Jazz is Not a Genre

First Google Images search result for "Not a Genre." Awesome.

UPDATE: I’m bumping this up in case you missed it over the weekend … with a few minor edits:

Now that I’ve calmed down a bit after my somewhat-jumbled thoughts about Winter JazzFest, I want to spend a few hundred words here and try to hone in on a more important point about my aural experiences and conversations last weekend. Much electronic ink has been spilled in the wake of last weekend’s JJA panel on the “State of Jazz Journalism Now” and although I did manage to get a few words in edgewise during the panel, upon reflection, a clearer vision of what I want to say has begun to emerge.

A few months ago, Anthony Dean-Harris made a very prescient point at his Nextbop blog, calling jazz “The Every Genre.” As he sums it up,

Jazz is so close in spirit to so many other genres of music that only when one opens his or her eyes, can one see the potential the genre has in itself and through seeking out new inspiration. Jazz has the same do-it-yourself attitude of punk rock. It has the same epic feel of bands like Led Zeppelin. It has the stripped down nature of bluegrass. It has the same smoothness of R&B. It’s practically half the samples you ever hear for anything in hip hop. It is the every genre, you just have to realize it.

Clearly, jazz has moved beyond “spang spang-a-lang” to exist in an amazing variety of sonic contexts. But in a world where we have any kind of music at our fingertips, and no longer have to resort to reductive categories to find the music that we love, why bother with “genre” at all anymore? The biggest problem that I have with much contemporary jazz discourse — reflected in some of the comments made during the panel as well as this post by Hank Shteamer — is that the term “jazz” acts as a musical genre signifier. In other words, this view sees jazz as a musical product rather than a musical process. In my view, jazz no longer represents the bin you search for your favorite music in the record store (true even throughout my high school days in the early 2000s) and is now a kind of attitude, approach and style that influences many musicians’ artistic endeavors.

Beyond its relevance as a musical process, however, the term “jazz” holds importance as a marker of membership in a specific, widely-dispersed global community. This membership-signifying role is not unique to jazz, but the global breadth and historical depth of the community that jazz represents is, I believe, completely unique. That is why “member of the jazz community” was the best replacement that I could come up with for the painfully-square “jazzer,” which ought to be reserved only for cucumbers. Those with an affinity for jazz — be they musicians, producers, presenters, journalists, fans, or anyone else — enjoy a place within a strange and beautiful back-eddy of musical fascination.

As Dean-Harris astutely points out, those of us with these proclivities live in a world with increasingly-permeable sonic boundaries. It would be difficult for any jazz fan not to encounter music that comes from outside the core jazz tradition — even if you just listen to music that self-identifies as jazz, you still get Robert Glasper, Kneebody, The Bad Plus, Joao Gilberto, Medeski Martin & Wood and Paquito D’Rivera. And of course, those musicians and many others have contributed to countless musical projects that don’t advertise their jazz affiliations.

Which brings me to the most existential point of discussion that has been batted around in the wake of the panel: why call oneself a “jazz journalist” anyway? To me, that question is obvious: because someone needs to take heed of the community’s common interests. As journalists covering a beat, our challenge is to frame a discursive space that stakes out territory between the polemical tendencies that exist within this particular group of people.

This is a reason to be a “jazz journalist” that goes far beyond the inflated self-importance of the nerdy, walled-off musical purists Shteamer seems to be chastising. The music means something because of its rich history and because of how people understand that history today. This understanding takes place in musical, written, and informally-discursive arenas (the latter of which was parodied brilliantly by the Jazz Robots meme. So killing, man.)

Today, the polarities exist between the pedantic champions of jazz-as-black-history and those who de-prioritize a historical interpretation of jazz and prefer to re-frame it in contemporary progressive musical spaces. I’ll call this “ahistorical” and “only-historical” models. James Hale characterizes the phenomenon here, although it is certainly nothing new to jazz discourse. In addition to the generational differences Hale observes, there are also racial undertones to these polarities: most of the audience (and most musicians) promoted as “ahistorical” are white, while those who champion the “only-historical” are mostly African-American (although most of the audience is still white, as pointed out by Ron Wynn in 2003.)

In my last post, I reacted to Ben Ratliff’s glorification of the ahistorical approach at the expense of the only-historical approach, as if they cannot effectively coexist (meanwhile, the festival itself proved that they can.) I also pointed out that I have criticized those who have placed their emphasis too far on the historical side of the spectrum. But at the end of the day, both groups represent the jazz community, and it is important to recognize both as important contributors with similarly noble intentions. Even more important, a great number of people — myself included — find their tastes somewhere in between these poles. Sure, nothing gets my dopamine firing like Saxophone Colossus or Eminent JJ Johnson, but I have thoroughly dug a lot of recent releases, too (Darcy James Argue’s music, championed by the “ahistorical” approach, happens to be some of my favorite stuff out there.)

As I commented in Hale’s post, the jazz community is sort of like a big, dysfunctional family. Calling for Child Protective Services to come in and take away the kids (in this analogy, distancing much of the fascinating music showcased at Winter JazzFest as “not really jazz” to get away from the perceived “baggage” of the term) would be just as pointless as the parents angrily disowning them (the futile attempts to narrowly define the genre with specific stylistic markers.)

