Did the American Songbook kill jazz?
Thought I'd share an interesting article at salon.com about the present condition and future of jazz:
I play in a dance band, so all we play are the songs that people know very well. What about you guys who play clubs? Seems like standards are all that I see mentioned here. Anyone branching out to other types of material?
No, I killed jazz when I tried to play it.
What do you consider to be standards? I play Jobim, bop, and straight-ahead jazz regularly. Some fairly complicated tunes. We've even played Nefertitti (sp?) and the audience seemed to enjoy it.
As what were the pop tunes of the good old days became the "standards" of today, we try to mix in various popular tunes with the standards- things like TV show themes (Family Guy, I Dream of Jeannie), movie tunes (Spider Man, Mission Impossible), commercials (When You're Having More Than One), etc. They seem to get a good reception.
Any other non-standard tunes that you all like to play?
It's tough to try to learn jazz these days, there's so much history...everything from Satchmo playing "Cornet Chop Suey" to post-Ayler "energy music"...and so much repertoire. Even if you limit yourself to just learning what's been enshrined in the various Real Books, you've got over a thousand tunes to learn. Most of which noone wants to hear :(
I was told by one of my teachers that the reason I was having trouble trying to play jazz was that I didn't know any of the tunes, let alone the lyrics to those tunes. So I'm reaching for the Real Book all the time. On the other hand if someone at a jam session started calling any number of soul or classic rock tunes I'd be on them like a dog on a bone because that's what I grew up with in the 1960s.
It is ironic that at a time when jazz education is at it's peak, the employment opportunities for those students is at an all-time low.
Things may be changing, though. A dance band promoter in RI who I've worked for many times tells me the new thing amongst the 16-25 age group in Providence is "hot" jazz...Satchmo, Django, early Ellington, etc. The other day I opened up the latest Rhythm and News catalog from Delmark to find the first CD by the Fat Babies
who formed only two years ago and play 20s/30s Chicago jazz. What the heck is going on here?
I play saxophone with an old time swing band. There are gigs to be had if you can play the music in a manner conducive to dancing.
But it'll never be in demand as soul and motown...so i just play in multiple styles with multiple bands. Plus I really like a lot of different styles of music and like learning them.
Real Book bands are really for wedding/receptions/wineries and good for a couple good gigs a year.
Modern Jazz from post bop to current? Fogetaboutit. There are really great players doing that for a creative outlet, but few can make a living playing like that and the best of these also teach quite a lot in my area.
I also play with a crooner (songbook stuff). Its quite a joy to play as well, but we aren't packing the bar with crazed groupies.
Young music will yield more crowds, but adult contemporary will produce more financial yield. Those are the people with the money to afford a band. And the style of music is enjoyable to the most without being offensive, therefore companies and organizations dont mind paying for it...
In reading the article and the considering everything that has transpired in similar threads as things, there's one thing that stands out to me: Everything is deathly serious. Is Jazz dead? How do you get new listeners? How come jazz versions of current (or recently current) pop standards don't last? Why is new music so successful yet so uncomplex and shallow?
Read all of that article and there's one glaring thing missing: Where's the "fun"?
Seems like when most jazz critics write the kind of stuff, they seem to fail to see the forest for the trees. Why are the Beatles/Stones/Rock/etc popular? Because it's fun to listen to. So what if there are just 4 chords?
The reality is that all of us serious jazz players do it for mainly selfish reasons. We love the music, we love the standard, but obviously that's not shared with the public anymore.
When I think of stuff like Bad Plus doing Rush's Tom Sawyer - yeah it's cute, it's trite. It's not something I'm going to listen to over and over. It's good for the first or second listen, but not really that interesting to me as a casual listener. I might dissect it as a study, but it's not something I listen to as entertainment.
Seems like when these types of articles come up it's kinda like whining about why jazz is no longer in the public limelight. Dead? I don't think so, but def a niche audience. Until jazz musicians can compose something that can be consistently fun, I don't think anybody will be drawing huge audiences like it used to 50 years ago, after all, the standard kinda had a monopoly on musical entertainment at the time.
I think Hididdy's comment is very insightful. Those of us who play jazz enjoy it because we find challenging our ears and muse to hear and play new things, within harmonic and rhythmic rules, interesting, even compelling but the general audience thinks we're just making noise. So, while it's "fun" for us, it's not for the layman. Even folks who should know better forget that "jazz" used to refer to Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey, which was the "popular" music of its day, designed to be danced to. If this is right, the only "cure" for the "death of jazz" is to educate as many people as possible by whatever means available. Meaning that if Esperanza Spaulding or Kenny G attract new folks to something stamped as "jazz", as long as its quality music, we should thank them for their service.
Seems to me that when jazz musicians try to make "fun" or "danceable" music they get slagged.
Back in the 60s organ combos and "soul jazz" were looked down upon yet they were very popular amongst audiences. Fusion got the cold shoulder despite selling lots of records and concert tickets. These days there's artists mixing it up with hip-hop and new takes on electric Miles, but again there's complaints that it's lightweight compared to "real" jazz. Etc., etc.
I'm not good at playing standards (started late, ya know) but I know how to improvise melodically, harmonically and rhythmically so I'm having a good time and so are the audiences I play for. They're just not jazz audiences :(
It may be that jazz will not outlast the 21st century but improvisational music certainly will.
