How Can a “Music of the Spirit” Die?
Jazz is dead! Here we go again. The recent Wall Street Journal article by Terry Teachout, (the journal’s drama critic? Why is he writing about jazz? With all their resources they couldn’t find someone to write on jazz?) declaring that no one is listening to jazz and featuring a prominent cartoon of a “black Jazz musician” being wheeled out on a cart speaks volumes to a continued bourgeois, arrogant Eurocentric lack of understanding of jazz.
Mr. Teachout’s methodology is the classic case of someone going out to investigate the flowers, but never getting off the horse to “smell the flowers.” Hence the article is so “lightweight” I had to keep a paperweight on it to keep it from elevating and floating away on its own. Put another way, as Amiri Baraka in his latest book “Digging” would say, “The lack of knowledge about America’s richest contribution to world culture is a reflection as well of the deadly ignorance which stalks this country from the New York City Hall to the halls of Congress to the corporate offices to academic classrooms, like a ubiquitous serial killer…”
Teachout uses a number of useless (without context!) numbers from a National Endowment of the Arts survey to conclude that only those with their head in the sand cannot see a larger picture of “lack of mass support for jazz” leading to its demise. There were fewer people attending a jazz concert; the audience is (graying) growing older; older people are less likely to attend jazz performances today than yesterday; and the audience among college-educated adults is also shrinking. On the surface, this kind of approach can scare or misinform a great many people into following the ever present “jazz is dead” attacks upon the music. This kind of approach is not the approach of someone who wants to help jazz survive, but one that serves to drive people away from exploring and learning about jazz.
How about we come at the non arguable “less than healthy’ state of jazz another way? Once again we call on America’s foremost jazz critic for guidance. Why not investigate and raise the question as to the “domination of US popular culture by an outrageously reactionary commercial culture of mindlessness, mediocrity, violence and pornography means that it is increasingly more difficult for the innovative, serious, genuinely expressive, or authentically popular artist to get the same kind of production and the anti-creative garbage that the corporations thrive on.” (Digging, Amiri Baraka). I suggest that this is the inquiry that the Wall Street Journal should be making into the subject matter, the health state of jazz. But when you’re part of the problem, it’s difficult. From the standpoint of the WSJ, jazz’s mystery can/cannot be solved by market forces. “Look here are the numbers!”
From the great work “Blues People,” to his other book, “Black Music,” and the latest contribution from the peoples’ critic, “Digging,” there is one thing that stands out. Amiri Baraka insists that the music, from blues to jazz, is a creation and reflection of the struggles of the Afro-American people. The music is an expression of a people’s culture and cannot be separated from such. Jazz, Afro-American in origin, universal in content and expression, is nonetheless tied to a people, expressing their greatest fears and joys, hopes for the future and repository of the past, that it can said, “the music is the people.” Hence the music can never die, because the people live. Bill Cosby is quoted in Digging as saying, “There’s a wonderful story I like to tell. It’s the end of the world…gray, blowing, turbulent… and there is this tombstone that says, ‘Jazz: It Broke Even!’ The music has its high and lows, but it can never die.”
” a fundamental contradiction, sharp, at times antagonistic, existed between American Classical Music (jazz), its creators, mainly black, and the majority of commentators, critics, critical opinion about the music, which historically are not.”
Art is a reflection of a people’s culture. As Baraka says, “Whether African Song, Work Song, Spiritual, Hollers, Blues, Jazz, Gospel, etc., no matter the genre, the ideas contained in Afro-American art, in the main, oppose slavery and desire freedom.” (Digging). For jazz to die, the entire history and Afro-American people would have to die. This is the content that an interloper like Teachout cannot understand. Jazz is as vital and fighting for its existence today as it was in the 40’s, 50’s or 60’s. Jazz is currently experiencing the “tale of two cities.” On the one hand, due to the advances and demands of the black liberation movement, Jazz enjoys a newfound bourgeois respectability. This is evidenced by the fact that very many colleges and universities have jazz departments (some led by the creators of the music) that produces very rich programs and new venues for the jazz musicians to play. On the other hand, many of the formerly most popular jazz venues have “moved” downtown and have become inaccessible not only to the supporters of the music, but also its creators. Many of the new downtown venues only showcase the “jazz superstars” of the music, hence subsidizing many new young white jazz musicians, while the new black creators and continuators of the music can’t get gigs. This is a sorry state of affairs that must be investigated. Couple with the new thrust in white jazz criticism, the old (black) cats aren’t playing anything new (like in Europe), but just continue to “swing.” How ironic, given that it’s the swing that is the heart of the music. Whatever happened to the maxim…it don’t mean a thing?