The danger of aligning exclusively with the ahistorical model is that the music becomes detached from its rich, powerful legacy that has empowered African-Americans, and runs the risk of being covertly (if unintentionally) appropriated by mostly-white presenters, writers and, increasingly, young musicians.

The danger of aligning exclusively with the only-historical model is that by not reaching out to a younger audience, jazz gets ghettoized into museum music, what Lara Pellegrinelli called musical broccoli, and the continuing legacy of the music’s relationship to the African-American struggle for equality is marginalized as merely of the past. (Mr. Argue offered the most succinct and spot-on criticism of that approach in a post-panel conversation: “nobody wants to be beaten over the head with [jazz history]”).

This challenge and responsibility as members of the community exists regardless of the structural realities that frame it. One of the common sticking points at the JJA event, highlighted by Gregory Himes in his recap of the event, is that “ain’t nobody getting paid.” That’s obviously a problem, and one that requires large-scale structural solutions that have not yet been conceived.

But regardless of those issues, our role as “scribes of the tribe” remains. Jazz has continued to mean something to people for over a century because enough people have always cared to do something about it. That powerful resilience and permeability is part of what continues to attract people to the music. Thankfully, the internet is a great place for the conversation to continue, for new ideas to develop, and for you and I to continue to enjoy amazing music. In that sense, Jon Wertheim’s rebuttal to my last post is right on:

So don’t worry, Billy Taylor. Don’t worry, Wynton. Don’t worry, Dave Brubeck. Your legacies are and will be preserved. But, true to what I’m sure you all wish, those legacies won’t stagnate – because jazz is a music that likes to keep things fresh.

One of the best examples of this musical middle ground is the widely-celebrated (and “Genius-Awarded“) pianist and composer Jason Moran, whose recent album Ten made it onto practically every critic’s “Best of 2010” list (mine included.) I’ll leave it to him to take this one out:

Oh yeah, and by the way: he’s playing a pair of concerts this weekend, which will be really, really good.

About arodjazz

Writer, trombonist, and PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology exploring the complexity of today's jazz world
This entry was posted in Jazz Journalism, Resisting Definition and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Jazz is Not a Genre

  1. Great post – thoughtful and well argued.

    One point – you say that jazz has moved ‘beyond spang spang-a-lang’, and that’s true, it now encompasses so many different feels, concepts and genres and is related to so many different genres, and used by many different genres as decoration or flavour or whatever. I was at the Winterjazz Fest too, and saw so much great stuff, almost none of which was spang spang-a-lang.

    But the more this process goes on – the diversity, the eclecticism – the prouder I become as a musician OF spang spang-alang! Because this is something that only jazz musicians do, and is something only jazz musicians CAN do convincingly. And so so much great and timeless music has been created around spang spang-a-lang, and hopefully will continue to do so. All the other stuff that we use and absorb from other genres (even though we may use it in a much different way), is not unique to us – but that swinging groove most definitely is. It is our unique accent, the one nobody else has.

    I feel sometimes in celebrating our huge diversity (and I celebrate it too), we’re far too quick to revel in the leaving behind of the swing idiom. I’m really proud of it, proud to play it when appropriate, and I hope we never lose it as a living improvisational tool.

    Just one more tiny point – does Joao Gilberto really identify himself as a jazz musician!?

    Thanks for a great piece

    • arodjazz says:

      I agree with you completely regarding swing — what I meant by that is that jazz has come to include many musical gestures besides (yet still including) swing. Thanks for adding your comment, which clarifies that point very well (I am also very much of spang spang-a-lang as a musician.)

      The tendency you point to, in which some people “revel in the leaving behind of the swing idiom,” is an example of moving too far towards one of the polarities that I identified in my piece, while only celebrating swing-derived music would be moving too far in the other direction.

    • arodjazz says:

      and re: Gilberto — maybe that’s why he canceled on Wein’s New York Jazz Festival this summer?

  2. Sean Gough says:

    Thank you Alex! Great post.

    The whole NEA concert is available elsewhere on the net (including a fantastic, eclectic performance by all the Marsalises)….but thought this would compliment particularly well :

  3. Tom Hall says:

    Free Improvisation is struggling with the same problem you describe – people identifying it as a genre of music, not a process for making music – and the picture the phrase brings to most peoples minds isn’t even as palatable as musical broccoli – it”s more like some horrible musical stew of all your least favorite vegetables.

    And like jazz, the process of free improvisation has become such a huge part of so many kinds of music, and so many kinds of music is referenced by improvisers, that treating it as only a genre of music is a great disservice, both to the musicians and the audience.

    Part of the problem for both free improvisation and jazz is that they are seen as not being relevant, (for very different reasons – free improv is too weird and alien, jazz is too old and dated), whereas in fact they are both an integral part of today’s life and music.

    I think part of the service that people who think and write about both of these musical processes can provide is to constantly demonstrate how this is true – to open up people’s perception and awareness of the many ways that their lives and the musics they love are connected to jazz and improvisation.

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