why jazz isn’t cool: a response

Jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton wrote a jeremiad on his blog about ‘why jazz isn’t cool anymore.’ Even though I’m personally removed from the issue – one of the things about being 55 is the degree to which such arguments just don’t matter – Payton’s post did start me thinking. What follows is my response, as posted to the ‘AudioKarma’ web board.

I tend to agree with Payton on his largest point, that jazz is less and less useful as a descriptive word.

What I’m interested in mostly is how it happened.

Here’s what I think is the biggest, and least obvious, player. By the late 1950s, jazz was not only a music made (mostly) by black Americans, it was an aspirational music for a growing black middle class. That black middle class had stable neighborhoods and social relations, and with those things came a stable environment in which jazz could prosper.

Black neighborhoods were gutted starting in the mid-60s, and the long prosperity, which had lifted black Americans along with everyone else post World War II, effectively ended by 1973. Of course, black people suffered first and worse.

The last 40 years have constituted, mostly, a hollowing out of the black middle class.

What that did, over time, was destroy the social basis for jazz, a music which is probably the ultimate expression of the idea ‘head in the sky, feet on the ground.’

The caretakers of jazz have tried to replace what isn’t there with university appointments, concert series, research and preservation. Some of the efforts have been heroic, and they should be lauded, but…

There isn’t much for a ‘jazz’ musician to stand on, any more. My impression is that scene is small, propped up by public funding, and very white.

The reason for that strikes me as economic: the children of middle class and upper middle class folks are where the next generations of jazz musicians come from, and those middle class people are largely white.

In order to accommodate what it has lost, its rootedness, jazz has turned into a bit of a scavenger hunt over the last few decades, looking to drag in other musics for an injection of vitality. True, jazz has always looked to other musics, but some fundamental shift in balance has happened – now we have a branch of jazz you can accurately describe as ECM. Whether the music on that label is really jazz I’ll leave others to sort out.

The other thing that has happened in the absence of rootedness is the thing Pops talks about, empty virtuosity. (Yeah, I know I’m using the word a lot at the moment.) It’s not that jazz has lost its ‘soul,’ or that being brilliant on an instrument is an impediment to great music making, it’s that without a vital social context, it’s a lot harder for the notes to mean anything.

Finally, a note about missed opportunities: there was a time, in the mid 60s, when jazz seemed to flow naturally into other musics. Listening to The Doors meander through “Summertime” from a show in 67′ got me to thinking about all the places where, without anyone trying to fuse anything, you could hear jazz in other contexts. Somehow, that deeper fusion, which was going on up until about 1969, got lost.

I think I know now why Miles went out looking to shake things up with his recordings, why he wanted first takes and mistakes: because he could see what was changing, and was making a valiant effort to keep the music connected.

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