Thinking about jazz

March 10, 2007

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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.

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

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