A Laughing Dilemma, Revealed

Dizzy Gillespe's famous cheeks

Jazz and its fans have grown all too serious. The genre could use a clown prince or two.


In a recent music class, a student of mine gave a presentation on the late rock magician Frank Zappa, playing examples of his music and discussing his life and his impact on the culture. Other students in the class knew nothing about Zappa, but they wanted to know more. First and foremost, Zappa had them laughing. His lyrics were funny, and his challenges to those who wanted to censor music were disarmingly sarcastic.

But, beyond his words, Zappa found wit in even his compositions and arrangements. Zappa, like too few musicians in the earnest-equals-authentic world of rock, forged a strategy of disruptive humor -- a kind of musical "play" that included crass gags, fantasy storytelling, musical re-contextualizing, and political satire. Quite an achievement.

"Jazz Club"

Then, a day later, I received an email from a friend that contained a link to a YouTube video: a compilation of clips from a British sketch comedy television show called The Fast Show. Each clip was part of a running gag on the show -- a mock TV show called "Jazz Club", hosted by "Louis Balfour".

The bits are funny on several levels: they are filmed exactly like artsy music-on-TV shows always are, with a camera that rotates around the musicians; the host is a pretentious blowhard who makes every piece of music sound like obscure genius and who smokes and dresses like a behind-the-times hipster; the audience is sparse and foolishly reverent; and, mainly, the music is chaotic gibberish. Balfour self-importantly utters the catchphrase directly into the camera: "Nice!"

The overall joke of "Jazz Club" is the overbearing seriousness of jazz -- a tune always seems to be introduced with a title like "Desolate Shore". The show tweaks the tendency of jazz to elevate itself, an arrow well-aimed. The host is a self-satisfied jazz fan, smug in the coolness of his fan-dom and convinced that each new artist is something important that only the cognoscenti could possibly be in on. "Although it follows the original 32-bar AABA structure, instead of providing a harmonic departure from the A section, the bridge resolves the rising chromatic pattern." Sadly, this exactly how jazz fans often talk.

The secondary joke of "Jazz Club" is a fascinating and weirdly dated view of a music that people still just don't understand. In one episode, the host presents "the undisputed king of bebop trumpet, Piles Hussein." The bit is, essentially, that the trumpeter's cheeks blow up hugely when he plays, a direct reference to Dizzy Gillespie. It's pretty funny when this guy's cheeks get unnaturally huge, but you wonder, is this recent British show actually making a gag out of a jazz factoid that is 50 years old? More often, the gag is that the music is un-listenable, even though the host pronounces it "great!" Jackson Jeffrey Jackson is trumpeter who inhales through his trumpet -- "I don't blow, I suck!" When Balfour introduces another tune, "In a Turquoise Mood", the gag is just that it is atonal and random, a parody of how folks heard Ornette Coleman and other "out" jazz as long as 40 years ago. A classical violinist taking on jazz sounds bad because he incongruously places bits of Mozart amidst a funk groove -- a gag based on the awkwardness of "Third Stream Music" from decades ago. "Jazz Club", behind the outward gags, is a reactionary take on progress in art. Jazz is the perfect vehicle for this because it combines pretension and inaccessibility.

And, you know, a little fun and humor in jazz would really help that problem. Humor? In Jazz?

Louie Armstrong and friend

Early Whimsy Jazz isn't entirely without laughs, but it's pretty close. In the early days, jazz could have a slapstick quality, with certain New Orleans bands inserting animal noises into the breaks (arguably a form of musical racism suggesting that this African-American form was literally inhuman). Before long, most jazz rose above this novelty level, but even then there was ingratiating entertainment value in the work of Louis Armstrong and other musical greats. Pops would smile and joke with his audience even as he was crafting some of the most crystalline art of the century.

This tradition led to some explicit clowning in the swing and bop eras. Cab Calloway "hidey-hidey-hoed" to commercial success, and Louis Jordan created hard-driving jump music based around whimsical lyrics about "Five Guys Named Mo" and "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens". The smooth Nat Cole had a hit with "The Frim Fram Sauce" ("I want the frim fram sauce with the oh-sen-fay, with chi-fa-fah on the side!"). Even the bopper Gillespie had a mischievous sparkle in his eye, singing "Salt Peanuts" and composing "Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac".

Maybe the most successful novelty act in real jazz was that of Slim Gaillard, the singer and instrumentalist who famously invented his own hipster language, O'Voutie, and sang such classics as "Flat Foot Floogie" and "Cement Mixer (Puti Puti)". The Gaillard gag was that hipness was so exotic and eccentric that it required its own (silly) language and that the hipster himself is ridiculous. Indeed, Gaillard, who was a fine jazz player and opened many times for no less a figure than Charlie Parker, was essentially a "Jazz House" joke 60 years before-the-fact.