Bebop and other certain types of improvisation were BASED on the construction of show tunes/standards. After that improvised/creative music from free improvisation to hard bop to the highly structured work of the AACM and Cecil Taylor was all based on original material. There is no connection between modern pop music and jazz/improvised music anymore.
The motivations for playing "New Standard" material are not artistic at the root level, even if a musician says it is. There is no shortage of serious, amazing material made by serious creative musicians and composers you can spend a life time learning a tiny fraction of it.
In terms of crass economic decisions it can often pad your wallet and keep you working. That is just fine, but don't patronize us by pretending it is true artistic decision!
Just because you like a song doesn't mean:
A. you need to play it
B. it is going to be a compelling vehicle for improvisation
In my view it is pretty simple.
Standards are rehashed pop songs, put inside out to get various feelings out of them, reflecting the mood of musicians. A kind of progressive vision of music.
Jazz locked itself into old standards rather than expanding its catalog by including modern songs.
What are the most modern jazz standards? Beatles songs, funk jazz like cantaloupe Island, a few James Brown songs? These are 40 year old at best.
Indeed, people don't recognize these songs anymore. Jazz musicians in bebop or postbob style should apply their skill to Lady Gaga, Adele and Justin Bieber.
Again, I'll go back to my point: why so serious? The more this topic gets discussed the more I think Kenny Werner is right: Jazz zealots are no different than trekkies at a Star Trek convention.
Anyways, of all the current pop renditions, I think the only thing worth going back to is maybe all the Radiohead covers that Mehldau did. Thats about it for me.
In the early days of the 20th century what we today might call a musical meme spread all over America and then into Europe and then over the world. Musicians and audiences found it delightful and irresistible to play/hear syncopated rhythms, to play/hear those "blue notes", and to lose inhibitions about the "proper" way of doing things, glorying in improvisation and passion-in-the-moment. A lot of people, too, got a kick out of the idea that this sensuously thrilling music they were enjoying was a sort of flip of the finger to "serious music". It got called "jazz", and those things I just mentioned were the fuel that gave the music sociological impetus, that gave it forward motion. It came out of specific historical conditions that are long since gone. It came out of the streets and crossroads and whorehouses, not the academies. And it came out of a relationship between player and listener -- you couldn't have one without the other. If people didn't dig swing the way they did in the 20's and 30's, we wouldn't have had Bird or Mingus or Cecil Taylor to yak about forever and a day.
So the connection between jazz and the songbook is historical. Those were the songs of the day when jazz was at its popular peak. They were the material at hand. And, as it turns out, the 32-bar form with that particular type of ii-V-I harmony and those sorts of melodies turns out to have been a pretty fine structure for blowing. I think they're gorgeous. They're before my time but I've been hearing them my whole life. I think in the future there will always be people who find the music of that period, the American popular music from the 20's through the 50's, the jazz and songbook combo, beautiful and compelling.
But time moved on. History happens. Jazz audiences are small, specialty audiences now compared to when jazz was the hip hop of its day, the thing everyone *couldn't resist* playing and hearing. The connection between pop and jazz got broken. I don't think it will ever be fixed -- we can't roll back the clock in any other areas of life, why should jazz be any different? And The Beatles, James Brown, Talking Heads, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Lady Bieber -- none of that stuff seems to appeal to most improvising musicians who identify with the "jazz" label. Just doesn't seem to work the same way -- the material's not rich in the same way songbook tunes turned out to have been. Playing those tunes in a jazz way just doesn't light the fire of anyone, player or listener -- definitely not in the way that gave jazz life to begin with.
Besides, when you talk to listeners these days, the listeners who don't like jazz (i.e., most listeners), the number one complaint they've got is that it all sounds the same, you can't tell what tune is being played. If that's true, why would it matter whether the tenor player is breaking a sweat on "Airegin" or "Smells Like Teen Spirit"? The listener is alienated from the music either way.
Given the way history happened, I think jazz is exactly where it should be right now. One stream pursues the repertory aspect, preserving and vivifying The Tradition every day, and passing it on. Another stream pushes ahead with modernity aspect of jazz, with the High Art project. But the socio-cultural realities that bound player and listener to the jazz way of doing things, the realities that gave us Duke and Basie in the heyday -- they are dead and gone. The connection between jazz and a mass audience is mostly laying in the graveyard.
There are so many musicians who pursue classical careers and yet that beautiful music has nothing to do with contemporary pop music. Audiences are small and yet people dedicate their lives to interpreting works by great composers.
Although jazz is not classical, it is an art form. Possibly the only one America has given the world. So if jazz, for lack of a better word, speaks to you, then why not pursue it? It is a worthy endeavor to pursue becoming accomplished within this art form.
Although very few will actually make a solid living strictly from playing jazz, for some there are many other rewards that are also worthy. As hdiddy has stated, it's just so much fun! Why not enjoy it?
Yup I think that's the real thing here. All the hand wringing about whether jazz is valid or not is completely irrelevant. The only thing that matters is peoples love and passion for something good. And that honest love and bliss in playing it and performing it will always draw some sort of audience. People may be complete heathens when it comes tp knowing about music but if it's something worth listening to, there's always someone who will catch on even if they're completely ignorant to the style.
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