I often joke with Amiri that two months after he dies, the jazz powers that be are going to call a meeting declaring jazz dead, or a European creation. As long as he lives this can’t happen, because they know he’ll light fire under their asses.
But since jazz is what the great trumpet player Ahmed Abdullah calls, “the music of the spirit,” it can never die. While the WSJ declares jazz dead, refuses to get off the horse and smell the flowers, the music continues to thrive and fight for its life, for its expression. In New Jersey, new small clubs are opening up all over the place, anchored by Cecil’s in West Orange. You have the work of Newark’s own Stan Myers, who has run a successful Tuesday night Jam session at Crossroads for years; Papillion, Skipper’s, the Priory, Trumpets, John Lee’s annual concerts in South Orange, and countless other venues all testify to the fact that the “spirit” is alive. This weekend, Saturday and Sunday, the Oskar Schindler jazz program in the park in West Orange will take place with some of the greatest musicians in the world. This annual event continues to grow larger every year. You can’t convince the people attending these venues that “jazz is dead.” In NYC, the opening of Creole’s uptown that now has a dynamite line up of jazz performances, to Sistas’ Place in Brooklyn; the great work of Bob Myers and the Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, the Lenox Lounge and St. Nick’s in Harlem, the reopening of Minton’s demonstrates that there are real soldiers in the field fighting to keep jazz alive in our communities. Countless other new, small venues in Brooklyn is a further testament that “jazz lives, will never die, and continue to find outlets for its expression.”
Jazz is not popular culture. To compare and demand that Jazz be equated with the lowest common denominator cultural expression, packaged for the most extreme exploitation by monopoly capitalism is to have no understanding of the music. By its very nature it is “rebel” music. Teachout complains that it is not the music of the masses, of the youth, as determined by corporate measuring sticks. Well of course. I like hip-hop but I’m not going to any concerts. That’s youth music. Not particularly challenging. Jazz is a challenging experience, for all of the reasons stated above and yes must be able to attract younger listeners. But the commonly referred to model, “jazz must return to its 1930’s swing era roots, when big bands like Benny Goodman’s ruled the roost and young and old danced their lives away to the music. Most reputable jazz historians recognize that period as one of the worst in jazz history, as monopoly capital stripped the music of its vitalness, repackaged it to the public in a sanitized (racist) endeavor. Be-Bop was a rebellion against this co-modification and bastardization of the music.
When we say jazz is “a music of the spirit,” sitting in on a jazz program has the possibility of elevating the listener to heights never experienced by a poplar culture event. For many it is a shared communal experience, as witnessed by the common clapping in appreciation of a musical interlude, or the strictly individual experience of the music. Some can appreciate the full recipe of musical virtuosity on display, some may connect deeply in an emotional way with the music, some relate to the democratic display of the skills of the musicians, and some may not have liked the particular performance. Jazz is a broad palette, some things we don’t like, some things we like better than others. All of this is part of the learning curve as people come to appreciate jazz. It’s great when a young brother or sister after leaving their first jazz experience, say “I really liked what I heard.” Or to say, I didn’t understand what I heard. This too is part of the learning process.
McDonald’s is popular fast food. Many like it, many do not. But McDonald’s is not the only food on the market. There is other food, much tastier, much more healthful in the long run, more beautiful in its presentation, that people should be exposed to, for a more elevating food experience. This is the difference between jazz and popular music.
Often times when inviting someone to a jazz club, you get the usual question? “How’s the parking, how’s the security, etc.? I usually chuckle to myself because this person has no clue to the different vibe in a jazz club than at a popular musical event. Because the music is so elevating and brings a different emotional approach given its history, the experience, as I said before is much more a shared and communal experience. Jazz does not attract the kinds of persons prone to antagonistic conflicts with others, but just the opposite, in that it attracts the kinds of persons prone to spiritual connections with the music and other patrons. I’ve never seen a “weapons detector” at a jazz club or venue. As we used to say back in the day, “we ain’t about that!” This music means something else.
The WSJ approach to “summing up the current state of jazz” has the open or hidden affect of driving people away from the jazz experience. “Who wants to go hear music that no one attends anyway?” It can’t be any good if as the market numbers show that no one is listening.
In “Jazz and the White Critic (Thirty Years Later),” Baraka in Digg says, the theme of one of his former articles was that,” a fundamental contradiction, sharp, at times antagonistic, existed between American Classical Music (jazz), its creators, mainly black, and the majority of commentators, critics, critical opinion about the music, which historically are not.” Sadly, the WSJ article confirms his observations, then and now.
Jazz, like the Afro-American people: We got problems, but still we rise. The music of the spirit will never die. “It may break even!”