Don’t leave jazz to the jazz guys

The music is more than a personality trait.

Don’t leave jazz to the jazz guys

The music is more than a personality trait.

I prefer to pay attention when I listen to music, so if I need background noise while I’m doing something else, I put on a TV show that I don’t expect to be good. One show that met my expectations recently is ABC’s Stumptown, a private-eye procedural with forgettable mysteries and gratuitous action sequences.

One character on the show is a police officer named Miles, which has a significance that was not initially clear to me. But as I was puttering around the house with the TV on, I took notice of a line of dialogue. It came up during a conversation Miles has with his boss, after he is scolded for going off-book and taking the law into his own hands.

“You like jazz, lieutenant?” he asks. My ears perked up.

“I mean, I'm more of a Joni Mitchell fan,” says the lieutenant. “But super excited to hear where this is going.”

Same! Or maybe not so much excited but mortified. It turned out he was doing some kind of extended metaphor.

“Coltrane,” says Miles. “He was the master of perfectly composed music. And then there was Mingus. He was raucous, free-form, rebellious. Nothing polite about him, rejected the mainstream. I'm a Mingus guy. I get him. I understand him.”

Let’s just set aside how cringe-inducing this is as fictional dialogue — the relevant thing is what it tries to say about the subject under discussion: jazz. Here, jazz represents something other than a genre of music; it is meant to evoke a sensibility, that of being unscripted, authentic. The improvisational aspects of the music are meant to designate the free spirit of the vigilante cop.

Not surprising, really. The jazzy detective is a familiar archetype, even if crime fiction rarely includes any meaningful engagement with the music itself. One rare contemporary exception is the character Harry Bosch, title character of the show Bosch. He has a record collection that would impress a real-life jazz collector, but he doesn’t talk about it unless someone brings it up.

I’ve been listening to jazz my whole adult life, or more. But I generally do not raise the subject with anyone unless I know they are also into it, as though it was a sexual kink or a fringe religion.

This is the approach I take. I’ve been listening to jazz my whole adult life, or more. But I generally do not raise the subject with anyone unless I know they are also into it, as though it was a sexual kink or a fringe religion. This is because if you disclose this kind of interest out of context, you risk being typecast. Later in the season, Miles — obviously named for trumpeter Miles Davis — is seen on a date with a different Stumptown character, at a punk rock concert. Aftwards, his date tells a friend that it wasn’t an ideal outing. “Wasn't really his thing,” she says. “He's more of a jazz guy.” The “jazz guy” is certainly a type.

The first “jazz guy” — the kind of person who would invoke jazz as a metaphor for his personality, as opposed to someone who just likes to listen to jazz — was probably Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road includes effusive descriptions of concerts by George Shearing and Slim Gaillard. “The madness would lead nowhere,” Kerouac notes after seeing Shearing. The jazz guy is most often white and usually insufferable. He probably knows relatively little about jazz. Indeed, in 1949, the English pianist George Shearing should not have been your favorite jazz musician.

The worst thing about jazz guys, as Kerouac epitomized, is the tendency to talk about jazz a lot without really having much to say about it. Stumptown's Miles fits the bill. It’s bad enough to lecture people about a subject they may not share your interest in; what makes it even worse is if you get it all wrong. I try my best not to participate in that kind of conversation, but since Miles started the ball rolling, I reserve the right of response.

The specifics of the above dialogue are rather severely off-base. The musicians in question, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, are characterized nearly inversely. Coltrane, a saxophone player, was hardly a player of perfectly composed music — he was possibly the most influential, and at times “free-form,” improviser of his era. Mingus, on the other hand, is one of the few figures in modern jazz whose reputation takes the shape primarily of a composer rather than a performer, after Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. As a bass player, he played improvised solos far less frequently than Coltrane, at times leading his ensemble through material performed more or less as written.

There is already an oversight embedded into whole framing of the conversation, which counterposes Joni Mitchell against jazz, as presumably a polar opposite: the frail, folksy white lady. But if either participant in this conversation really knew their favorite musician’s work, they would know that Mitchell was one of Charles Mingus’s major collaborators late in the composer’s life, recording an album with his supervision in 1979, called Mingus. Joni Mitchell was arguably a jazz guy — or at least she could have been mistaken for one.

