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When Did Jazz Die?


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HERE’S WHAT REALLY UPSETS ME: Jazz is commercially dead and that puts one of its feet in the casket of cultural death. It’s just that some musicians haven’t figured it out yet.

Jazz began to die when bebop was born, sometime in the latter half of the 1940s. That’s when an avante garde of jazz musicians started to play for each other instead of for the public. Soon another generation of musicians rushed in to fill the void in popular music jazz left with a Boogie Woogie derivative that ultimately emerged as rock.

Most musicians today think real jazz began with bebop and completely miss the significance of earlier jazz. Maybe they’re like people who think movies didn’t count until they were in color. Or maybe they think any music that appeals to emotion rather than intellect is beneath them and falls into an inferior realm called popular music. Or maybe they just lack the ability to recognize or play the right notes and can’t admit it.

Whatever they think, the following is true:

Any “art form” that fails strongly to impact the emotions (usually in a positive way) is doomed. Any “art form” that exists to serve snobs is doomed. Any “art form” that needs colleges and universities to help it survive (i.e., today’s jazz) is doomed. Any “art form” that falls into any of the above categories is not really art. Don’t believe it? Live a century or two and find out for yourself.

And any person who fails to understand the above lacks analytical skills, a sense of history, sufficient intelligence, or all three. And none of the above should suggest that post 1945 jazz players, in general, are not more learned, sophisticated, or technically proficient than many of their predecessors. It’s just that, after a while, musicians — or artists in nearly any discipline — tend to forget the reason their genre became popular in the first place. Or they try to make more of it than they should. Whatever the reason that happens, the result is entropy and, ultimately, the demise of the genre.

How do such things happen? When I went to grad school the professors used big words, convoluted sentences, and expressed simple ideas in a complicated way. I finally figured out it was because they wanted people to think they were smarter than they really are. I also realized a lot of professors are (figuratively) idiots. Then one day a really intelligent guy (not a professor) re-taught me to write using small words and simple sentences. It was hard, especially when I had to explain something complicated. Eventually I realized you can’t say something simply and clearly to an average guy until you truly understand it yourself.

What does that have to do with music? When I became a professional musician, my mentor (a veteran of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars, an arranger for Benny Goodman, and a major talent in his own right) pretty much made the same point; he asked why I played so many notes. (It was because I wanted to sound like a genius, of course.)

Then, a couple of years later Artie Shaw pointed out to me that jazz ran into big trouble about the time musicians started saying such things as, “I play, like, jazz, man.” (We were talking about Miles Davis.) He said it’s either jazz or it isn’t. If it’s “like jazz”, it may be something related to jazz but it’s not jazz. It was one of Artie’s wry “jokes”. He was advocating the use of precision in composing a solo.

So one day it all came together. Less is more. Simple usually out-classes complex and it is a lot harder to be simple. Emotion in music invariably trumps intellect. And I realized many jazz guys from the ’20s through the mid ’40s understood how to reach an audience musically and emotionally. And I realized the bop and post bop guys reached us intellectually but failed to reach us on that emotional level as well as their predecessors. And I realized what jazz was supposed to be all about. And I stopped trying to impress other musicians with all those notes. And I started to play a lot better.

When enough other musicians figure that out, jazz may have a shot at a comeback, assuming anyone in contemporary society would give it a chance. But it is unlikely the corporate entertainment bureaucracy would allow it onto radio, TV, or “cool” websites. Too much of a risk. Unless, of course, somebody already has made a lot of money with it….

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