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In defence of jazz (like it needed defending)

January 18, 2010

An article in the Guardian about Winton Marsalis (Found: the jazz purist sought by Wynton Marsalis)drew a remark that shocked me – a poster who just stated that he ‘hated all jazz’. This was such a sweeping condemnation I couldn’t let it be…

The reason I don’t believe those who say ‘all jazz is crap’ is because the generalisation is so close to saying all music is crap.

Jazz is purely a term for that music which is not constrained by the composer, or by the notation through which a composition is recorded. It is not new in any sense, since all jazz owes its origins to far older forms of music, but especially the traditions of folk music, the indigenous cyclical forms from Africa and, to a lesser extent Asia, that were excluded from western legitimacy by the strictures of western classicism. Those forms are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.

To dismiss all jazz is to dismiss Louis Armstrong, Paul Whiteman, dance bands, New Orleans jazz, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn. It is to dismiss Gershwin and Tommy Dorsey, Ellington and Basie, Glen Miller and Billy Cotton, Bing Crosby and Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Charlie Parker. It is to dismiss every kind of musical expression that isn’t constrained by the formality of classical music or the banality of the three chord trick.

And it isn’t just about mad, introverted technicians lost in space and time and the convolutions of improvisation. It is about freedom of expression, the challenge to authority and conservatism, about lyricism and passion and immediacy, for no jazz can be the same twice. It embraces everything between absolute populism and the demands for great knowledge and appreciation in an audience. It is the pinnacle of the musical form for it absorbs everything that came before. Marsalis’ interpretation of classical pieces is some of the best formal work I have ever heard, because he brings something extra, some remarkable expression that transcends the classical virtuosity of others. To compare Menuhin’s struggle with improvisation while Stephane Grappelly so joyously expressed the fluency of his art was to understand the stiffness of classical music, no matter the accomplishment of its virtuosos.

Classical music represents history, fixity, formality. It is truly wonderful at its best, but it is unable to reflect the world in which it is played. Jazz is us, everything we do, every paradox, every glory and shame. It is the most human expression of the heart, and those that dismiss it out of hand dismiss the wonder and chaos, the endless surprise of life itself.

[and of course, the poster I was responding to tried to defend the indefensible]

You can regard jazz as the highest form of music if you like…But there is no rational basis for it. You can’t make a logical argument for that point of view that doesn’t at some point boil down a variation of “I like it” or “it moves me”.

I’m afraid you are wrong here. There is a rational basis that doesn’t depend on taste, it depends on technique. I was trained to be a musician by my opera singer mother and dance band drummer father. I took my first Associated Boards exam when I was four. I left school to turn pro at 15. I played around 500 gigs in my first year on the road. I have played in every country in Europe. I toured America and lived and worked in LA for three years. I’ve played in the London Palladium house orchestra and supported Sham 69 on tour (with Inner City Unit). I have played utterly pretentious prog rock. I’ve played free jazz with Peruvian guitarist Mano Ventura and reggae with members of Dennis Bovell’s band. I have played Chopin, country and Tie a Yellow Ribbon, the latter rather more times than I care to remember. I mention all this because I do not speak as a consumer of jazz, I speak as a practitioner of it.

The rational basis for my assertion that jazz is the highest form of musical expression – but not, by the way, that it is in some way superior (or should be) to the listener – is based on the demands of technique. All musicians speak through their instruments. Classical musicians can be likened to those who can only speak words written for them. Without music providing the language, even great musicians can be rendered effectively mute, and I gave an example of this above. A classical musician who hasn’t developed comparable jazz skills will be unable to improvise, and this is not an opinion, but fact gained through working a great deal with musicians from both schools.

