A ‘Dear John’ Letter to Jazz: To Hell with Loving You

[18 September 2011]

By Will Layman

I’ve had it with jazz. I’m done with being a jazz fanatic. The spark is gone. Jazz used to greet me at the end of each day wearing perfume, but now it shows up in sweatpants.

It’s time to give jazz its walking papers. The jig is up. I’m throwing in the towel. The fat lady has sung. I’m giving jazz a pink slip. It’s curtains on the whole enterprise. Kaput, finis, adios improvisation.

“Why?” jazz asks.

You expect an explanation? You want reasons for a perfectly sane music fan like myself ending his 38-year relationship with “America’s Only Original Art Form”?

Here is a list of reasons not to be your fan, jazz. These are carefully considered reasons. And it’s not just because a cute little indie-rock girl started working across the hall. I’m not seeing a touch of reggae on the side. You can check my cell phone, Tiger Woods-style. Nope. It ain’t me, doll face jazz. It’s you.

I’m tired of performers from other genres using you like a late-career Kleenex.

Oh, jazz. You were special once, and you can still be special. But recently you’ve become one-shop stopping for older rock performers who want to add a late-career bedpost notch that has a little class. Rod Stewart made his pseudo-Sinatra album. Bruce Hornsby put together a swinging piano trio. Even Barbra Streisand got into the “jazz business” a couple years ago.

And just two months ago, I got a CD in the mail from Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s dad, with his entry in the jazz catalog. (And, post-mortem, there was Tony Bennett on the MTV Video Music Awards, saying that singing with Amy was such an honor because she was, herself, practically Billie Holiday.) Just about anybody who wants to class it up on the cheap takes you out, baby, and it doesn’t seem right.

Is it ever going to stop, jazz? Or will you just let just about anyone strut around, talking like they really knew you like I did?

My friends all say they like you, but it turns out they’re just using you.

Jazz, I don’t want it to seem like you’ve been nothing more than a status symbol for me. But I can’t deny that I pay attention to the opinions of others. Sure, it should be enough that I love you. But I can’t ignore the fact that almost no one else gives you even a second glance on the street. Not that I wanted or expected you to be Jennifer Aniston or Sophia Loren, but it’s a little tough feeling that, to others, you’re little more than the town’s 70 year-old librarian.

Not that people don’t claim to dig you. I hear all the time: “Oh, I love jazz! I listen to it all the time in bed—it helps me fall asleep.” Jazz, are you nothing but a bedtime fantasy for them? “Jazz is great! I love that All Kinds of Blues album by Miles Davis. That guy is cool! I put it on for brunch when my in-laws come over.” “It’s so soothing. I listen when I’m studying or reading.”

You see, jazz, folks want to like you and claim they like you. But everything they say makes clear that you’re about as important and interesting to them as the wallpaper in their parents’ half-bathroom in the foyer of the house they grew up in. Kinda like fond memories of Grandma. You’re a clever-sounding yawn to them.

Let’s just face it, jazz, you’re unpopular. Your best days are behind you.

Jazz, I know there was a time when you were the cutest cat in school, the bee’s knees, the zippiddy-doo-dah coolest sound around. Folks danced to you. They mobbed ballrooms to Lindy their very asses off while you throbbed and swung, saxophones roaring.

And even after that was the case, you still had a devoted popular following. College kids in Allen Ginsberg glasses might pop their fingers to Brubeck or Miles Davis.  Jukeboxes in cities got worn out from playing funky stuff like Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” or Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”.

And as recently as the ‘70s there were pop radio hits like Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good”—and as recently as the ‘80s Bobby McFerrin took some overdubbed scat singing up the charts with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. When Wynton Marsalis was 21 years old, wearing a killer suit and holding two Grammys in his hands—one for jazz and one for classical music—there was still some kind of hope.

But then two decades of “smooth jazz” dreck rolled over the landscape and real jazz seemed both more obscure and more rare. You became a taste from the past. Once only the hip kids were likely to know about you. But in recent years the hip kids are too busy digging really obscure or noisy/unpopular rock to bother with obscure/noisy/unpopular jazz.

The rock aesthetic of simplicity, directness and sincerity doesn’t much cotton to your complexities and abstractions. A society that prizes spectacle and memoir doesn’t know what to make of a trumpet solo that resembles architecture more than it does a sit-com or a confession.

On a recent trip to the Village Vanguard—your New York Mecca, your basement shrine where John Coltrane, Bill Evans and everyone else worth a damn once graced the stage—a great new band played to a half-empty room on a Friday night. And who was there? A whole bunch of Asian tourists, jazz, and a host of middle-aged bald dudes like me. This, I assure you, is not good.

Does this mean that you’re doing something wrong, jazz? I’ve never thought so. I’ve written in recent months that you are as creatively robust as ever. There have never been more amazing young musicians using you in so many astonishing ways. And you’ve spread across the world—so a great jazz musician today is as likely to live in Europe as in the US as is as likely to combine you with the music of India or Eastern Europe or Argentina as with rock or anything else.

No, the astonishing fact is: it seems to matter little how creative and vital you sound. Your days of popularity are gone. The invisible hand of the free market says Thumbs Down.  I mean, baby, how long do you expect me to stay with a losing stock?

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.

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/148264-a-dear-john-letter-to-jazzto-hell-with-loving-you/