Jazz for Kulturbloggers II – Why You Should Listen to Jazz

by Sam B

Actually, I don’t think I want to ask why you should listen to jazz. Better is, why should anybody make the effort to give jazz a try. I think ultimately there’s an aesthetic payoff–jazz is both fun and challenging, and the challenge makes the fun that much better–but there are other musical forms that are also challenging, other forms that are also fun, and even some that are both. So let me offer two contradictory reasons, plus a third for United States kulturbloggers.

(1) Listening to jazz (and, specifically, jazz by people who are still playing today) prevents jazz from becoming a museum piece. It’s cheaper for record companies to keep releasing old Miles Davis albums, because they’ve already repaid the costs. But if that small portion of record stores that houses jazz is full only of albums by dead musicians (and note that I adore Miles), there will be no call for young, innovative players whose music interacts with contemporary culture (such as, for example, Roy Hargrove, whose RH Factor band plays jazz, funk, and rap).

(2) Having some acquaintance with jazz is necessary to be culturally literate, in the same way that, to be culturally literate, we need some acquaintance with Beethoven, with Hemingway, with Picasso, etc. (I realize that this kind of sticks jazz back in a museum, rather than as a flourishing artform, which kind of contradicts #1, but I think both sides are necessary.)

(2a) For our United States readers, one more reason. Jazz is a part of our shared culture. And in the U.S., we don’t have much of that. In Brazil, the older generation may listen to Roberto Carlos, while the younger generation listens to techno, but everybody listens to samba. Italy and France have what amount to national cuisines. There are folk dances in countries that everybody learns and is familiar with. We don’t really have that. We’ve got some great cuisines, but they tend to be regional. If you think jazz is a lot of work for the payoff, you should try modern dance (which is essentially the United States’ contribution to the dance world). Jazz is uniquely American, and may be the closest thing we have to a shared culture.

I’ll try to get some music into radio.blog tonight after work. For Part I, see here.

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20 thoughts on “Jazz for Kulturbloggers II – Why You Should Listen to Jazz

  1. As a side note, I recognize that, in 2a, there are other options for a shared culture music, including especially blues and bluegrass. I’m advocating jazz here because I think both blues and bluegrass are a little more accessible, and because jazz represents a wider culture than either.

    And I recognize that, without Europeans listening to and welcoming jazz expatriates (such as Dexter Gordon), jazz probably wouldn’t have lasted the 60s.

  2. You make some interesting points, but none of those are reasons I listen to music. I especially don’t listen to music because I’m somehow obligated to, which is what you’re making it sound like?

    Re: 2a—is there anyone who wasn’t taught square dancing in elementary school? 🙂

    I listen to music because I enjoy it. You have to sell me on what there is about jazz that I might enjoy. I’m guessing jazz is diverse enough for most everyone to find something to like about it, but I don’t really know.

  3. Susan,
    I don’t mean to suggest that these are the principal reasons to listen to jazz; I think the enjoyment is the real reason. I do think that jazz (along with classical) is one of the harder forms of music to get into at the outset–I’m trying to offer some reasons to keep at it, even if the payoff doesn’t come at first.

    For me, jazz is like coming home. I put on a Ravi Coltrane CD last night, and it just felt good. (And I don’t know why it feels like coming home–my parents don’t listen to jazz, my siblings don’t like it, and my wife dislikes a lot of it. But it sounds and feels good to me.)

  4. Jazz is great stuff and I reject the idea that only the Europeans maintained it after the 60’s. There’s always been a hard core collection of Jazz fans. Heck until the last couple of years Jazz was, with classical, the mainstay of NPR stations. (I think it’s changing just because of the popularity of the all-news format and alternative technology such as iPods)

    Jazz did hurt themselves in the 60’s and early 70’s by becoming too difficult for a casual listener to enjoy. But I honestly don’t think it’s ever really been that far out of line. Take blues which is also difficult for a lot of casual listeners to enjoy – it’s too raw – yet it has maintained its popularity and done so without a lot of radio play.

  5. Clark,
    In 1961, Dexter Gordon expatriated, largely to France and Denmark. His “homecoming” was at the Village Vanguard in 1976. During that period, a lot (though not, by any means, all) of U.S. jazz musicians went to Europe. They claimed they did it because Americans weren’t listening to them, which kind of makes sense, because that’s when popular music started exploding and that’s when jazz became harder to listen to. Miles Davis went electric (especially his On the Corner album) largely to reconnect with a young black audience that was listening to James Brown.

    It’s not that only Europeans maintained it after the 60s (although maybe I didn’t make it clear that I meant during the 60s and early 70s), but they certainly made it a lot easier for a number of jazz musicians to put bread on their tables.

    In the late 70s/early 80s, there was a rennaisance of young acoustic jazz musicians, led in large part by Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and since then, jazz (imho) has been comfortably rooted in the U.S. again. (Although, of course, Sting appropriated Wynton’s band, including brother Branford, for a number of years after the Police split up.)

  6. Oh, and Susan,
    I think your last sentence–that jazz is broad enough that anyone can find something to like is true. That hasn’t really converted any of my family, but all three of my siblings have and claim to like Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (which is the one album I think every person in the world should own). And my wife likes Dave Brubeck. So I do think there is something there for everyone.

  7. Well in terms of making money, perhaps. That is in terms of keeping Jazz current. In that sense blues fared better than Jazz since there were arguably more blues clubs than Jazz clubs.

