A 'Dear John' Letter to Jazz

To Hell with Loving You

by Will Layman

18 September 2011

Larmes tears (partial) by
Man Ray (1932) 

You're Like Foreign Films, Baby

I’m already perceived as an “East Coast elite, NPR-listening, pretentious Pynchon-reading, leftwing, tax-and-spend liberal, thinks he’s better than reg’lar folks intellectual”—and you’re not helping, jazz.

Being a jazz fan is not unlike wearing a pair of plaid pants and white loafers to a high school party. Jazz, you are the pocket protector of fashion accessories. You are a certain sign that someone is notone of the regular people.

Sarah Palin is no Sonny Rollins fan—this seems certain. Rick Perry won’t be using “Perdido” as his campaign theme song.

In fact, jazz, you are a near-perfect analogue for a certain kind of elitism that is considered abhorrent in the culture today. You are practiced in cities almost exclusively, these days. The center of your world these days is New York City, not your birthplace of New Orleans. If you once were music that could be played by exceptional amateurs, you are now a music rich in music school graduates. You’re complicated, you’re tricky, you require context and knowledge and patience not just to play but merely to be enjoyed.

You’re foreign films.

You’re The Wire with a little PBS NewsHour on the side.

As a jazz fan, I frequently have people say to me, “I heard a great band this weekend… but I guess you wouldn’t like them,” because the built-in assumption is that jazz is inherently incompatible with actual popular music. As a jazz fan, I am assumed to be a snob about a series of topics beyond music, too. “I guess jazz guys aren’t about to be caught eating at a Cracker Barrel, huh?”

Jazz, you are the arugula of music.

And what’s with your aversion to women and their relative aversion to you, jazz? That’s not helping matters.

As if all this was not enough, jazz, I’m pretty sure you’re killing me with the ladies.

Name me five jazz prominent female jazz musicians who are not singers or pianists. Not so easy (unless you’re a useless jazz dork like me).

The harder test: name five women you know who really love and know jazz.

What is it that makes you, jazz, such a bastion of testosterone? Is it your uselessness in social situations that drives women away, or the fact that women don’t dig you, which makes you socially useless? Is it all that jabbering on and on, one improvised solo after another, that wrestles endlessly with the chord changes? Is it the preponderance of instrumental art, with too great an absence of the actual human voice? Or is it the fact that the mega-jazz-fans are somehow likely to have spare tires and bald heads and a penchant for making weird, ecstatic faces when a baritone saxophone player hits a particularly tasty flatted-five in the middle of a solo?

I don’t know why jazz is so inhospitable to the fairer sex, but I merely know that it’s true. Even in 2011, jazz is the ultimate boys’ club. And, friend, that’s the last thing a guy like me wants or needs.

My music students know they have to learn you, yet they play you with the same relish reserved for enjoying a nice long swig of Robitussin.

I teach kids how to sing and play you, jazz, and I could not be prouder.  What could be better than giving young people a rich appreciation for Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, for Wayne Shorter and Shirley Horn?

Yet when my ever-so-polite students get done turning in careful, clinical versions of “Good Morning, Heartache” or “Doxy”, they turn to me and ask, “Have you heard Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings?” or “What do you think about trying ‘Jessica’ by the Allman Brothers?”  And they ask these questions with exactly the kind of longing that I wish they could put into the Billie Holiday song we just finished working on.

Worse, jazz, is that the only honest answers to these questions are: “Yes, I absolutely love Sharon Jones!  Which tune should we try?” and “Are you kidding?  ‘Jessica’ is a perfect song for this band!” Because I am incredibly enthusiastic about rock and soul. Why shouldn’t I be? It is, after all, the music that emerged from jazz with such power and clarity, mid-century, as well as the music that was the soundtrack for the young lives of everyone my age. I feel it inside me as much as I feel you.

Do you see how easy it would be, how crowd-pleasing it would be in my classroom, to set aside Duke Ellington in favor of John Mayer or Stevie Wonder?  Ella traded for Adele?

But, jazz, how could I? Adele is a fine singer, but do I seriously believe she is an Ella Fitzgerald? Does anyone? As much as my students relish getting to perform a song that’s on the radio, even they know they’ve got more to learn from “How High the Moon”.

As much as I love a driving piece of guitar rock when I’m rolling down the windows of my car, nothing feeds me like the crackle of a brisk piano solo. After five or more years of Lil Wayne singles on the radio, I’m not really all that curious about the future of pop music. But I am riveted by where you are going, jazz. All these years and you still hold me under your spell.  I love the arrangements of John Hollenbeck, the keening fire of Rudresh Mahanthappa, the earthy pulse of William Parker, and the eerie cool of Gretchen Parlato. I want more of Steven Bernstein’s humor and a whole lot more of Aaron Parks’ tunes.

So maybe I’m not going anywhere. Maybe my heart remains true. Maybe—despite the days when I can see myself cut loose from you, carefree somehow, just regular folks, finally as popular as I’ve always dreamed—we’re bound together by our history and by something else, too.

Dang, jazz, who am I fooling? I still love you. I’ll love you forever. Flaws and all. C’mere, baby. Sing to me, please.

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