Grim Jazz Modernity

In the modern jazz era, however, the whimsy evaporated. Louis and his overpowering smile came to be seen as Uncle Tomming, and the leading musicians began affecting indifference and "cool". Miles Davis, the highest paid jazz musician of his era, was known for turning his back on his audience and never announcing the names of songs from the stage.

Indeed, seemingly all the legends of the modern period revolve around a grim countenance. Sonny Rollins was an existential loner, quitting the music, then practicing in the moonlight on the Williamsburg Bridge. Bill Evans and Chet Baker were doomed romantics -- junkies with heart. Charlie Parker, starved for respect, died as a declining master not yet 35. Coltrane also died young, but even in his glorious musical life, it was all practice and earnest spiritual questing. Even the most whimsical of modern jazzmen, Thelonious Monk, lived a life riddled with mental instability or off-putting eccentricity.

In the early '60s, when the avant-garde swept in, light-heartedness was driven even further away from jazz. "Out" jazz distanced fans from the music with the gradual stripping away of catchy melody, harmonic beauty, or even steady tempo. Musicians such as Anthony Braxton and George Russell wrote dense tomes about the theory and language of their music, evoking the academy as much as the heart, and groups such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago made music that evoked the history of US oppression.

Limited Levity

In the last 50 years, it is hard to tote up more than a handful of jazz musicians who have cracked a musical grin. There has been the verbal wit, for example, of pianist and songwriter Dave Frishberg. His "Peel Me a Grape" has become a sly standard ("Just entertain me, champagne me / Show me you love me, kid glove me / Best way to cheer me, cashmere me / I'm getting hungry, peel me grape"), and his "I'm Hip" is simply a more verbally adroit and witty version of "Jazz Club":

Like, dig! I'm in step

When it was hip to be hep, I was hep

I don't blow but I'm a fan

Look at me swing -- Ring-a-ding-ding

I even call my girlfriend "man,"

'cause I'm hip

Lester Bowie

Among instrumentalists, the most guileful and puckish jazz musician may have been trumpeter Lester Bowie. Not only did Bowie routinely perform in a lab coat like a mad musical professor, but he also led a genre-busting group, Brass Fantasy, that subverted jazz orthodoxy by improvising on Whitney Houston tunes and by taking seriously the act of sonic play at every turn. His version of Willie Nelson's "Crazy", for example, is exactly that. The improvising is bold and broad, while the arrangement is loose and laughing. While there is a growing trend in "downtown" jazz to blend genres and engage in gamesmanship and other musical play, too much modern jazz remains stolidly conservative.

The Continuing Division

That so many of the "Jazz House" jokes are dated (and, apparently, still get laughs) is a testament to the stubbornness of jazz clichés. Miles's steely glare and defiant refusal to "entertain" sticks to jazz like an old piece of gum. Wynton Marsalis, the jazz standard-bearer of a sort, seems frozen in time -- in a tuxedo and in a concert hall and in a set of museum-piece recreations that repudiate so much of the potential wit and fun in jazz.

How can it be that, even today, so much of jazz clings to a deadly seriousness? There remains a suspicion of jazz that is fun or funky. I'm not about the get behind the cheesy instrumental funk marketed as "smoooooove jazz", but it remains that serious jazz mostly does not communicate with regular folk. Even the hippest music today that follows up on the groove experiments of an earlier generation growls and grunts with an avant-garde edge.

And so "Louis Balfour", a deluded hipster stuck in the past, is still funny. Jazz fans know this if anyone does -- that the music remains puffed-up with is own importance and exclusivity. Like classical music but with more painful affectation, jazz still exudes a comic silliness: snapping fingers, black berets, bad goatees. Sort of.

More and more jazz musicians are closing the divide between pop music and art music, but they labor almost entirely in the shadows. Trombonist Josh Roseman channels reggae on his recent New Constellations: Live in Vienna, and James Carney brings Herbie Hancock and film music into funky focus on his recent Green-wood. Neither of those guys would seem funny on the "Jazz Club" stage or out of place at Jazz at Lincoln Center. But they remain exceptions -- and wholly unknown by regular folks who listen to the radio or who buys CDs anywhere but at specialty shops.

Jazz is headed in the right direction. But it could use a clown prince or two. We should be able to laugh at ourselves and at our music even as we move the music away from stereotypes, reactionary or progressive. With a little help from the likes of Dave Frishberg or Lester Bowie (may he rest in peace), jazz can be new and loose at once.

That, as Louis Balfour would say, would be . . . "nii-ice!"

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