Strike up the Bland: Jazz Is as Popular as It Deserves to Be

Musicians are always talking about, Why isn’t jazz popular? But [jazz] musicians today are completely devoid of charisma. People never really liked the music in the first place. So now you have musicians who are proficient at playing their instruments, and really, really smart, and know a lot about music, and people sit there and it’s just boring to them—because they’re trying to see something, or feel it.

–Branford Marsalis in The Jazz Ear: Conversations over Music (2008)

Why isn’t jazz popular? Why, indeed. A better question might be “Why would jazz be popular in 2018″? No one has stated it more plainly than tenor great Branford Marsalis did in the above excerpt from his conversation with Ben Ratliff from 10 years ago. It resonates with me, because he verbalizes something that has bothered me for years. Like it or not, contemporary  jazz musicians are—with very few exceptions—colossally DULL.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a neutral, outside observer who knows nothing about music. We’ll call him Mel O’Dee. To better understand music, Mel begins by attending a lots of concerts in many different contemporary musical styles. Next, Mel studies how these different styles of music are sold and marketed. Finally, based on what he has learned, Mel predicts which styles would be the most popular and arranges them in a list by order of their predicted popularity. Based on Mel’s observations, jazz is not going to do very well on that list. In fact, a major market research study shows just how poorly jazz fares. The results are grisly: According to Nielsen’s 2017 U.S. Music Year-end Report, jazz is tied with classical music for last place at a 1% share of total volume of music consumption1. I suspect that jazz will have sole possession of the bottom spot in due time. So that’s something. A Pyrrhic victory is still a victory, right?

Snoring Factions

My TiVo box is set-up to record any program with the word “jazz” in either its title or description. Not surprisingly, there have been depressingly few shows recorded over the past year. But lately, the “Jazz” folder has been appearing near the top of the My Shows list, indicating a new recording. Indeed, one of my local PBS channels has been showing hour-long excerpts from the Rochester International Jazz Festival that have been edited into individual episodes. And even though all of the performers have given obscurity a new meaning, I’ve attempted to give them a chance. So far, three of these episodes have aired, and each one has been as soporific as the next. Make no mistake, I love jazz! And I am desperate for something—ANYTHING—to watch. But sweet fancy Moses,  these performances have been lifeless. Check them out if you are among the millions of Americans dealing with insomnia.

Nothing personal is intended here. These are probably nice people. Its just that, as jazz stylists, they are as bland as a stand-up act at a nursing home. Not only is the music dull, but the performers lack any sort of stage presence, whatsoever. (But Mr. Jazzopath, Miles Davis didn’t say a word to to his audiences! Specious argument and a non sequitur. The dude was the embodiment of cool. He didn’t have to open his mouth. Besides, his music was a lot of things, but boring was never one of them.) If there were more than zero non-jazz fans who stumbled upon this and actually liked it, I would be astounded. Based on results, this appears to be the best we can do for jazz programming in 2018. It’s no wonder jazz is so unpopular today. (Ironically, PBS occasionally airs solid programs like the recent documentary The Jazz Ambassadors, but the subject matter is always old, not contemporary.)

For contrast, check out Horace Silver addressing the audience at the Village Gate as he introduces his tune “Filthy McNasty.” Silver was a force of nature at the piano, all flying hair and arms (which is probably why he almost sounds out of breath in the clip) and he exuded a natural charm behind the microphone at center-stage. (Never mind that his quintet’s music was bad as hell.) As Miles Davis made clear, one can be charismatic even without language (although it often helps), and the list of captivating bandleaders from the past is extensive. Some, like the ever-smiling Art Blakey, made their job as a musician look fun (not a trait I’d associate with today’s artists), including Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, and Louis Armstrong. Others, by virtue of their intensity on the bandstand and/or their aura of cool, made it impossible to look away. This includes people like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, Freddie Hubbard, and Elvin Jones. If there are more than a handful of such performers today, I am unaware of them. And to me, THAT is why jazz isn’t popular.

 

 


1. Nielsen defines audio consumption as “the number of physical albums (CDs or vinyl) that were bought and how many album equivalents were downloaded or streamed….[and] does not include listening to music on broadcast radio or digital radio broadcasts.”

