New Standards: Making Jazz Popular Again

Newsflash: jazz music is generally unpopular.

Now, that might not come as much of a surprise to some people. The musical landscape today is lush, rife with an explosion of new styles and eclectic sounds. Many waves of new music have hit the scene since the height of jazz — generally agreed to have reached its peak popularity between the 1940’s and the early 1960’s. Rock, metal, hip-hop, rap, and most recently EDM have all had enormous influence on culture, and have largely unseated jazz as the source of most popular music. For the purposes of this writing, this is simply not up for debate.

There does exist a small group of people who do enjoy listening to and learning about jazz music — though this group primarily is composed of musicians and dancers. If you are not already in this group, I completely understand your position. Jazz is not widely popular in the world we live in today, though it is by no means on the brink of death as La La Land would have you believe. It’s hard to encounter jazz music incidentally in everyday life, even though you’ve probably incidentally overheard modern tunes like “Bad and Boujee” coming from a cranked stereo next door at a dorm/apartment, and practically every person in America could sing the choruses of “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” and “We Will Rock You” by heart from how many times they’ve been played at sporting events and grocery stores alike.

Here’s a challenge for everyone under 30 who doesn’t play an instrument: Without looking it up, can you name even 5 jazz tunes off the top of your head? No?

Thought so.

My question is simple— why is that? You could probably do that with many, many other genres of music, even ones you might not necessarily like to listen to! Why is jazz so unpopular now, and why don’t we ever hear it anymore? Furthermore, what caused jazz to fall out of style among the listening public, but also become a main focus of the curriculum at esteemed music schools like Berklee?

In order to understand how this happened — and what jazz musicians can do to rectify the situation — it’s important to understand a little bit of the history of the music. Obviously, any genre with over 100 years of history can’t be exhaustively discussed in a Medium article, but there are some key points that are important.

In the 1910’s, famous trumpeter Louis Armstrong introduced a novel way to play improvised melodies on the trumpet, later dubbed the “swing feel”. Many musicians listened to Louis, and then copied this technique. Large bands of people that took pains to develop this “swing feel” formed together into big bands, and composers like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman started to write jazz music with this new “swing feel”. These big bands were very successful for many years, and as the music developed, famous vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. were added to the mix of musicians. This kind of music was often played live in various dance halls, where the live band was intended to provide a steady beat for dancing.

But then, WWII happened. A large number of the big band musicians left to go off to war. Unable to sustain the big band business model without the personnel to staff them, many of the big bands dissolved. After that, the musicians started organizing into smaller groups of 3, 4, and 5 players. These smaller groups were called “combos”, and they would often play a mix of swing tunes and show tunes from musicals — the pop music of the time period. After the musicians would play these gigs for other people, they would gather on their own afterwards and play with only each other as their audience.

These more private sessions eventually gave birth to a new kind of jazz music: bebop. Since the musicians were playing only for each other and not to please an audience, the bebop players would play incredibly intricate melodies at insanely fast, completely un-dancable tempos — and then improvise at that frenetic speed with the same fluidity and grace as the composed melody. The bebop players were always pushing themselves to their limits of their music-making capability.

Eventually this new kind of sound caught on, and jazz shifted from being a community based dance music to the sort of music that demanded that you sit down, shut up, and listen. By introducing all of this new complexity and speed, beboppers like Charlie “Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie broke the restrictive chains of being labeled background music. Jazz was no longer dance music, it was concert music. It was also at this time that jazz musicians like Thelonius Monk — also heavily involved with the bebop movement — started to write their own original compositions, deviating from the traditional swing tune and show tune repertoire entirely.

This marks one of the most dramatic shifts in the evolution of jazz as an art form. It’s also where the history lesson ends, because this already provides some critical insights to my initial questions.

Most musicians and practitioners of jazz would say that the style has always been about two critical underpinnings: a focus on improvisation and the so-called “swing feel”. All else is incidental. Styles come and go, and many subgenres have evolved over time, but as Duke Ellington once wrote: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”.

But — historically, at least — jazz has always evolved alongside popular music. The practice of taking well-known tunes and reworking them to become the basis of improvisation is a practice inextricably woven into the history of the art form. Indeed, most of the so called “jazz standards” started out as popular music, and were adapted from show tunes! Examples of this are abundant: “Summertime”, “All the Things You Are”, “Body and Soul”, and “My Funny Valentine” all started as show tunes.

