Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Does jazz suck?

I do feel a little guilty asking the question. I'm not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, having grown up in an area in which "jazz band" meant you played Booker-T and the MG's or the Hawaii Five-O theme. I played one semester in the Duke Jazz Ensemble but clearly couldn't keep up. Besides, we should all be celebrating jazz after Herbie Hancock's stunning Grammy, right? (For an album of Joni Mitchell covers??!!)

But not all is well in the jazz world. "Smooth jazz" is dying. Some might not lament that -- no one I know will ever admit to liking Kenny G, but I never minded hearing George Benson and Norah Jones when I was giving blood. (A few months ago, they switched to one of the local "urban" stations. You know, "urban"? I guess it's shorter than "African American," but it seems even less accurate.)

Then there's the stuff they play at Panera. I suppose you might call it "postbop" or maybe "hard bop" (but not "Mmm-bop"). Or the name I call it, "music that featured in Manos, the Hands of Fate."

Good jazz exists. We played some good stuff in jazz ensemble, even my fingers never quite caught up to the notes on the page. I have some albums by various Marsalis brothers, including the truly excellent Black Codes (from the Underground). That album has memorable hooks and a sense that the talented musicians in the group were connecting. The crap they play at Panera sounds like a bunch of guys went into the studio at different times, played erratic phrases on an unfamiliar instrument while stoned, then patched it all together. And yet someone deemed it worthy of recording for posterity and foisting on Panera diners as if it were listenable.

When I was growing up, Wynton and Branford had substantial followings. Musician magazine covered jazz almost as thoroughly as it covered rock.

In these days of fragmented media, you're not likely to find a magazine that covers jazz and rock. With the decline of "smooth jazz," you won't hear much that falls under the "jazz" umbrella unless you seek it out on XM or the Web.

So perhaps the question isn't whether jazz sucks. Maybe it's just dying, despite Hancock's Grammy?


DevilMacDawg said...

Wonder if they still teach Intro to Jazz. Ahhh, the good days. :D

Michael said...

Then there's the stuff they play at Panera. I suppose you might call it "postbop" or maybe "hard bop" (but not "Mmm-bop"). Or the name I call it, "music that featured in Manos, the Hands of Fate."

Ha! The "haunting Torgo theme!"

Jazz has been a niche genre since the 60s. No one would argue this. I play and listen to jazz fairly regularly, but I'm pretty much the only person I know who does so. Same goes for Bluegrass.

Jazz and Bluegrass are sibling styles. Improvisational, focused on chops, beloved by a tiny little section of society. Neither is going to crack the top 100 anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

good(?) ole USA, the only country in the world that doesn't like it's only major art form. Whenever I hear someone call Kenny G "jazz" I feel a little homicidal. First of all, you wouldn't even have rock or r&b if it wasn't for jazz. I guess it's the difference between reading and watching television. Reading takes some effort and imagination on the reader's part while when you watch TV you just open up your head and pour it in. p.s. Jazz goes thru periods of stagnation just like rock does. Jazz could use a good shot in the arm similar to the effect that punk had on rock.

Anonymous said...

I think it is the annoying sax and trumpet that turns people off from traditional jazz.

I mean... could you imagine the Grateful Dead with someone whining away on a saxophone or even worse... a trumpet throughout their entire set.

I didn't think so.

Anonymous said...

The grateful dead actually had sax players play with them once in a while and it usually was pretty good. Jazz has so much potential, it is just waiting for the right person.