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

Larmes tears (partial) by Man Ray (1932)

Jazz is unpopular, pretentious, sexist, a window-dressing for those seeking "class", and more. Why shouldn't I give up loving it?

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?

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