Unfortunately, these tunes are not so popular anymore, and that can pose a problem for contemporary jazz musicians. There’s an old adage amongst jazz musicians that’s been around since the beginning of its history: “Let the melody be your guide”. The point of this is to remind us improvisers that the melody is the baseline from which all good improvisations are built. But, I think this relationship is twofold — whereas jazz players use “let the melody be your guide” as a device for creating coherent improvisations, those improvisations can only be understood by listeners if they already know the original melody. “Let the melody be your guide” is such a famous expression because listeners are themselves using the melody to put the improvisations into a musical context they’re already familiar with. If no one in your audience knows the melodies, how can they even begin to appreciate the unique voice of an improviser or the choices made by a clever arranger? I don’t think they really can without knowing the original melody to begin with.

Jazz has always taken influence from popular music. Any holier-than-thou jazz purist who claims otherwise is talking moonshine, and there are a great many of these jazz purists. These are the types of people who focus so much on learning all the technical aspects of bebop that they lose sight of the bigger picture — the melody itself needs to be relatable. These purists are the types of people who believe that anything less than technical mastery of an instrument isn’t worth listening to, and judge players based on how well they conform to a set of compositional rules as opposed to how well they can express their individuality. Music schools like Berklee — though extremely important for learning those compositional guidelines — can exacerbate this problem by preaching general guidelines as the gospel truth of jazz. Unchecked, this can lead to self-indulgent soloing and ivory tower snobbery.

That’s the exact antithesis of what jazz should be. We should not be making our music incomprehensible to all those listeners without an extensive music theory background, adding in complexity just for the sake of complexity. At its core, musicality is about feeling the music and about evoking emotion in the listener. This is not meant as a dig at complexity itself — if you have to do something complex like the beboppers did to achieve an aesthetic and convey an emotion, go for it! But introducing technicalities which require extended analysis for no reason other than to impress people is rather suspect.

Jazz is becoming less popular precisely because its standard repertoire isn’t changing with the times. It is a deep and fundamental irony that the genre whose fundamental basis in popular music of 50 years ago gives a cold shoulder to the popular music of today. This kind of holier-than-thou elitism of jazz practitioners is the exact thing keeping our music from becoming widely heard.

Fortunately, there’s hope on this front. Though I think it has it’s own problems, Postmodern Jukebox represents a chance for jazz to gain wider cultural exposure. Instead of playing the old standards like “Autumn Leaves” for the 100,000th time, Postmodern Jukebox does precisely what I’ve been suggesting — they adapt today’s popular music to fit the swing aesthetic. A few examples of songs they’ve adapted in this way are Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass”, Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”, and even Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”.

As it turns out, Postmodern Jukebox is wildly popular, even though jazz in general is not. Their YouTube videos routinely attract hundreds of thousands of viewers, occasionally reaching into the millions. And that’s only after the first couple of months of being posted! Take those numbers and compare them with someone like Stochelo Rosenberg — arguably one of the best traditional gypsy swing musicians alive today. His view count — with a couple of exceptions — is about the same, even though his performances have been posted online for much longer; some of them are from as far back as 10 years ago. Looking at listener counts on Spotify, the difference in number of plays even more drastic: Postmodern Jukebox regularly gets multiple millions of plays, whereas Rosenberg’s most listened to track only has a couple hundred thousand plays.

Now, Postmodern Jukebox is far from perfect. It’s emphasis on “vintage” aesthetic has the not-so-subtle connotation that swing music is from “then”, and modern music is “now”. I find that connotation quarrelsome; jazz is just as much a living, breathing musical art form now as it was then, and it should be treated as such. That said, they’ve tapped into something essential that all contemporary jazz musicians should take note of: popular music.

Postmodern Jukebox harnesses the power of popular, well known, ubiquitous melodies. The same kinds of melodies that “Autumn Leaves” and “All of Me” — played by traditional musicians like Stochelo — used to be. Far from polluting the authenticity of “real jazz” with “simplistic” or “accessible” music as some jazz purists might claim, Postmodern Jukebox is participating in one of the oldest traditions of the genre: taking well known songs and turning them into vehicles for improvisation.

This is successful because listeners already have a working framework and set of expectations of what the tune is “supposed” to be, and listeners delight in the subversion of those expectations and musical tropes they’re already accustomed to. That’s just how listeners would have felt listening to more traditional jazz standards in the 40’s and 50’s. The listeners have the melody in their heads, and are using it as a guide to understand the new arrangements and improvisations.

Though anathema to the purists, being “accessible” is not an insult. It’s the exact thing that we need to be if we want anyone who’s not a normal jazz listener to take an interest in the music of jazz and its rich, extensive history. It’s way past time to create a standard jazz repertoire that is accessible for the modern music listener. The best way to do that is with melodies that are already well known. As much as jazz is firmly rooted in the traditions of the past, it’s also important to examine the state of its reach in the present, and figure out how to move it into the future.

If that means playing a jazzed-up version of P!nk’s “So What” more often than Miles Davis’ “So What”, then I welcome that evolution.

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