Has jazz been saved? Again ? (2) Chris Parker writes…

When Chris Parker read the piece on Ronan Guilfoyle’s blog about jazz being saved again, it rang a familiar alarm bell. Here is Chris’s piece on the subject from Jazz Review (2004)

Every time there’s a headline such as ‘Jazz strikes a chord with a new generation’ (Sunday Express 25/08/02), or some jazz-loving celebrity such as Clive James (THIS ARTICLE) or Michael Parkinson picks some restricted area of the music and champions it at the expense of the richly multifarious whole, bells are rung and the odd alarm set off. The bells alert us to the fact that we’ve been here before: in the 1980s, colour supplements were (briefly) full of ‘jazz is hip’ pieces illustrated by sharp-suited young men holding saxophones.

Adverts featured ‘authentic’ jazz storylines in which grizzled (black) tenor veterans burst with pride as young (white) protégés thrilled crowds with their virtuosity. Wire magazine held its awards ceremony round at fashion designer Katharine Hamnet’s place; the Wag Club tried to persuade us we were living in the sort of freewheeling, jazz-loving capital portrayed in Absolute Beginners. The alarms were triggered by memories of what happened next: the clubs (the Jazz Café, the Rhythmic etc.) that had ridden the jazz renaissance waves were left stranded like beached whales when the tide of fashion receded; a whole generation of jazz musicians was written out of the music’s history in the popular mind, an organ readily persuaded that British jazz had sprung, fully formed, from the head of Courtney Pine in the mid-1980s; the young lions (Andy Sheppard, Tommy Smith prominent among them) who had been signed to major labels were abandoned without ceremony.

Now before the accusations of elitism, snobbery and sheer curmudgeonliness start, it should be made clear that no one in his or her right mind would begrudge jazz the chance to be popular, to reach a much wider audience. The alliance of jazz and fashion should worry the jazz community not because its members are inherently reactionary or over-protective of a music they are often seen as claiming to ‘own’, but because fashion is, by its very nature, ephemeral: it is a device particularly attractive to capitalists, who have a vested interest in building obsolescence unnecessarily into goods such as clothes and music. It is also obsessed with the superficial – necessarily, because complexities don’t lend themselves readily enough to the sort of sloganeering essential to advertising campaigns. As a consequence, jazz musicians whose music is not immediately accessible (the vast majority in a form as subtle as jazz), or who do not conform to the media’s extremely limited idea of sexual attractiveness either because they’re over 30 or don’t care about what they wear, or both, are unjustly neglected.

What such an alliance also does is to turn the word ‘jazz’ from a serious and useful descriptive tag into that ubiquitous contemporary curse: a ‘brand’. In the advertiser’s world, words – as, famously, in Wonderland – can mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean, so ‘jazz’ is instantly devalued by being applied to any commodity or establishment, be it a radio station, café, car or perfume, that can profit by associating itself not with the music in all its depth, integrity and complexity, but rather with the ‘idea’ of jazz: risk-taking, adventurousness, raffishness and, above all, that most nebulous yet perennially popular attribute, ‘cool’. The results of such terminological debasement can be seen all over the capital: Jazz – excuse me, Smooth – FM plays hardly any jazz, the Jazz Café (and, since 2006, even Ronnie Scott’s) put on fewer jazz concerts or (in the latter case) intersperse them with gigs by the likes of Tony Christie or Alexander O’Neal, the London Jazz Festival is advertised via pictures of Femi Kuti rather than, say, Joe Lovano.

Consequently, instead of being painlessly drawn into listening to jazz, progressing in easy stages from ‘smooth jazz’ or horn-laced Afrobeat to swing and bebop, tyros are initially attracted by immediately accessible, glittering pop masquerading as jazz, only to be fatally alienated by subsequent exposure to what they inevitably see, by harsh contrast, as the bewildering heterogeneousness and complexity of the ‘real thing’.

A related point concerns the inevitable blurring of the boundary that should exist between simplification and outright distortion. As a consequence of the insulting and patronising idea that the vast majority of the population will be forever alienated from a great artform if they are exposed to its subtlety in all its glory from the off, bastardised versions are prepared for ‘beginners’: homogenised pap that, it is hoped, will be so toothsomely inoffensive that later, more sophisticated fare will slip down the popular gullet with comparable ease.

