Making Jazz “Legit”

Jazz has been taking its shots lately. In a recent post for the webzine New Music Box, titled “In Defense of Jazz,” Patrick Zimmerli documents a whole litany of recent popular insults to jazz from sources as diverse as The Simpsons and Stephen Colbert on one hand, to a parody piece in the New Yorker on the other. Jazz takes criticism for its “wrong notes” and “crazy sounds,” for its unpopularity, and for taking itself so seriously. Zimmerli suggests that Jazz began to lose its way during the 1960’s and 70’s with 1) the rise of the jazz avant-garde, 2) the entrenchment of Jazz in the educational system, and 3) the rise of rock and roll, Beatlemania, and pop culture in general.

jazz-bass-copyPersonally, many of the most inspiring and moving performances I’ve ever witnessed have been from Jazz performers, but Zimmerli has a point. Jazz peaked in popularity in the 1940’s and 50’s but took a real nosedive in the 1960’s. Rock and Roll’s ascendency in popularity marginalized not only jazz, but all music with a “swing” tempo. He talks about the rise of Fusion Jazz, which has now been homogenized into Smooth Jazz, and how the steady beat and electronics didn’t ever really work. But frankly, I loved this era of Jazz. I was weaned on the music of Miles Davis, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett. But he’s right, this music didn’t last, mostly because of Zimmerli’s second point: the institutionalization of Jazz. You can’t teach something that is happening now! Entrenching Jazz in the educational system guaranteed that students would be learning older styles and techniques. The rising stars weren’t playing Fusion, so it gradually became commercial.

Imbedding Jazz in education, however, did keep it alive, and it developed some outstanding players. The Phoenix Symphony was lucky last year to play with Wynton Marsalis and his Lincoln Center big band. I could not get over what incredible musicians these guys were, ALL of them. Marsalis turned out to be a real Jazz historian as well as phenomenal player (and composer). But really, a big band? It was a great experience and lots of fun, but I wouldn’t call it the cutting edge of pop culture.

As far as I can tell, Jazz has swapped being relevant for being an institution. For a couple of decades now, the forefront of pop culture has been a hazy multiplex anyway. “Fifteen minutes of fame” (Warhol) has been supplanted by “famous to fifteen people.” (Momus) I think Jazz can and is doing quite well in its own little corner of the universe, even if Madge Simpson does have to pay Lisa’s friends to go listen to Jazz with her!

For as long as I can remember, jazz players have been calling symphony players “legit,” as in “he’s a good soloist but he can play legit too!” I always feel that they must not realize how petrified Classical players are of improvising anything! It really is a mutual admiration society.

As for Jazz receiving criticism, I admit that a part of me wants to say, “If you don’t want to swim with the sharks, don’t get in the water!” In the case of the Jazz avant-garde, this is especially so. I remember well how, in the mid-1970’s, my roommate and I got hold of some records by Free Jazz disciples of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. After listening for a few minutes, my roommate said, “My God, that sounds like a zoo burning down!” It is an image I can’t shake.

But everything I’m hearing about jazz recently, I have also heard about Contemporary Classical Music. My colleagues in the Phoenix Symphony have always needled me about being a composer, and sometimes, concerning some of the pieces we’ve played, I have sided with them.

Even other composers have done their share of poking, and their needles can be sharp indeed. Several years ago, a composer named Kevin Hanlon was teaching at the University of Arizona (he’s now at SMU) while I was putting on concerts with the Arizona Composers Forum. He was a creative guy and had an impish sense of humor. He said he had several pieces that were “not serious.”

imposter-pict-2One in particular I remember was called “The Imposter.” In it, a piano quintet comes out on stage and begins a serious performance of an atonal, pointillist piece with intense concentration. After a couple of minutes, a man in a tux who is bound and gagged makes his way down the aisle, accompanied by muted shouts. The performance is halted and the first violinist jumps into the aisle, ungags the man, and converses for a few seconds. Then the violinist returns to the stage, walks over to the pianist and orders him to leave the stage. As the man who was gagged composes himself, the violinist explains that an imposter had assaulted the pianist, taken his place, and was just improvising. With the difficulty of the music and the amount of concentration involved, the rest of the ensemble had not noticed. All of this is funny enough, but the punch line comes when they restart the piece. The real piece was indistinguishable from the one with the imposter.

I, too, had an alter ego. I once received a letter addressed to “Gleem Dysloop.” Since it was addressed to my parent’s house, my mother saved it for me. She said it sent her into a laughing fit because it included, in two words, nearly every common typing error. It had two e’s instead of two n’s, an m instead of an n, d-y-s is s-t-a with your left hand moved to the right one key, misreading an o for a c, and typing only one l instead of two. So naturally the name stuck. In my twenties, I would use Dysloop as the reason to come up with all kinds of goofy ideas. For instance, one of Dysloop’s major works was The Isometric Ballet. For this the dancers would just flex their muscles according to the choreography, while the musicians would only think their parts. If you couldn’t hear or see anything, you just weren’t on the right wavelength.

Another of Dysloop’s signature works, the How Dry I Am Variations, featured what I found out later was one of P. D. Q. Bach’s favorite development techniques, endless repetition. I was lucky enough to play with Peter Schickele on a few of his passes through Phoenix, and I asked him why he didn’t harpoon contemporary music. “That’s too easy of a mark!” he said.

So, though Zimmerli’s article is worth reading, I don’t really believe Jazz needs defending. It is music; some is good, some is bad. Whether Jazz, Contemporary Classical Music, or any other genre, good music leaves a lasting impression and is worth doing and listening to.

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