Creepy, Squirming Larvae
They sit there on a shelf collecting dust, these stacks of jazz CDs that record companies send me. Their mere presence annoys me at times, kind of like when I was in school and had a meaty homework assignment I was avoiding but knew I had to deal with. I know it's my job to listen to these damned CDs, but I rarely have the patience or stamina anymore. So I'm not happy about this, but I've finally decided to admit to myself and the world that by and large, I have come to disdain jazz.
The timing of this epiphany may seem curious. Because of Ken Burns' recent Jazz series on PBS, there's now more mainstream interest in the music than there has been in years. Translation: every yuppie shitbag in America suddenly finds it fashionable to proclaim himself a jazz fan and spend time he might otherwise have invested in stock trading and tasseled-loafer buying listening to music he doesn't really like or even understand.
Why? It has become a status symbol, a prop, a perceived statement of advanced intellect and sophistication. This, of course, is not the fault of jazz itself, but it explains the sour taste that blooms in my mouth each time some blow-dry boy cruises past me in a Lexus, sporting a self-satisfied grin as he plays a jazz CD just loud enough so he can believe people might ooh and aah to themselves, "That man has savoir-faire!"
Fact: jazz stinks. It is stagnant. Rock, country, blues and folk music have all continued to grow and "evolve"; the music sounds different now than it did 10 years ago, for better or worse (often worse, but, hey—at least there's been movement). Jazz, on the other hand, hasn't had a revolutionary figure in decades.
Today, you have five basic models of jazz to choose from:
Straight-Ahead Jazz. Basically, warmed-over bop. While it's listenable enough, it's almost completely devoid of any new ideas or fresh approaches. Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, James Carter, Joshua Redman and the like are all fine musicians, but they lack the inspiration to move the music forward into uncharted territory. Plus, self-appointed/self-serving spokesman Marsalis is so smug and irritating that his mug ought to be mass-produced above the legend "Jazz Is Dead." Smooth Jazz. The modern equivalent of Lawrence Welk as personified by Kenny G, Dave Koz, et al., this is probably the most reprehensible, lightweight twaddle being produced on the planet. I have no doubt that in 10 years, the top names in smooth jazz will own theaters in Branson, Missouri. God, please strike them all down with an incurable disease I can't pronounce.
Avant-Garde Jazz. Some of my pals swear by artists such as John Zorn and Bill Frisell, claiming that these are the modern equivalents of Miles and Coltrane. Horseshit. These people make ugly, discordant and ultimately boring music that sounds like it came from an art school. There's intellectual blackmail involved in this movement as well: if you don't support this atonal jive, adherents will simply claim you lack the sophistication/education to appreciate their innovations. Horseshit, I say. Acid Jazz. Generally, it's second-rate jazz musicians disguising their technical and melodic limitations by adding trendy, non-musical gimmicks such as scratching, samples and electro-effects to the music. Some liken Medeski, Martin & Wood to Jimi Hendrix; I liken them to Mahogany Rush. And I'm sorry Grover Washington Jr. died, but at least he won't be making any more records. Latin Jazz. I still love hearing Arturo Sandoval's screaming trumpet, and that'll never change. But neither do the rhythms, chord progressions and structure of Latin jazz, making most genre bigwigs indistinguishable from one another, like a pile of Big Macs with an extra pickle thrown in hither and yon in the name of variety.
There are, of course, great living jazz musicians. Pianist Cyrus Chestnut is often panned as derivative, but I find his music a unique synthesis of Fats Waller-like stride, McCoy Tyner-like harmonic elegance, and the kind of gospel spirituality that would make Mahalia Jackson proud. Cassandra Wilson has one of the most soulful, moving and technically stunning voices of the recorded age—unfortunately, she elects to use arrangements and instrumentation so self-consciously eccentric that they subvert her musicianship. In his critically neglected work on the soundtrack for the film Backbeat, trumpeter Terrence Blanchard successfully linked modal jazz with the Bo Diddley pulse of rock & roll.
Blanchard's contribution is perhaps the most important because during its heyday, jazz served to free all pop music from its limitations and formalities. I remain convinced, for example, that Louis Armstrong is the single most important figure in American music history. With the phrasing of his singing and trumpet playing—plus his gleeful, charismatic persona—Armstrong showed the world in the 1920s how to loosen up, smile and elicit unbridled joy from playing and listening to music. In the '40s, Bird and Diz came along and added mind-boggling technical proficiency to the mix without losing any of the music's essential felicity. John Coltrane made perhaps the most powerful music of any of them in the early '60s, adding an Eastern influence—both musically and philosophically—that tuned American ears to the spiritual possibilities offered by consuming organized sound.
So this relationship I have with jazz is a love/hate thing. I can put on Armstrong's Hot Five sides and be moved to believe that life is indeed a gift of pleasure. I can meditate behind Coltrane's A Love Supreme or Miles Davis' Bitch's Brew and be transported to uncharted planets in the nether reaches of the universe, an experience not unlike that offered by psychedelic drugs. Conversely, I can play Wynton Marsalis's Blue Interlude and form a picture in my mind of some guy reading music off a chart through thick bifocals, even as I have to admire the technical proficiency. Worse, I can attempt to brave a Kenny G record until I'm put right off food for a week.
Jazz is up against a wall, with a pack of rottweilers gnawing on its legs. Whether it heroically produces a billy club and kicks some canine ass or submits to what appears to be a certain and ugly demise will determine whether America's greatest cultural achievement is a glorious part of history or a living, breathing entity.
Unfortunately, the way things seem to be going, I'd give you real solid odds on the rottweilers.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Orange County art and theater scene.