Jazz Appreciation Month: Appreciation is a two-way street

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It’s been quite some time since I could fairly say Branford Marsalis stirred up controversy, but he set a number of people in the jazz world a-tizzy a couple of weeks ago when he sat down for an interview with the Sidney Morning Herald.

“[I’m often asked] the question, ‘Jazz is so unpopular, why do you think that is?’ And the answer is simple: the musicians suck.”

It was the stuff headlines are made of, and our friends from Down Under did not disappoint.

The quote was nothing out of line for Branford, who has certainly walked his own path. While brother Wynton has developed into an ambassador of the music, Branford has always done his own thing.

But whatever the musician’s goals were in saying it, it was the kind of ham-handed statement that does more harm than good to the genre, and is a real disservice to those out there working hard at trying to make a living.

The shame of it all, is the root of Branford’s argument isn’t far off base. The same article sums up Branford’s criticisms quite well:

Today’s jazz musicians are too mathematical and wonkish, he says. Jazz clubs are half empty, only frequented by other musicians who appreciate each other’s showmanship. Listeners need music degrees to understand what they’re playing. The music has become rigid. Improvisation is mostly over-rehearsed regurgitation.

These are all arguments I can get behind. A lot of what is promoted these days falls snugly into that category. The mainstream recording industry has done little to promote some of the creative, innovative stuff that is out there while muddying its traditional jazz labels with more “pop” oriented music.

Jazz artists that do get promoted lean toward the heavily schooled — highly trained in all the mechanics, but lacking in the practical application of the craft previous generations found on the bandstand. This has allowed them to play to each other in the clubs, displaying all the gymnastics, but nothing in the way of interpretation. Or a tune you could snap your finger to.

In the old days, artists who turned their backs on the audience and played for themselves often found themselves out on their ears. Fellow players would call them out for their self indulgence. Now, as that generation passes on, and audiences drifted away, they are free to be as mathematical, wonky and inaccessible as they wish.

In short, far too much jazz education these days takes place in a classroom and far, far too little on the bandstand.

But while Branford’s initial assessment may have been satisfying for someone disheartened by the direction of the genre, it has the unfortunate effect of not advancing the conversation.

Why?

  1. It justifies the belief of the uninitiated that the genre has nothing to offer but “notes”
  2. It does a disservice to a great many artists who are producing exciting, creative work
  3. It builds walls — in essence saying those offenders are irredeemable gives them carte blanche to keep doing their own thing (You think I suck? ____ you, Branford).

A simple statement like that undoes so much of that ambassadorial work musicians have done to draw people to the music. I’m thinking of people like brother Wynton and his Jazz at Lincoln Center stuff, or Christian McBride through his radio programs. Bridging different worlds of jazz, from different times and walks of life. Showcasing many, many talented people.

I don’t blame Branford for being discouraged about the direction many have gone, but little is served painting with such a broad brush. The answer isn’t to walk away, it is to change the conversation.

I think in particular of a anecdote McBride told on his show about a young player he adjudicated, and I hope I’m not mucking the story up too much. The youngster played a technically amazing solo on the chord structure of a popular ballad. When he was finished, McBride gave him his due in regard to the technicality of the playing, but then asked him if he had ever heard the original? Was he familiar with the lyrics? That player left with something to think about. 

There’s hope. Not everyone can be saved, but the answer isn’t to cut bait. Kids in school get plenty of exposure to the music. We need to encourage them to keep playing. That jazz is something learned by doing, not in theory classes. Let’s back off this “America’s classical music” hooey — treating the music like some mix between science and dogma in order to justify someone’s tenure — and get back to what it was all about. Expressing emotion. Having a good time.

I guarantee you, if you make the music fun — if spending money at the club meant hearing enjoyable music, and not some sort of hipsters only clique — jazz would be popular again. Let’s not ostracize an artist as a sellout because they happen to pull off something that sells.

The days when “good music was popular and popular music was good” are in the rear view. Jazz may never be “pop” again, but then, rock may not either. Few would say rock is dead. Nor need jazz be.

April is Jazz Appreciation Month. My suggestion for a good many in the community is think about appreciating the audience, as well. Instead of playing to impress some academic somewhere, play to impress the people. Evangelize.

Without the people, the music fades away,