Does jazz music really suck?

Caleb Dolister
Aug 16, 2015 · 10 min read

Once regarded as a prestigious and respected art form, for many jazz has become the ugliest kid at the dance, and somehow simply mentioning its name can be a total buzzkill. What happened?

By now, most of us have read that jazz is officially the least popular genre when you judge by album sales. That’s certainly not anything to be proud of, but it’s also a vast misrepresentation of the genre.

Something most people might not understand about jazz albums, even the historic ones — is that all jazz recordings are flawed. Listening to jazz albums is like watching videos of improvised theater; no matter how good the performance, you’re still missing part of the point. If you really want to understand what’s going on, you need to experience it in person, and then re-experience it again to see how the art is its own dynamic language.

Because of that, I think it’s unfair to judge the art form by tallying album sales.

Sales can’t show that most jazz musicians are hustling to play multiple gigs per week, often at different venues and with different bands; and sales certainly don’t factor that many established artists invest most of their lifework and time teaching in colleges or higher education systems.

And music students involved in jazz studies do a lot more than just learn to play their instruments; they’re learning an extensive music vocabulary. This includes learning a universal repertoire of standards; spanning hundreds — if not thousands — of songs. It’s a library of material that allows players to go anywhere in the world and perform with complete strangers to produce hours of coherent material without needing to rehearse.

But even with those characteristics, jazz will never be appealing to the mainstream music industry because it’s not possible to quantize any success through album sales.

But why doesn’t it have mass appeal?

I don’t think the problem is that mainstream audiences dislike jazz. Instead, I think they have a legit problem navigating the channels to discover anything new.

Big labels and media outlets spend so much money and time pushing other genres at consumers that modern jazz recordings simply can’t compete.

Outside of a small and dedicated audience, the larger population honestly doesn’t know that new jazz music is being created, and that it’s been evolving for decades.

Introducing myself as a musician to a stranger at a bar or typical house party can be an interesting experiment, and I’ve learned to pay attention and study how people react. Initially, they tend to show signs of genuine interest, and when I mention that I play the drums, that interest increases. I might see eyebrows raise, more engaging body posture, etc. The next question, naturally, is to ask what kind of music I play or to describe the type of band that I am in.

“I play a lot of jazz.”

Immediately there’s a change, body language gets defensive, shoulders sag, and the response is usually something like “oh… that’s cool… ”

Somehow, mentioning jazz is usually where the conversation begins to die.

At that point, I’ll go into my conversation-saving routine where I explain in detail that in many ways I view jazz as a method, and not technically the style, and that I’m often playing music that’s based around really cool polyrhythmic grooves; jazz that’s equally influenced by crushing metal bands like Meshuggah and electronic pioneers like Aphex Twin. It’s not limited to swing music.

This might sound puzzling, but to quickly explain, most modern “jazz” players are heavily influenced by other popular modern genres. Some choose to stay traditional when they approach jazz, and some combine jazz-ideas with other genres. Jazz is tricky like that because it can either be traditional, or it can be the conversational tool used to approach improvisation, composition, form structure, and harmonic vocabulary.

Another way I like to explain this to people is to compare music to learning a foreign language. You start with pronunciation, and then learn to recite some memorized sentences or phrases along with some light conversation on controlled topics — like the weather or enjoying a meal. However, when you really learn the language, you can converse about any topic and with the same agility that you do in your native language. Studying jazz is an effective method to learn the extensive levels of vocabulary which allow you to have coherent musical conversations. And once you have the vocabulary, you can talk about anything you want.

However, this diversity might be one of the problems. It’s become challenging, even for studied musicians and enthusiasts, to define what “qualifies” as jazz.

Jazz purists argue that including “jazz” to define music blended with other genres means that it’s no longer jazz, and state that it’s a supposed to be a traditional art form based on swing and/or blues harmony. Jazz liberals believe that the genre is open to anything that incorporates improvisation…. I tend to take another approach entirely and ask that people consider jazz as more than just a genre, but as a method that can apply in other genres. Either way, if it’s a debate to define for jazz musicians, it’s probably just confusing for people that don’t play it.

Regardless of where you stand, the negative stigma associated with “jazz” outside the education system is potentially the worst thing you can say to get people excited. Crazy right?

But why is that?

Perhaps it’s all about the larger perception… and most people don’t really know what jazz is anymore.

I love asking complete strangers that don’t follow jazz music to define the genre. Try it and you’ll get a wide variety of answers. One of the common reactions is they think of popular historic jazz musicians and blurt out famous names.

Common examples are Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Sinatra, or Miles Davis. And yes, there’s always a path back to these influential musicians, but it’s the equivalent of saying you play rock music and having the person compare you to the Beatles. It’s true by default— but not the entire story.

While mega jazz icons like this are solid answers for trivia night, it also illustrates that the common perception of jazz music has not changed since those performers were active. For most people, it’s a struggle to think of any new artists, or newer material from artists with continuing careers.

This is an interesting revelation — but it makes sense.

Jazz was a powerful mainstream genre going into the 70's. At that time, people still consumed music primarily as a listening experience. Yes, TV had music performance on it all the time, but it often showed the band playing live. Sex appeal helped, but you didn’t have to be a model to have a successful music career.

That began to change drastically when the relationship between music and TV surged in the late half of the century. Radio was important, but by the 80's, music videos had become the lead music discovery platform. Interestingly, it was a band’s recorded music in both cases — not their live performance — that was the main focal point. And in videos, performers could act during a song without technically singing or playing any instruments.

For audiences, this disassociated music agility from technical live performance, and the visual appearance of a performer started to become more important as a selling tactic.

