IS JAZZ AN IDIOM, a process, a result, a lifestyle? Is it a marketing term or a philosophy? And who cares? Substitute “art” for “jazz” and the subject broadens, but you’re still left with an essential ennui at the heart of the question. Does anyone really believe anymore? I didn’t go to school for any of this, so I didn’t get that special brand of dogmatism that can come from academic entitlement. It’s also true that, like many in my generation, I grew up believing in little other than disappointment.
In the early 21st century, what else is there to say about the landscape of pop music, the state of the industry? I feel like everything’s been said and already written about. At this point, if mainstream listeners’ interest in music extends no deeper than Cities 97 and American Idol, there is nothing I can do with that, nothing I can or even want to say to change their minds.
It just makes me want to clam the hell up.
But here’s what I think. I think the designation “jazz” is pretty much just a marketing category. The word evokes martinis, Cadillacs, and steakhouses; whenever a period pastiche is required, the soundtrack is ’50s jazz. It’s used to sell nostalgia. I have already written extensively about my own bedtime stories, the jazz dreams that fueled my young career; for me, it was a backdrop of black and white New York images, against which a muted trumpet is playing an aching ballad. I suspect those nostalgic jazz clichés are so compelling that we try to recreate them, to constantly validate them in real life. But again, these are just words, signifying not much, really.
There is a lot of debate about jazz – what it is, what it means, what counts as “good” or “real.” That has been true for a long time. Here’s a recent example: musician Nicholas Payton has been stirring the pot lately, rejecting the word “jazz” altogether in favor of “Black American Music”. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it still seems like so much talk to me. The music itself is a form of communication, so it seems defensive and reductive to talk about it so much, to spend so much energy on definitions. I tend to think an art form requiring so much scholarship and sheer verbiage, whether the word count is spent in defense or explanation or derision, might just be losing its vitality. Then again, this is a chatty time, and the written word itself seems a little devalued lately. Facebook, Twitter, and online publication hardly require the effort of even the word processing of 20 years ago, let alone that of actual typesetting or handwriting. Maybe we talk about jazz so much simply because we talk so much.
Duke Ellington never wanted to call the music “jazz” either. Originally, he wanted it called “Negro Music,” and as it evolved, he came to simply calling it “American Music”. Duke so resisted genre categories that he insisted there are only two types of music: good and bad. But he was also wise enough to know that, very early on, we were stuck with both the word and the category, so he moved on, preferring to write more American Music than haggle over terms and definitions. Still, when the Duke Ellington Society was founded in 1953, he suggested the word “jazz” not be used in the group’s name, feeling it was too limiting.
Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk all had trouble with restrictive nature of the word too — and yet here we are, all these years later, and “jazz” has been institutionalized. I still don’t know what it means. I know what “it” sounds like, and when it is good to my ear; I love it and it changes my whole day. And I know it is an expansive music. How else could the sounds of its whole broad development sit so wonderfully together? How is it possible that all the friction the individual artists create winds up sounding so compelling, and yet we sit around and argue about the words used to describe the sounds, as though it were “politics”?
Maybe jazz is a myth. Maybe it is just the stories and feelings that grow up around the sounds — as varied and contradictory as the humans that make and respond to the music. Maybe those stories are necessary for helping us place ourselves in history and culture, for allowing us to get with the feeling of something. The myths we tell strike me as partly, or even mostly, true — but that’s not the same thing as truth. So, the jazz myth and all the nostalgic stories we tell about it — as wonderful, warm, and compelling as they are — can only go so far. At some point, you have to move deeper than reading and talking about slaying dragons, and slay your own damn dragon.
The jazz myth and all the nostalgic stories we tell about it — as wonderful, warm, and compelling as they are — can only go so far. At some point, you have to move deeper than talking about slaying dragons, and slay your own damn dragon.
AT THE END OF EVERY YEAR, I end up feeling disenchanted, a bit cynical about myself and all of us. Milestones demand reflection, and this has been a particularly eventful year, both personally and musically for me. Without going into details, several things I have been thinking about and talking to friends about since college back in the ’90s seem to be coming to head. Maybe the whole accelerated, consumptive force of American mass culture is taking its toll on me, or maybe I am just getting older, but I find I’m more and more impatient with the ongoing dialogue about a musical past for the form I work in. I’m tired of hearing it eulogized, mythologized, and canonized. I’m weary of all the talk.
In the sounds though, I believe the music will be energized! There are enough personalities and personal expressions out there to make all the words go silent. I think that. I believe that. Yes, let’s leave the talk behind and stay with the sound!
Last week, I played a round of gigs with a new band, Boxcar: Wessell Anderson (best known for his work with Wynton Marsalis), Anthony Cox (who has played with everyone and yet is always himself), and JT Bates (versatile, soulful, and fully personal) and me. We went out and played Kansas City, Minneapolis, and Denver. It’s my experience that four musicians in a van will represent at least eight viewpoints on the subject of music, but we had a gas and didn’t need to agree about everything. When we played, it was fully NOW, and fully THEN, too. I felt lucky and hopeful.
Leaving Denver, we drove past Mile High Stadium (now called by some impossible-to-remember corporate name), which sits against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. For all the technological achievements of our monumental architecture, and for all the athletic feats inside, not to mention the hype surrounding it all, the stadium and its manmade environs disappeared into insignificance next to those snow-capped peaks. It reminded me of something John Coltrane said: “All a musician can do is to get closer to the sources of nature, and so feel that he is in communion with the natural laws.”
No words needed after that.
I would rather forgo the written word, when it comes to music philosophy. I don’t have the chops, the rigor, or the belief to say much meaningful. A painting or a piece of music is its own defense. Love it until you don’t. Tastes change and evolve, but what is lasting, lasts. Dig? The dross will fall away except where nostalgia holds it. And that is fine, too. Let’s keep our ears and eyes open; let’s look at trees and mountains, stay up too late talking with friends. Let’s keep our minds on the exercise machine and leave the chronologies and categories and theories and all the rest to the academic mill. There is music to play, food to eat, and beer to drink. Happy New Year.
About the author: Jeremy Walker is a composer/pianist based in New York. He has performed with Matt Wilson, Vincent Gardner, Wessell Anderson, Marcus Printup, Ted Nash, Anthony Cox and other notable musicians. He was the owner of the now defunct club, Brilliant Corners and co-founder of Jazz is NOW! in Minneapolis. In April 2011, Walker stepped down as Artistic Director of Jazz is NOW! to focus Small City Trio in Minneapolis and BOXCAR, a new band with Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson, Anthony Cox, JT Bates. BOXCAR performed to enthusiastic audiences and critical acclaim in Kansas City, Denver, and Minneapolis. Walker and BOXCAR will perform four nights at New York’s famed club, The Jazz Standard, from May 10 – 13.