Jazz musicians at their best have not only mastered everything a classical musician achieves (Marsalis playing classical pieces is a case in point), but the will also have achieved the rarest and most difficult thing of all – spontaneous composition, the ability not only to hear music but to commit it at that very moment, to play what they feel, or think, or hear. And the best of them can do this using the most complex, subtle, skillful language, full of symbol and meaning and humour and depth, a language as articulate as Mozart or Debussy, in real time. The technique required to do this exceeds all other requirements, and for this reason I state as fact it is the pinnacle of the musician’s art. It is ridiculously hard to do and breathtaking when you see someone doing it – all the more so when you see a whole band doing it together, harmoniously and generously. It is one of the greatest forms of communication I am aware of.

All that said, let us return to the first thing you wrote, and the first thing I wrote. You said this:

I hate jazz with quite some intensity.

…and I said this:

… I don’t believe those who say ‘all jazz is crap’ ….

This is slightly hyperbolic of me. More accurate would be for me to say I don’t want to believe you. I do not want to believe that anyone would willingly close themselves off to an entire branch of the arts, to deliberately disenfranchise themselves from a form so broad and so accommodating that it should be impossible not to find some jazz you like. I find your view entrenched and strangely defensive, as if you were demanding the right to rob yourself of potential joy, or the right to cut off your ear.

You know, it makes no difference to me or to jazz what you think, so I am slightly bewildered to find I am mounting an argument against you shutting yourself off from something because of a label, especially something that could give you such great pleasure for a such a small investment. All art makes demands – there are no free lunches for the audience any more than the performers – but that investment can reap huge rewards. You appear to have closed this door very firmly, by hating jazz – actually hating it? Wow. This is your right, of course. I just pity you for exercising it for the only loser in this debate can be you.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2010 6:49 pm

    Nice keep up the good work. where can we subscribe to the sites newletter?

  2. gpwayne permalink*
    February 9, 2010 4:11 pm

    Cheers for that. I’m sorry I don’t put out any kind of newsletter – not enough good ideas or comments to fill one, I suspect.

  3. February 12, 2010 4:58 am

    Haha so true.

  4. gpwayne permalink*
    February 12, 2010 2:54 pm

    Mind you, I have added the subscribe function so people can keep track of my infrequent musings.

  5. Michel permalink
    February 28, 2010 6:07 am

    Very interesting remarks, but while I agree the jazz/improvisational “spontaneous composition” really is a quintessential musical experience and accomplishment, I can’t see the musical experience created in the best performances by musicians of laborious “formal” set music compositions as somehow anything less in the “spontaneous creation” experience.

    I just returned this evening from hearing a wonderful “new music” concert ( here in Toronto which illustrated that there is a kind of convergence between the jazz/improvisational and the formal composition happening in the traditional “formal” music world, at least when it comes to the creation of new works, much mixing of the different categories of musical delight.

    One of the works on that program was an adaptation by another musician/composer–for double piano, latin-american percussion section & full orchestra–of a vocal/orchestra latin-american Mass by the Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. It was striking how much the younger players in the Toronto Symphony were totally at home in the samba/salsa style idiom making up part of the structure of the work, which did include some improvisational elements as well–and that really did allow the audience to participate in an experience in both of the musical worlds you’ve discussed, simultaneously.

  6. gpwayne permalink*
    February 28, 2010 6:24 am

    Actually Michel, I think perhaps my age gives me away a bit. My experiences of ‘stiff’ classical players is rather out of date these days, and you’re right to point this out. My own training (as a pianist originally) was relentlessly blinkered – it was an act of rebellion to listen to anything else – even Satie drew disparaging remarks in my house. The combination style – best of both worlds – sounds fascinating and curiously logical. Thanks for the post.

  7. Michel permalink
    February 28, 2010 6:58 am

    Well, *I* forgot to give away my age, which is probably only a decade or two younger than yourself, but your reference to the “relentlessly blinkered” nature of classical music training may still apply

    Another young solo cellist in last Thursday’s concert of the same series, Alisa Weilerstein, is a good illustration of the kind of new musician with a foot in both worlds, playing really well both in the main event and in her own jazz group at the “after-concert” that evening. See her web site for an excellent, very free performance of Kodaly’s Sonata Opus 8, and some interesting answers on how she developed as she has.

