On Friday, the Washington Post published an opinion criticizing jazz as being boring and pointless. Here’s a long post addressing his points.
The author, Justin Moyer, states that he studied jazz at Wesleyan but never had any real appreciation for the style and never got into the music made by the people he was learning from. It seems like studying jazz was probably a poor choice by the author if he never had any passion for it. Regardless, this is something that has some personal interest for me. I played jazz trumpet throughout middle and high school, and while I was never good enough to try to go into music as a profession, it is something that I continue to do as a hobby. Wesleyan holds an important place in my development as a listener and player of jazz as well. I really got started as a serious listener of jazz by checking out albums in Olin Library. I also spent a lot of time practicing in Wesleyan’s CFA (the arts complex), by the offices and practice rooms of the very men mentioned in the opinion piece as the author’s teachers.
Getting on to the author’s points:
1) Jazz often removes the lyrics from standards.
Moyer uses the example of “Take the ‘A’ Train.” In some movie Duke Ellington’s band includes a lyric mentioning taking the A train to Sugar Hill, which to the author “establishes” the song as an “African American anthem.” This is an odd point. These lyrics would have been added well after Ellington started playing the song, and possibly only appeared in the movie. The other thing is that if one wants the song to be an “African American anthem,” the reference to Sugar Hill is unnecessary. Many people would already be aware that the A train in Manhattan is the express train from Downtown and Midtown to Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood. The title alone is sufficient. In fact, I think it’s even better to let listeners come to their own conclusions from the title and the music than to explicitly explain the meaning. As in film and literature, show, don’t tell.
This is also a pretty off-base point to make considering the development of music throughout history. Jazz in particular is fond of taking old pop, theater, or even earlier jazz standards and transforming them into something new. This is one of the things showing the originality of the genre. Any two artists can take the same song structure and come out with something that sounds completely different. In some cases, musicians only take the chord structure, so the name doesn’t necessarily refer to the melody or lyrics of the original song. The famous “Rhythm changes” (the chords from Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”) are maybe the best example of this.
Adapting older tunes in their entirety or even just adding short quotations is a centuries old tradition as well. Just look at all the examples of quotations of Dies Irae, a plainchant hymn that’s over 700 years old. It’s included as part of the Requiem mass with famous examples by Mozart, Brahms, Verdi, etc. It’s quoted in secular music such as in the last movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (though apparently some found its inclusion offensively blasphemous), Liszt’s Totentanz, and in more modern pieces like Crumb’s Black Angels (though it’s much harder to find than in the examples from the Romantic period). A sample was included in a hip hop song from the 2000s (I don’t know the name). In other media, it shows up in Bergman’s Seventh Seal, while one of the common endings (Pie Iesu domine/Dona eis requiem) famously pops up in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The fact that these are wildly different adaptations of the same original tune does not detract from their quality. Nor does the lack of lyrics in some of them diminish the meaning of the quotation. A discerning, educated audience will understand the reference.
2) Improvisation is overrated.
The author’s point seems to be that some people think all improvisation is great, while he still thinks that great music is made all the more impressive if it is great improvisation. This is a reasonable point, but is an illogical one to criticize jazz as a genre. It maybe is more of a criticism of jazz listeners. He uses Phish and the Grateful Dead as examples of often bad improvisation (typically called “noodling” if the band is just playing endlessly without doing anything interesting). He also criticizes jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery for not being interesting enough. Again, this is a criticism that can be leveled at lesser artists but not many of the jazz greats. You can’t judge a style based only on the artists you don’t like. Furthermore, just because a song has the kind of style that makes it good to play as background music doesn’t make it bad. There’s no reason why a mid-tempo tune with a pleasant tone and laid-back style can’t be great.
3) The style hasn’t really gone anywhere in a while.
The idea that jazz has been stuck in a rut is the one position here that I think can be reasonably argued. I actually don’t know a lot about what’s been going on in terms of artists pushing the limits of jazz in recent years. The author mentions some jazz/hip hop hybrids, which he dismisses as tired and tame, but it at least shows that jazz isn’t completely stuck in some glorious past.
I think it is true that the jazz fanbase is largely people nostalgic for music from decades ago, but this is true of many genres. Many people listen to classical music but tend to prefer the Classical, Baroque, and Romantic periods and modern facsimiles. This doesn’t mean that groundbreaking avant-garde composers don’t exist. They just aren’t what the broader community of listeners prefer. The same will be true of jazz as well.
It’s not a fair point to say that audiences like jazz because it’s black music made safe for nostalgic white audiences (this is implied but not directly stated) rather than something like Big Freedia. This clearly shows that the author has a strong preference for upbeat dance music over other styles. This really helps build a case that the author at the very least never cared for jazz as it evolved after the Big Band era. I think this fact alone negates the author’s position as a jazz insider who has grown to dislike the genre.
4) The word “jazz” is applied to too many things.
For example, the writing of the Beat Generation has often been compared to bebop, as have many things in many other artistic media. This is probably true but irrelevant to the thesis of the piece. Calling things that aren’t jazz jazz doesn’t have any bearing on actual jazz. Moyer simply brings up the non-sequitor of “jazz” the aesthetic (really the bebop fan/beatnik stereotype) to criticize “jazz” the style of music. I suppose it perhaps is difficult to come up with a definition of jazz based solely on the music and not on the historical progression of the style, but this is just a sign that the style has evolved from its origins.
5) Jazz is no longer underground dance music.
This is inevitable if a style becomes popular. The general population becomes comfortable with some sub-styles of the music, some musicians become famous, people start studying it in an academic fashion, etc. Calling this co-option (commodification maybe better describes some of the things brought up here) trivializes many of the things that made jazz great. Jazz developed over a very difficult period in American history but played an important role in helping make the country better. Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald are cultural icons and towering figures in the development of jazz. Google Doodles and postage stamps are honoring their place in history and also in some cases explicitly honoring their role as famous black Americans in a time when just being black in America was dangerous. Moyer basically even says earlier in the piece that Ellington’s activism should be acknowledged more than it is.
Furthermore, jazz is one of the few examples of a truly American art form. It developed out of a number of different musical traditions into something new and unique. It is a form of black American music that captured the imagination of the whole country even during the Jim Crow era. Even white musicians such as Benny Goodman used jazz’s popularity to start pushing for change. New styles that emerged from the Big Band era such as bebop – styles that the author dislikes – were developed so that jazz could be something more than just inconsequential dance music. Jazz musicians wanted jazz to be an art form, not a commercialized product. Honestly, I think the author gets this point reversed. The popular dance music forms of jazz represent society trying to co-opt jazz (although I do like many swing artists), not the less-commercial modern jazz developed as a response. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why it’s a bad thing for people to have intellectual discussions about jazz and why it’s bad to acknowledge jazz’s and jazz musicians’ places in American society and American history.