That being said, the jazz guy is almost always a guy. However, the Claire Danes character on Homeland was a jazz guy. In her, like Miles, a fondness for jazz was supposed to symbolize a coloring-outside-the-lines approach to law enforcement — in this case, the war on terror. John Mayer is a notable jazz guy, though he does seem to genuinely love jazz, making occasional winking references to classic Blue Note records. Ken Burns doesn’t even appear to listen to jazz, but became one of the worst jazz guys of all time for the purposes of his documentary miniseries on the subject.

The most prominent contemporary jazz guy has to be Damien Chazelle, director of the films Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016), the latter of which is best-known for not winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. Whiplash is a sports movie in which the athletes compete using musical instruments. The protagonist, a student jazz drummer, is an admirer of Buddy Rich, a big-band celebrity whom hardly anyone who has heard more than a little bit of jazz would consider a favorite. The climactic big game is a competitive concert where the music itself is thoroughly boring. As Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, whose body of work shows an ongoing engagement with modern jazz, put it in Rolling Stone, Whiplash “has nothing to do with actual jazz unless you consider it to be a species of martial arts.”

La La Land managed to be even worse — a story about black music that is overwhelmingly white, a movie musical that is inspidly heterosexual. The movie’s hero, Sebastian, is a jazz pianist played by Ryan Gosling. He has stepped up from Buddy Rich, copping licks in one scene from a Thelonious Monk solo. Much of the movie’s dialogue consists of him offering his perspective on why jazz is good, or what jazz really is. As he tells Emma Stone’s character, Mia, on their first date:

I just think that people, when they say that they, you know, hate jazz, they just, they don't have context, they don't know where it comes from. Jazz was born in a little flophouse in New Orleans, and it's just because people were crammed in there, they spoke five different languages, they couldn't talk to each other. The only way they could communicate was with jazz.

This is a bit ridiculous, for one thing. People in New Orleans at the turn of the century were surely speaking English, French, Spanish, and Creole dialects, rather than carrying out conversations by blowing trumpets at each other. But cringier still is the shape this takes: a man lecturing a woman on a date about her lack of appreciation for a particular art form.

This is, unfortunately, a thing, one that particularly haunts women who play or listen to jazz. I once witnessed a first date at the Village Vanguard, the world’s most famous jazz club, where a man pointed at a picture of Joe Henderson and told his date it was Dexter Gordon. He then proceeded to sing her the bass line to Miles Davis’s “So What,” the first song on the first jazz album most people listen to. As Alexander Pope once wrote: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

My own interest in jazz grew in parallel to other kinds of music, and one of the things that has most confused me about the public perception of it is its depiction as something entirely distinct from different genres. Think of the way people ask each other, as part of a variety of getting-to-know-you processes, “what kind of music do you like?” People draw a variety of conclusions about your cultural background based on your answer, but if your answer is “jazz,” that seems to carry more of a connotation about your personality, like that you are a white guy who wears a fedora and calls people “cat.” It’s the type of thing you don’t list on a dating profile. An interest in jazz too often signifies the things it is depicted as in either Whiplash — a preening display of technical ability — or La La Land — a nostalgic fixation. It’s as though you admitted to being a Civil War reenactor, or worse, a snob. But for me, it’s never had anything to do with either.

Miles Davis’s 1959 album Kind of Blue — the one with “So What” — was probably also the first jazz album I heard, though I don’t remember the first time I heard it. There was a copy at my local library, and I do remember flipping past it many times. I began to recognize it as the token jazz album on Rolling Stone-type best album lists, but in the back of my mind, I thought, “that one is boring.”

The first jazz album I liked was Grant Green’s 1963 Idle Moments, which I saw in the same bin, and chose for the unsophisticated reason that I liked the cover — a classic of Blue Note’s distinctive design. The 15-minute title track is like a film noir in miniature, and I’d never heard a vibraphone before, an instrument that sounds like a wisp of smoke in black and white. It’s played here by Bobby Hutcherson, and I started keeping my eye out for his name in lists of credits. Jazz was still a curiosity to me, but I began to browse books on it.