    However consider various Jazz forms. Say the big band jazz or the riverwalk Jazz. Forms that the larger Jazz community often themselves abandoned. They were maintained however via grass roots efforts mainly in the US.

    But you are right that experimental Jazz for a period went underground to Europe. Although arguably it always maintained strong influence in the US since not everyone who was a Jazz affectionato or even player were full time professional artists. And then there were communities like New Orleans and the like.

  8. And just so there is no confusion among the unitiated: Jazz in NOT Kenny G and the other imposters posing as musicians under the label of “smooth jazz”. Jazz is the ecclectic majestic music performed by: Armstrong/ Ellington /Parker /Gillespie /Brubeck /Davis /Krupa /Goodman /Holliday /Sandoval /Marsalis /Tatum /Biederbeck /Hampton /Coltrane /Mangus /Jelly-Roll /Evans /Ella /Gordon /Peterson /Rollins /Monk /Basie and many other giants.

  9. Well, you know I don’t agree with that Steve. Although it’s debatable whether those first two albums were really Jazz, although they had a strong Jazz influence. (But then you could say that about some Pink Floyd)

    Interesting here’s what Brandford said about it in one interview.

    Twenty times a year I meet people who say ‘yeah I got turned on to jazz with you from Sting, and in their minds what they’re thinking is that those records that I did with Sting were jazz records. But two or three times a year I meet people who say “I’d never heard you until I heard you with Sting”, and then they start talking about Ornette and Sonny Rollins and Coltrane, and I say “Wow, so that was cool.”

    I’ve changed and our music started to change, and our music is just not user friendly any more in the general sense of the word. So when I was in my twenties playing with Sting was great. But when I came back to jazz the overall level of musicianship that the band exhibited was so low it made our music palatable to people who weren’t hard core jazz fans. Now that we’ve actually stepped it up to the point where we’re playing really sophisticated music, it’s very difficult for people to follow. We just did a string of gigs that ended in Newark where people were just staring at us like we had three heads. They didn’t know what to make of us and we weren’t even playing hard shit. We were playing ballads and stuff, but it didn’t come out the way they were used to it or whatever it was, so the whole pop culture cache is done and it’s hard for us to get our artists, including myself, into those (general circulation) publications. But I think that if you keep banging at the door all you need is a little, a little foothold, a little tiny foothold and then the rest will take care of itself.

  10. Just to add, I think that attitude towards Jazz is what gets my goat sometimes. The idea that to be Jazz it has to be hard and correspondingly inaccessible. A lot of early Jazz was very accessible and is very much Jazz. Indeed through much of the 50’s and early 60’s the line between Jazz and Pop was very blurry indeed. Now, primarily due to the moves in the late 60’s, there is that bifurcation and any movement over the line is seen as non-Jazz. I suspect that a lot of Jazz artists from the 30’s through 50’s wouldn’t be considered real Jazz.

  11. BTW – check out this review of Bring on the Night. (Fantastic double-album too – one of my favorites of Sting/The Police)

    Sorry to go down this tangent.

    Getting back onto tangent. If you haven’t listened to Johnnie Hartman you should. I love that period of Jazz best of all.

  12. I did dig Bring on the Night, but it disappeared somewhere between college and home when I graduated.

    It’s always interesting to hear what Branford says; you’re quotation paints him as being a jazz snob (and when he speaks in Ken Burns’ jazz, he sounds about the same). That said, he’s one of the broadest, most well-rounded players out there. He plays everything from Dixieland to super-progressive, out-there free jazz. He played with Sting, he put out a blues album (everything from free-jazz blues to BB King), and he put out a couple R&B/funk/rap albums (under the name Buckshot le Funque). He’s one of my favorite players and, like Miles, if you listen to the breadth of his work, you here a good portion of jazz styles.

    And Clark, have you listened to the Johnie Hartman and John Coltrane album? “My One and Only Love” from that album may be my single favorite recording with vocals ever. I’ll post it if I can find where I have it, along with a Dizzy piece, a Branford piece (any preference as to how accessible/inaccessible?), and, of course, something by Miles.

  13. Coltrane/Hartman is fantastic. I had the whole album and lost part of it in a HD crash. I need to buy it again.

    I think Branford is, in a way, a Jazz snob from what I can tell. Yet, at the same time he was quite willing to play those other styles. So he’s a very non-problematic snob. After all he was the main force of Sting’s band and then did the Tonight Show for a long time. As you said he plays an astounding number of styles as well.

    I’ve not heard his blues album though. What’s the name?

    BTW – I like Coltrain/Hartman’s Lush Life. But that’s just such a classic piece of music. There was a show on PBS a couple of weeks ago about the composer. Unfortunately I missed it but they did an hour about it on NPR’s Talk of the Nation that was great.

  14. BTW – I like Coltrain/Hartman’s Lush Life. But that’s just such a classic piece of music. There was a show on PBS a couple of weeks ago about the composer. Unfortunately I missed it but they did an hour about it on NPR’s Talk of the Nation that was great.

    The composer’s name is Billy Strayhorn. I didn’t hear that show but there’s a biography about him (also called Lush Life, if I recall correctly) that you might wanna check out if you’re interested.

  15. Yes, the link was to that. The NPR show was an interview with the author of Lush Life (the bio) and one of his nieces as well as the director of that PBS bio.

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