Why Jazz Is On Life Support (and has been since the late 60’s)

I just finished rewatching the Ken Burns “Jazz” series and I am left with a couple of observations.

First it misses a lot of great talented people (largely white artists who, believe it or not, have been major contributors to the art and the popularity jazz gained during the 30’s and 40’s), but then it would have been twice as long (I guess they could have had a little fewer “color shots” and comments from non-musicians–Stanley Crouch and the other critics).  And to be fair, black artists did tend to be the innovators and provided a great deal of the creative drive in jazz.

I don’t begrudge the series it’s shortcomings except, as other critics have said, it has now set a singular narrative into stone and it will be decades before anyone will be able to produce another piece of the sort that could correct some of the errors.

Still, it’s a great introduction to jazz in all its forms–less so for post 60 jazz.  Lot’s of great music, lots of toe-tapping for this old geezer, and lots of information.  The program is great as a spark to interest people in jazz and if like me, you like to surf as you watch stuff like that (okay, I admit it was tough to tear myself away from the show when someone was playing a great riff), you can find a lot of supplementary information on each of the figures in the film.

Much of the criticism the series received from musicians was directed at the film’s sparse attention to modern, techno-, funk, free, and other forms of jazz that have sprung up since the 60’s.

Critics cite that failure as a source of major irritation, but the truth is, for the public jazz died about then.  Now I know I will get some flack for saying that, but for music to be popular (a desire with most, but not all of the musicians mentioned–after all, man does not live by music alone) it must be accessible to the buying public.

It is clear that jazz musicians wish that they could reclaim the popularity and commercial successes of yesteryear, but they want to do so without compromising their “artistic integrity.”  Which makes them very similar to 5-year old children.  “I want what I want, when I want it . . . NOW!

Young cats always want to do something different from what those who went before them did, they want to set their own mark on the world. That is an understandable and nearly universal trait of youth . . . and no bad thing, BUT the problem arises when the artists elevates his “art” outside of the audiences ability to appreciate what he has done.

For commercial success, the music must be accessible to the public. Using esoteric musical concepts and techniques that only a musician can understand is not going to lead to success. What made swing jazz and the other popular forms of jazz popular and commercially successful was its compelling–foot-moving rhythms and strong beat. That combined with melodies that people can actually hum leads to success.

If jazz is going to return to popularity, they must find someway to reconcile the desires of youth to push the limit, yet keep the music accessible. Ornette Coleman, for all his alleged genius, was never-ever going to be popular or commercially viable–complete chaos rarely is.

The problem is that when musicians start talking in “flat fifths,” “changes,” “thirds and fifths,” they understand and appreciate what each is saying and what each is playing . . . but the public doesn’t and what they don’t “get,” they won’t buy.

I say all this as a huge jazz fan, raised by an accomplished swing jazz trombonist.  I like ragtime, stride, swing, big band, blues, cool, bop, and some hard bop, but when the sound screaming out of a sax sounds more like a race to see who can play the most notes in the shortest time, or to see who can play the most atonal, arhythmic, unstructured chaotic series of notes in one set, then count me out and long gone.

Save some of those notes, y’all, you might need some of them later.

Will jazz ever get out of the ICU?  It all depends on whether these young musicians can restrain their egos a bit and find a path to improvisation that opens their music up to popular audiences.  If they don’t do so, then all their belly-aching and whining won’t solve the problem.

Accessibility is the answer, guys (and gals).  Remember the old American Bandstand line, guys, “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”   You want success, there’s the path.

Now I’m gonna sit back and listen to some Sonny Rollins.