Sunday, August 09, 2009

Can Jazz Be Saved?

In the August 8, 2009 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Terry Treachout, the Journal's drama critic, asks 'Can Jazz Be Saved?'

Treachout begins:

"In 1987, Congress passed a joint resolution declaring jazz to be “a rare and valuable national treasure.” Nowadays the music of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis is taught in public schools, heard on TV commercials and performed at prestigious venues such as New York’s Lincoln Center, which even runs its own nightclub, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.

Here’s the catch: Nobody’s listening.

As it happens, I addressed the same topic in March 2007, but arrived at a different conclusion than Mr. Treachout. If jazz is no longer at the center of our popular culture, or 'living large' as they say, Jazz is nevertheless alive and it's actually living quite well (Jazz is Dead! Jazz is Dead! Long Live Jazz!, Saturday, March 03, 2007).

Interestingly, Treachout and I do appear to agree on at least one point: Jazz is everywhere. So, if it is true that no one is listening to it, then perhaps the apparent collective phenomenon of selective hearing on a such grand scale is in fact the price of ubiquity.

In other words, the cost of going global, and winning universal appeal, as Jazz undoubtedly has, is ironically measured by a sort of cultural transparency.

Does that sound absurd? Consider then how Rock, in the sixties, was once literally thought of as revolutionary by its fans. Today those same 'revolutionary' songs are being sung by children who think them merely a fun way to pass the time.

Or consider symphonic music, which we are also told is 'dead'. Dead as it may be, it also conversely lives a larger than life in cinema, which arguably makes it more popular than it ever has been, really. And yet, however popular, symphonic music as a genre holds little significance at the gravitational center of the pop universe.

But great trends and their resulting works do not end up devoured by a cultural black hole, never to further evolve, entertain, be heard of or performed again. Rather, they remain like points of light in our consciousness.

Which is to say, though such things may always be admired, they do not always continue to excite or inspire us, not with any consistent measure, anyway. But any inherent beauty can still be tapped and even become transforming if only we choose to linger with conscious intention, because now they are so well a part of us, that that which was once external and novel is now internalized so as to become us.

The jitterbug becomes old hat, but only once it has been assimilated. So does a seventh chord, or E7#9 for that matter.

It happens with people we love; it happens with music we love.

This is part of being human:

Eventually we all somehow learn to take for granted something that is even as massively great as a burning star, not to mention Bach, Ballet, The Beatles, too!

–and certainly Jazz.


ScrewMaker said...

That was an awesome post!

Devon said...

I think I largely agree with your post in that Jazz is certainly not absent in our culture. When some of us worry that Jazz is dead I think what we're really saying is Jazz as an industry is essentially dead because not many can expect to make a living playing in the field anymore. It's a part-time love for the vast majority. A smaller subset are teaching.

Music schools still have Jazz studies and the hallmarks of Jazz harmony & chord subs, swinging and improvisation are still being mastered by students. Some would even argue those students are much better than in the past too because of the easy access to music examples and self-teaching information available on the internet. To top it off even with so few doing it for a living there appears a vibrant online community of folks making and performing and talking to one other about it.

So I think the real question is can Jazz ever be popular again? And the answer to that is no. Much of it never was anyway. Glenn Miller was. John Coltrane wasn't. Wynton Marsalis is a popular musician. But compared to the people who recognize his name his music is relatively unlistened to.

It's OK to Jazz up your rock tune interpretation or put a sharp 9 chord in your Rap song. But it's not cool to stand up and burn the changes to Yardbird Suite. And it never will be because it never really was cool.

Nice blog btw

Terry O'Gara said...

Great points. And it strikes me that the same thing applies not just to jazz but the the music industry as a whole: An industry only needs saving by those with a vested interest in it remaining an industry. But art continues to be made and enjoyed regardless of whether or not the resulting works can scale up and support someone's idea of an appropriate business model.