  8. Michel permalink
    February 28, 2010 7:03 am

    Ooops, hit the post button too soon: I meant to say “may still apply, in the sense that most young classically trained musicians still pickup their jazz chops out of school.”

  9. gpwayne permalink*
    February 28, 2010 8:41 am

    So schools still don’t cover the broader spectrum – which country are we talking about here (is Canada still conservative in the conservatory, as it were)? I ask because it always seemed to me that US schools – at all ages – had a much broader view of what was ‘legitimate’ exploration by their students. It would be a shame that people are forced to go outside the establishment to – as you say – pick up their jazz chops. It is also the case that listening to jazz early in a musician’s development really helps to develop an ear for harmony and tonal relationships. I think this feeds back into the process in a really good way – Winton Marsalis playing classical pieces for example, some of the most beautiful expression I’ve heard in classics, with a kind of ‘flexibility’ of expression I hadn’t heard before.

  10. Michel permalink
    February 28, 2010 7:08 pm

    I’m not a musician, and I think I spoke a little too quickly: I took a quick look at the degree course lists at the university music schools and the conservatory schools here in Toronto, and there is a large range of non-european-classical (not sure how to call it!) music exposure and teaching, jazz in several varieties, of course, but non-western music too. And there are lots of jazz/world-music people teaching.

    You’re right, the N.A. approach is very broad now. My impression is that in Canada, things are still a little on the conservative side compared to the USA, but I may be out of date (and data) on that.

  11. Rob Hendry permalink
    February 28, 2010 11:50 pm

    I did not see the original remarks that prompted this thread but it often seems to me that in these controversies comparing one form of art to another there is a prevailing feeling that the one who scores the most goals gets to lift the cup. I’m in no position to truly comment on art but I feel just about qualified to venture an opinion on music. When you are exposed to, when you receive a piece music you are taken on a journey by the artists involved who allow you to glimpse something you would not otherwise see. They use many techniques to get you there. Sometimes a quite rudimentary approach does it, sometimes a lot more is needed, it all depends on the artist and whether (s)he has it in h(er)im. I don’t know that I’ve come across many jazz musicians whose techniques could compare with the finest classical virtuosos, and its not something that troubles me but clearly these guys need that awesome skill in order to do what musicians have to do, which is to commune with the spirits. Apparently Coltrane and Django only (only???) needed what they had.
    In the 70’s I went to see the guitarist John Mclaughlin perform with his Indian/jazz group Shakti. My attitude was entirely euro-centric. I knew that there was an Indian violinist and two percussionists alongside the guitarist, whose command of technique was second-to-none at the time. One percussionist played a regular Tabla, which my prejudices accepted as a legit instrument, and the other played what I can only describe as a clay pot. And of course the violin cleared my whitey-rules radar. I was inclined to scoff at the percussion section, but not by the end of the gig. The range of emotional responses drawn by the pot-player (it didn’t even have a skin!) left me changed forever. Was he more technically adept than than a top string player? I dunno, maybe, probably not but who cares? I was left with the gnawing, nagging feeling that the finest musician in the band may not have been its leader.

  12. Michel permalink
    March 1, 2010 12:42 am

    Your’re right: debates about virtuosity in performance sometimes become about who’s scored the most goals. And the soloist(s) may not be the indispensable members of the team.

    Likewise, I have to acknowledge that it was listening to non-European music that cleared away a lot of silly prejudices about the relative place of different genres of music, and opened my ears to contemporary new music.

    But I’m still haven’t become a Metallica fan ;^)

  13. gpwayne permalink*
    March 1, 2010 3:58 pm

    YO! Rob – how very nice to see you here. No comments on your comments, since anything I could say is redundant after 42 years of being friends, but I will point out that inevitably, the finest musician in the band is never the leader unless I’m the leader, right?

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