This idea, of course, is not by any means confined to jazz and its dispersal; it is also widely held in contemporary educational circles: children are thought incapable of assimilating Shakespeare as it was written, so are fed cartoon versions and ‘simplified’ texts; Chaucer and Milton, not to mention Jane Austen and Dickens, are simply not taught at all. Instead, the ‘habit of reading’ is what is considered important, so sloppily written, immediately accessible texts dealing with familiar issues and milieux are taught in the hope and expectation that, once a child is keen on reading, he or she will progress by some mysterious, unexplained process, from the equivalent of Jeffrey Archer to Joseph Conrad. A proofreader for 25 years, I can confidently assert that this process has definitely not taken place in the past three decades: the standards of literacy I encounter (from so-called professional authors) every day have plummeted over that time, and grammatical and syntactical mistakes that used to be ironed out of the writing of ten-year-olds are now commonplace. Jane Austen, moreover, is now more frequently associated with Colin Firth in a fetchingly damp chemise than with Regency attitudes to wealth, social position and the ironies of sexual punctilio.

Thus, to return to jazz: in the name of ‘accessibility’ and ‘simplification’, distortion frequently replaces inconvenient truth. It is, for example, easier to sell the myths about the music than explain the truth in all its complexity. Consequently, everyone ‘knows’ (much as they ‘know’ that Elvis Presley is the ‘onlie begetter’ of rock’n’roll despite their complete ignorance of the music’s true history) that jazz was invented solely by slaves, that 1950s American jazz musicians were all face-scratching junkies addicted to the words ‘man’ and ‘cat’, that Benny Goodman integrated jazz bands racially, that British jazz fans are usually bearded sandal-wearers, that free jazz is an aberrant self-indulgence, or (see aforementioned James piece) that the whole of jazz took a disastrous course when it began to consider itself a serious art instead of entertainment, etc. etc. All the above are inaccurate distortions, but truth doesn’t show on balance sheets or in audience figures, so is considered largely irrelevant.

Take the above-mentioned Sunday Express article: the puppyish enthusiasm is commendable – licks are bestowed promiscuously wherever jazz is exposed. Coffee chains play the music! Jazz FM’s listening figures are up! Jazz CDs are selling better! Young people are going to jazz gigs! Unfortunately, however, the other end of the dog, the fiercely wagging tail, is as busy as the tongue, and few precious jazz ornaments are safe from its exuberance. Louis Armstrong is described as a ‘trad’ artist, John Coltrane as a dispenser of ‘bebop’ (when, as Mr James is keen to tell us, everyone knows he is chiefly celebrated for being addicted to ‘subjecting some helpless standard to ritual murder’), the ‘father of British jazz’ (which, pace Jim Godbolt, appears to have started in the late 1940s), Humphrey Lyttelton, has his name misspelled. ‘The Fast Show’ Jazz Club spoof is stripped of its teasing affection and regarded as a straightforward ‘vilification of modern jazz’, and so on. And before the accusations of dry pedantry begin: what’s important about these mistakes is not that they enable the truly knowledgeable to feel superior, but that they point up an uncomfortable fact: jazz, like classical music, the novels of Henry James, Shakespeare’s plays or any great art, is rich, allusive, complex and subtle, not something that can be immediately appreciated by anyone whose acquaintanceship with the music is limited to chattering in a coffee shop while Norah Jones or Madeleine Peyroux warbles winsomely in the background. As with any worthwhile undertaking, there is, simply, no substitute for hard work, fierce dedication and unswerving application.

The Sunday Express article’s ‘must-have’ CDs are also revealing: no Louis Armstrong Hot Fives or Sevens, no ‘Body and Soul’ by Coleman Hawkins, no Lester Young or Charles Mingus or Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane – just the usual ‘smooth’ jazz suspects, plus Joe Sample and – inevitably – Diana Krall.

It should be stressed, in conclusion, that anything that can help to bring new listeners to jazz should be welcomed, but proselytising for the music, in all its richness, diversity and complexity, should not be confused with hitching the waggon of jazz to the thoroughly unreliable star of fashion and commercialism, for the simple reason that the qualities required for popular success in the music industry are almost entirely extra-musical, inherently ephemeral, and fundamentally meretricious, three adjectives that can never be applied to genuine jazz.

This article from Jazz Review in 2004 is reproduced with permission from the successor publication Jazz Journal.

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6 replies »

  1. My God.
    If I'd known you needed 15 degrees to appreciate jazz I'd have gone to Cambridge instead.

  2. Thanks anonymous. I don't think you need a degree. Here's what you possibly need:

    – A big toe capable of moving in time with the music

    – (You might find this the really difficult bit): a smile.

  3. Wonderfully bad-tempered and incisive! The tragedy is that jazz remains in excellent shape, both live and on record, with a huge frame of reference and unparalleled creative diversity. All it needs is an audience …

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