And let’s be honest, this was not good for jazz. I’m not saying jazz is the music of abstinence — all music has ties with sexuality — but let’s just agree that nobody wants to go back and watch a music video of 1980's Pat Metheny with the volume off.

If you do….. well, then to each their own — you probably have very — unique taste.

Still, a lack of teenage hormone attraction meant that the genre was just wrong for the dominant music video audience in the 80's and 90's, and I argue that’s probably one of the reasons people stopped paying attention.

Instead, jazz continued as a genre of music that mainly found success through live performances. It really doesn’t have another choice; it’s not easy to play, it takes years to master, and that means most established jazz musicians only reach success when they are older, balding, and likely out of shape. It’s not their visual appeal that causes attraction, it’s what they can do with an instrument.

Getting back to that party….

The other thing that happens when you ask someone that doesn’t follow jazz music to define the genre, is they think about where they’ve heard it, and what they experienced from it. Classic jazz is usually what’s seen on TV, so it’s likely that they have that as an expectation. In live settings, anything modern may be totally unrecognized. And what is presented as “jazz” is often drastically subdued. This is where another problem occurs.

Jazz is widely used as background music.

Unless someone already likes jazz and knows where to attend good live concerts, they have probably only experienced the genre over the speakers at Coffee shops. Or Elevators. Or Dentist lobbies. And then they think about where they have seen it live — stuffed in corners at restaurants, dinner sets at weddings, or old guys with saxophones outside ballparks…. (those guys are awesome btw).

Basically, jazz recordings are associated with elevator purgatory, and live jazz is played in settings where it’s supposed to be ignored. Even if the music is good, the scenario is not. This is a fundamental issue.

We can’t control where people broadcast recordings (like coffee places), but let’s think about the implications of the live casual jazz gigs we play.

Thanks to acoustic instruments and years practicing to master dynamics, most jazz musicians can perform in live spaces at very controlled volumes. It takes a huge amount of discipline to maintain dynamic range. Good jazz drummers can play just a few feet from a table where a couple is having a romantic dinner, and not force them to shout at each other — but it’s also presenting the art form in a way that’s intended to be live background music.

For this same reason, restaurants would never hire rock bands to perform during date-night dinner. If you hear rock music in a restaurant it’s usually playing from a recording at a controlled volume over the house PA system—or you’re eating a burger and taking shots. Think about it. Rock bands don’t get hired to play quietly because live rock music sounds apathetic at low volumes. You’ll never see a Viagra commercial where some old drummer is wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses and playing ACDC covers, but using brushes so the audience can enjoy their dinner and conversation.

And it’s not only rock music; imagine how comical it would be to see someone performing Ice Cube covers in the corner of a classy restaurant. The floor manager walking around with a decibel meter, threatening to fire the performer whenever they got too loud. Think about this “performer” intensely whispering rap lyrics in the required dinner suit and then thanking the audience for tips. What kind of respect would that give the genre?

The point is that no other music is as adaptable, not even classical music…. and classical musicians are highly skilled.

As a drummer, I genuinely like performing at quiet levels, and I love the challenge of playing with intensity without sonically killing people. I like to play hard and loud too, but when I am hired as a professional to play a restaurant or wedding, the last thing I am going to do is try and melt faces. My goal — and job — is to be appropriate and blend in perfectly with the atmosphere. There’s an art to being good at background music.

But this causes a great misunderstanding of the genre, and it’s no wonder that most people believe this is the ceiling with jazz music. Unfortunately, there are not many opportunities to demonstrate that it’s not the case.

The other side of jazz that most people will never see is a ferocious and emotional beast, driven by explorations in compositional shape and instrumental prowess. It can be intentionally quiet and careful, and it can be loud and bloody. Regardless of the volume, even the music that’s designed for beauty can be totally dangerous. I grew up playing punk rock and speed metal. I cracked my cymbals, kicked through my drum heads, and bled from cracking my knuckles against my drumheads all the time… and you want to know something shocking? Sometimes jazz can be just as brutal.

Take this highly scientific example:

Ok, so this video isn’t exactly the best example as far as accuracy, but it’s funny and sort of makes a point. Jones is playing fast, loud, and hard, and it’s exciting. And he’s beating the crap out of those drums. And he’s also a cowboy bandit, which is super weird. And this video is 40 years old so technically not even relevant to my argument, but whatever. It’s here cause it’s funny.

Uninhibited jazz (as a method) projects can be discovered all over the place. There are lots of international jazz festivals (Europe probably has the most) and landmark jazz venues — but you’ll be surprised at what you can find locally. Remember, jazz is a small ecosystem, so most international touring acts often play local bars, art spaces, and music-centered venues between larger festival or club dates.

Another place to look is within the music education system, which produces thousands of young players each year with goals to break out into their surrounding communities. These younger players used to be kids that loved hip-hop or rock music, and still do — and combine that identity with jazz as a method.

And finally there’s several radio programs designed to expand newer jazz influenced project awareness to a younger audience (check out Portland radio station KMHD’s “New Jazz For Lunch” run by Matt Fleeger — and yes, you can stream it online from anywhere).

Growing the audience is important, but it’s not easy to do, especially when saying the word “jazz” turns so many people off. Somehow, we need to get people to see that there’s more to jazz than its history, and its ability to function as background music.

To answer my initial question “does jazz really suck?”

No. It certainly doesn’t.

Just the word does.

Finished reading and interested in more? click here to check out a discussion relating to this article on Reddit

Caleb Dolister is the drummer for The Kandinsky Effect, and is an active musician and composer based in New York City. He runs a micro label, SNP Records, which helps creative music projects get off the ground, and works on web development & technology projects like Tunepatch, a free service for bands to link printed merchandise to digital content. say hi @calebdolister

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