4 thoughts on “Strike up the Bland: Jazz Is as Popular as It Deserves to Be

  1. You know, I’ve always felt a little guilty about how little I pay attention to contemporary jazz. Granted, new jazz music isn’t surrounded by the excitement that goes along with vintage record collecting, but I’ve been to many live performances by unknown musicians, and a couple performances left me particularly unmoved. On these occasions, the players looked like younger students who were playing what I’d call “progressive jazz”, and as virtuosic as it was, I didn’t feel anything. I also generally don’t think contemporary artists have a good sense of style, not musically (they may not have that either) but in terms of their dress, their look, and their persona. I once saw a jazz drummer in Glens Falls, NY at a club called Wallabee’s, and this guy played with so much personality I couldn’t take my eyes off him, and I’ve never seen anyone play with anywhere near that much character since. But FWIW, even if contemporary musicians did grab my attention, I probably wouldn’t be buying a lot of it, though I’d certainly check out more live shows. Today’s recordings are usually super-clean sounding and lack the”warmth” and character of classic recordings.

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    1. Regarding style, I get what you mean, and I generally think jazz in suits looks better than jazz in whatever-I-had-on-while-shopping-in-Target-earlier-in-the-day! In the late ’60s/early ’70s, it seemed like almost all the major artists started “dressing down”, growing their hair long and sporting beards, mutton chops, etc. Even Duke Ellington grew his hair (though always dressed up).

      It was in the ’80s that suits started to return to the bandstand, especially among the so-called “young lions” of the day, who were probably dressing up so they’d be taken seriously. But then I saw Branford Marsalis on TV, who was always really cool anyway, playing at the Newport Festival wearing shorts, T-shirt, and a backwards baseball cap, all while playing really advanced stuff on his horn. I thought his look really fit with the idea of a lazy summer day in August. Maybe I give him slack because he’s such a badass player. But I generally agree with your point.

      As for the sound of modern jazz recordings, I’m with you. It usually sounds too glossy for my tastes, especially pianos. Ironically, Rudy Van Gelder was a huge proponent of digital recording and seemed to have had no sentimental feelings for his analog days. In his interview with Ben Sidran, I’m pretty sure he said that with digital, he could finally record artists the way he wanted to, and that the clean digital sound was what he’d been after way back when! Imagine if all his stuff had been done digitally. I guess we can be thankful that the great artists of the past were captured the way they were, before the digital age!

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  2. When I first read this I agreed with you 100% and was about to write as much. But then as I thought about it I started coming up with exceptions and had to temper my thinking. I do not follow nor keep up with “contemporary modern jazz”, which is hard to define but which I think of as lame impersonations of “classic” jazz with fairly traditional instrumentation, conservatory-trained musicians and semi-slick production playing unnecessary updates of standards or presenting soporific new compositions. And those that do “push the music forward” seem to be devoid of any taste, which is something you touched on above. That being said, there are some modern, jazz-based acts that are innovative and engaging. The two best examples I can come up with are Medeski, Martin and Wood and Snarky Puppy. They’re not for the jazz purists, but they’re creating exciting, jazz-based music full of personality and feeling, and they’re both relatively popular. To use a lineage analogy, these guys may not be the sons and daughters of jazz, but they’re definitely first cousins. And since they’re the ones that can still capture the popular imagination, maybe they should be seen as the “new” jazz.

    One other wrinkle, however: here in Pittsburgh we have an annual jazz festival. Most of the sets that you can see fall squarely into what you describe above. A few years ago Snarky Puppy performed a crazy-great set. But halfway through Sean Jones showed up and sat in on a few tunes. The man, a true contemporary jazz musician, blew circles around all of the other artists. In some ways, this made the performance even better, but simultaneously he exposed the difference between a fantastic and engaging band and a true jazz musician who had REAL chops. As an audience member it was humbling to be so starkly reminded of the difference between a fun act and a truly accomplished musician. While not taking anything away from Snarky Puppy, it did elevate the greatness of those carrying on the pure jazz lineage and making those only borrowing from the genre a little more flash-in-the-pan.

    The other thing I’ll mention is on the first evening of Jazz Fest there are a few late-night jam sessions at various restaurants around town that attract the headlining acts. These impromptu shows are some of the best you’ll ever see, full of raw emotion, amazing chops and off-the-charts energy. It’s what I imagine some of the nights were like during the height of the jazz we fetishize. None of the critiques you mention were present. These guys could play with the best of them, blew the crowd away and left them wanting more. Maybe this doesn’t work in a studio setting; maybe it just rehashes old ground with new musicians. Maybe it’s a catch-22: do what worked back in the day and get nowhere, try to do something new that can’t garner an audience and find yourself in the same place.

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    1. Thanks for reading. Yeah, there are plenty of exceptions, so I guess I’m really reacting to are some of the more publicized mainstream acts. There’s local talent all around, but average people don’t hear it. You kind of already have to be a jazz fan to even find them. And the “jazz adjacent” stuff you mention definitely doesn’t suffer from the same “vanilla” sound/image that so many others do.

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