chance she sells more than every jazz artist put together.) This is not to disparage or deride smooth jazz — it’s just that there is effectively zero overlap between their scene and our scene.

Roger Bourland March 11, 2007 at 9:18 am

Thanks for the clarification. I’m NOT a jazz expert by any stretch. One of my former students, Dave Koz, is a major cog in smooth jazz and I’m very proud of him. I have to say it’s very weird hearing his music in resorts and elevators!

Brad Wood March 11, 2007 at 12:08 pm

I don’t begrudge the success of “smooth jazz” although I wish they would call it something other than jazz—it leads to initial misunderstandings and disappointments when a person with whom you’re hoping to find something in common says she likes jazz, and then qualifies it by mentioning Kenny G. To which I am tempted to respond, Oh you mean saxophones played slightly sharp with long held notes and lots of reverb, and occasional bell trees. Dave Koz, who plays pretty well in tune (and [mindless trivia] whose father was my sax teacher’s dermatologist), has my blessing. Better him than me!

But back to Roger’s remark about growing up—in those days the number of jazz players I had ever heard about being gay were extremely limited. In fact (although I clearly haven’t made anything of a study of it) until DJA’s posts I was unaware of Haynes or Ware being such (while knowing their fine work). About the only one besides Billy Strayhorn I knew of was Cecil Taylor, who also made no bones about it.

But then I suppose the number of any musical genre’s out figures was small in those formative years—recall that this was pre-Stonewall etc. for many of us. Rock, was embracing a certain teasing pansexuality but even then most performers were hedging their bets, with a notable exception or two like Little Richard.

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