Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Jazz Police

I just ran across an essay making the attempt to show why jazz is not more popular:
Eventually, that question started to haunt me: “Why isn’t this music more popular?” Being on the air every day, it didn’t take long to start to find out one of the major reasons. I was playing Herbie Hancock’s record Head Hunters (listen below) one morning when I got a call on the listener line. I picked up and the caller said flatly, “This. Is. Not. Jazz.” Huh? It’s Herbie Hancock, how could it not be jazz? This, as it turns out, was just the tip of the iceberg—so began my experience with a community that I (and others) call the Jazz Police.
The author, Matt Fleeger, asserts that jazz, rather than being a particular musical style, is rather an interpretation of music (his phrase). Therefore:
when you try to take something as creative as jazz and fit it into a box, it becomes unattractive to people. And, you do a disservice to all of the incredible artists who pushed this great artistic invention forward. Art shouldn’t have too many rules (or any rules at all). Unfortunately, over time a conservative contingent has dominated the jazz scene and branded it with a definition that is stuck in the 1950s. To their mind, jazz died in ’68 when Miles went electric (watch below). But to mine, that was just one of jazz’s many (continuing) amazing evolutions.
There is a similar danger confronting classical music as well, though configured somewhat differently. Whereas with jazz, some aficionados try to establish the legitimacy and authenticity of it as a serious musical form by associating it with a particular variety of jazz or a particular era, in classical music there are a couple of different camps: there are a whole bunch of professional consultants that are constantly advising classical musicians to present themselves more like pop musicians. They recommend chatting up the audience, light shows, multi-media, more hip programming and costuming and so on. Another camp, and I guess I am partly with them, insists that classical music be left alone and that audiences simply be given a bit more introduction or education. The classical repertoire speaks for itself and the more you mess with it the more you dilute it. Another camp, and I am partly in this one as well, insists on the creative freedom of the artists as does Matt Fleeger. He tries to fudge the problem by saying that jazz is whatever people play who say it is jazz:
I’ve stopped trying to find a clear-cut definition for jazz and embraced the notion that it probably is undefinable. For me, it’s all about the artist’s intent. If the artist intends the creation to be jazz, then it must be!
This just escapes the issue without answering it, of course. He wants to say that jazz is not a genre, but rather an interpretation, which is kind of interesting. But he should probably add that this interpretation leads to the creation of many genres. Then at least we can talk about it. If you just say that jazz is whatever musicians say it is, then it is hard to say anything about it.

Jazz certainly seems to have a variety of genres that we can recognize: Dixieland, Be-Bop, Latin jazz,  Big Band jazz, fusion and so on. Wikipedia has a list. That list is probably a bit too thorough, but I can certainly see how you could do a fair description of some of the larger categories. And that would not be prescriptive, just descriptive.

The danger that Matt is describing: the dictates of a jazz police, is feared so much by most people who write and talk about music that they prefer to avoid any kind of aesthetic judgment. This, to me, seems to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Here is that Herbie Hancock album he was mentioning:

Is that jazz?

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