I chanced upon an outdated record guide, and flipped through it to check for names of artists and albums to look into. It was not a recommendation I remember but a warning: against saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman, whom the author deemed a ruiner of jazz. By abandoning conventional harmony, said the author, Coleman’s music had disrupted the decorum of jazz and released it to the wolves. Obviously, I had to hear it.

I found his breakthrough 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come, back in those CD bins. The cover is almost a visual joke, with its declarative title laid out over a rather demure photo of Coleman wearing a nice sweater and cradling a saxophone — scandalously, for the era, made of cheap white plastic rather than the traditional brass. The music was a revelation — unpretentious, but startlingly unique, somehow belonging to both a city street and to outer space. I’d never heard anything like it, and still haven’t. I began to trace his music backwards, to Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, and it was only after I spent years with the accelerated density of bebop that the spaciousness of Kind of Blue made any sense to me.

In a recent article in Jacobin titled “In Defense of Kenny G,” the composer John Halle — whose bio states that he was “formerly on the faculties of Yale and the Bard Conservatory” — characterizes jazz fans as elitists, scornful of the masses who have rightly rejected jazz as an indulgence of the bourgeoisie. The article contains no meaningful defense of Kenny G, and Halle admits he is not making a case for listening to him, which seems to miss the point of music in general. But he argues that distaste for Kenny G among jazz fans, along with their preference for the music in the jazz canon, is an instance of contempt for the authentic culture of working people. This doesn’t really line up with the public perception of the music. In La La Land, after Sebastian offers his account of the origins of jazz, Mia responds, “What about Kenny G?” For many people, both fans and haters, Kenny G, sadly or not, epitomizes jazz.

One might ask why jazz is the target for this invective in the first place. As a college student, I once attended a performance by the jazz pianist Jason Moran, of the compositions of Thelonious Monk. Beforehand, I overheard a conversation with an administrator of the concert hall, who noted the interruption of their program of “serious music” with amused disdain. Our discourse is so hampered by polarized debates between Marvel movies and art films that it becomes easy to forget that such creatures do exist, and they often hold positions of power and influence. Jazz is still subject to the same objectification Amiri Baraka noted in his 1963 essay “Jazz and the White Critic”:

We take for granted the social and cultural milieu and philosophy that produced Mozart. As Western people, the sociocultural thinking of 18th-century Europe comes to us as a legacy that is a continuous and organic part of the 20th-century West. The sociocultural philosophy of the Negro in America (as a continuous historical phenomenon) is no less specific and no less important for any intelligent critical speculation about the music that came out of it.

What Halle neglects to note is that jazz has been a form of popular music, one linked to the social life of a community, for most of its existence. Even music meant for listening rather than dancing, like the bebop of the 1940s, had populist qualities — the era’s major innovator, Charlie Parker, spent some of his final recording sessions playing pop songs over orchestral arrangements, an approach closer to Kenny G than either acolytes or detractors of modern jazz might like to admit.

Inconveniently, jazz recurs in subsequent forms of American popular music as well. Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan are obvious examples, as were many of their contemporaries, from experimental rock groups like King Crimson to soul songwriters like Stevie Wonder. More recently, Kendrick Lamar’s now-classic 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly is, among other things, an experiment in making hip hop with a jazz methodology — contemporary jazz musicians like Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, and Ambrose Akinmusire are all over it.

I have often heard jazz described by people who don’t like it as music where everyone is soloing at once, or something to that effect. This sounds unpleasant, if what you’re used to is guitar solos in rock songs — boring interludes where you temporarily stop paying attention. Jazz, at its best, is something entirely different. The difference between composed music and improvised music is a matter of timing.

Last year, the guitarist Bill Frisell put out an album of duets with bassist Thomas Morgan, the second release from a weeklong engagement they played at the Village Vanguard. I treasure both albums on their own merits, but the most incredible thing about them, for me, is that I was there — on one of the nights they recorded the music that makes up the album, I sat in the room and heard it come into being. They played a version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” so exquisite that the moment it ended I wanted to share it with everyone I knew, and wished there was a way I could. In this case, I can. But better yet, this is an experience I can have again, and you can too. Jazz is a living music, one that exists in the real world in real time, and living, breathing musicians create moments of indescribable beauty every night.

It's important not to be a jazz guy. But you don’t have to be one to listen to jazz.