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Why Did Jazz Die?

THE ANSWER IS easy: Jazz died because it stopped being fun and expressing happiness. Given today’s mood, it would seem melodic, upbeat jazz is long past due for a comeback.

In the mid 1940s, when Bebop began its systematic dismissal of Swing and other traditional forms of jazz, its heart was intellect and its message rebellion and chaos. As jazz critics continued to demand something “new” almost monthly the music twisted and contorted, instrumentation changed, and harmonies extended. But nothing really “new” evolved after bop because western music has only twelve tones, we can combine them in a limited number of ways, and most humans respond positively to only a few of those combinations. So Bebop and other “modern” jazz sounded disturbing to most people and they looked elsewhere for fulfillment.

They found it in early rock, a combination of boogie-woogie rhythm and the good old fashioned twelve bar blues progression. It was raucous and rebellious but had a strong beat, was fun, and average Joe could understand it. It actually was fairly close to the blues jazz musicians had played since the 1920s.

Then things changed.

The underlying emotion of American popular music beginning in the late 1960s was anger. Sure, some tunes may be lustful, the occasional tune may be sad, and a tiny fragment either humorous or beautiful. But beauty in popular music today almost invites ridicule. Anger and lust prevail, at least in America.

My father told me people were more cheerful in the Swing era. Think about that. The Swing era spanned the Great Depression and World War Two, when you would least expect people or music to express happiness. People had more to be angry about between 1930 and 1950 than at any time since. But the music was upbeat and folks thought that was just swell.

Then it became stylish to be sophisticated and cynical. (After war, style is man’s most idiotic invention.) Happiness gave way to anger and love to lust. Popular music’s emotion soured and its beauty withered. Cold, loud, distorted, electronic sounds replaced the warmth, humanity, and beauty of acoustic instruments.

Most contemporary popular music epitomizes lack of taste. Much is primitive and appeals to an ever lower common denominator. Yet such music shapes our attitudes and reflects our culture. And we think it’s cool.

I have discussed the fate of “modern” jazz elsewhere. It became cerebral and impressionistic. It is now a parlor game for college music departments and is commercially dead.

But what if people again heard happy music? What if the rebellion in music again were upbeat and melodic and celebrated life? That was the kernel of traditional jazz.

What if good natured, blues oriented, swinging four-four big band jazz were to return? And acoustic instrumental music? How would that affect our undercurrent of anger? Do you suppose it might dissipate a little?

What if music were happy and jazz were more as it was at the height of its popularity in the 1930s and ’40s? What if its message were hope and its sound pleasing? What if music made people want to smile and dance? What if jazz and popular music had remained true to their intent?

Jazz possesses an immense power to bring anyone to a level of profound joy. Isn’t beauty preferable to discord and joy preferable to anger?

We can stop the entropy affecting culture by taking a stand. Folks, it’s time to get jazz back on track. Don’t just sit there; do something.

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