Getting Jazz

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Culture, Music

Over at 2Blowhards Michael made a rather long and involved post dealing with elitism, snobbery, high and low arts, America, Europe, and all that. Definitely a great post, and worth checking out.

Michael talks about Jazz as an example of the sort of eclectic American mix of low/high art, and how these categories that have developed in the European art world lose relevance when talking about the American arts world. I’m not entirely in agreement with this sort of thing, as I’m a major elitist, but I’m also in favor of poking the academic arts world in the eye now and again. What I can appreciate about the so-called “low” arts in America is the raw vitality, the in-touchness with human themes and emotions, whereas so much of the academic world seems to be caught up in the pure cerebral.

As usual, the comments on any 2Blowhards post are half the fun. After reading some 50 comments or so, what strikes me is how many people seem to accept as a given that jazz is a “Great Art Form”. Maybe it’s just me, but I just don’t get jazz. Maybe I haven’t listened to enough, or only to the wrong people. For me, Jazz seems to fall into roughly three categories. The first is as background music that might be part of an enjoyable experience so long as it’s not the central focus of the activity or action. A recent example for me is the music in Taxi Driver, which I found to have great, evocative and moody music without being overpowering to the rest of the movie. The second is sleep-inducing. I’ve listened to a fair amount of jazz, and half the time where I’m simply listening to jazz it seems to induce narcolepsy in me. It’s actually quite astounding, because I can be feeling perfectly fine one minute, then put on some Miles Davis or Charlie Parker and I’ll be napping in no time. The third is just painful. Maybe it’s the academic-bent of the artists that’ve been recommended to me, but a good quarter to half of the jazz I’ve heard is legitimately painful for me to listen to. Whether it’s the brass instrumentation, the poor recording quality, overemphasis on cerebral stimulation, the atonal and dissonant qualities just overwhelm my ears.

To delve into pure nerditude for a moment, it always struck me as beyond belief that Will Riker from Star Trek: TNG would be a big fan of jazz some four hundred years in the future. Jazz today strikes me as a relic that’s pretty much only sustained by academics who use jazz as a form of boosterism for credibility. Mix and match buzzwords like improvisation, syncopation, polyrhythms, throw in a few mentions of dead musicians or fifty year old albums and, voila! Instantly you’re a hip cat with something relevant to say.

Or not. Personally, I think jazz is dead. Whatever historical forces aligned to allow the creation and appreciation of jazz are over, at least in my eyes. In four hundred years jazz is going to be as widely appreciated as medieval folk music is now — And I generally like medieval folk music. But lets not pretend like jazz is something special or enduring. I’m over the “magical negro” formulation, over “soul” being used as a code-word for black, and over the white-guilt appreciation of jazz. I’m over musical scholarship playing its stupid political games using jazz as its knight in shining armor for its neo-Marxist “post-Colonialist” narratives. I’m over people tossing around names of techniques used in the creation of music, to build up its aura of mystique and respectability. Why should I care if I don’t enjoy the music?

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