Jazz After Politics

It’s been years since jazz had any claim as a countercultural art form.

Photo by William P. Gottlieb

Justin Moyer’s recent Washington Post hit piece on jazz provoked a lot of hostility, much of it deserved. It was, after all, pretty shoddy work.

Based on the Left’s long history of embracing jazz and jazz musicians, we might feel we have a dog in this fight. But it’s been years since jazz had any claim to a counter-cultural, outsider, adversarial status, or communicated a revolutionary or even mildly reformist mindset. Any doubts on that score can be answered with a trip to the wall of corporate sponsors of jazz in Lincoln Center, followed by a visit to Dizzy’s Coca Cola club, the center’s flagship concert hall.

If the Left is losing its affinity for jazz, that’s not really a problem: plenty of other musical styles can fill the void, and we can argue about whether they succeed in complementing a radical political and economic critique or even whether it’s important that they do so.

The problem for jazz is that few on the left, right, or center care enough about it anymore to argue its merits — political, aesthetic, or otherwise. Moyer is an exception: he clearly cares enough to take the time to write about why it fails to move him emotionally and engage him intellectually.

He’s right to point out the damage done to jazz by generations of uncritical consensus about its greatness, certified by a phalanx of respectability ranging from musicological mandarin Joseph Kerman and CIA operative Henry Pleasants to civil libertarian Nat Hentoff and black nationalist Amiri Baraka (not to mention the master of triangulation himself, Bill Clinton). The aesthetic status of jazz is reinforced through top-down institutional acceptance: the MacArthur awards, the endowed professorships, the Ken Burns documentary, the massive corporate and nonprofit support, and so on.

Nonstop official consecration makes judging any given piece, performance, or artist superfluous — even risky. Listeners become anxious about expressing what they really think and feel about the music. You can’t find jazz boring and self-indulgent without appearing to be a boob. Machiavelli says that politicians should prefer the public’s fear to its love, but that’s a death sentence for an art form.

Moyer pretty effectively slays one sacred cow implicated in this: not all improvised music is great. Yes, improvisation has produced some wonderful music, but it has also imposed plenty of tedium on audiences over the years. And given the cult of the improvisor created by generations of A-list intellectuals, listeners don’t argue, they vote with their feet — politely turning down invitations to the Village Vanguard, a university-sponsored gig by one of the remaining jazz icons, or a local band “blowing” on standards at a pizza parlor or coffee house.

In the early-to-mid 1980s, I played gigs with a few jazz luminaries in San Francisco and New York, and I still consider myself a jazz musician, albeit of a greatly diminished professional status.

I stopped playing jazz shows — at least, of the assembly-line variety I was doing routinely back then — for reasons that square with some of Moyer’s objections. One was over-reliance on improvisation to inflate generally pretty unremarkable (and usually unrehearsed) head arrangements, almost always for one or more horns plus “rhythm section.” A drummer friend described the product as “driving the bus”: the horns, the piano, the bass and/or drums lining up to “blow on the changes.”

The aura of improvisation was a pretense masking an unvarying formula, the stuff of probably tens of thousands of live performances and recordings. The New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett famously described jazz as “the sound of surprise,” but now it tends towards the opposite — catering to audiences of “jazzbros” who are temperamentally, intellectually, and, probably, politically a world away from the adventure-seeking beatnik outsiders of the golden age a half century ago.

Moyer objects to jazz musicians stripping the words from standard tunes that make up the bulk of the jazz repertoire. He’s wrong about that. With the exception of some high watermarks reached by a few of the great lyricists, most notably Cole Porter and Yip Harburg, there should be no objection to jettisoning what is for the most part embarrassingly banal, lovey-dovey doggerel. The real problem is musicians’ failure to indicate much awareness of what the words were in the first place, often with unintentionally comical results.

A nadir of obliviousness was reached by the legendary tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson through the inclusion of the standard “Without a Song” in a sequence of classic recordings paying tribute to the then-dominant Black Power movement. Some of the titles of the albums are “Power to the People,” “In Pursuit of Blackness,” “If You’re not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem,” and “Black is the Color.” So it is more than a little disturbing, in this context, to encounter the vile Jim Crow racism of the second phrase: “A darky’s born/ but he’s no good no how / without a song.”

Henderson is by no means unusual among jazz musicians in being oblivious to the silliness and, worse, to the casual racism and misogyny informing the sensibility of the golden age of American song from which jazz draws. Should this matter? Maybe not. But that doesn’t mean that the musicians are above criticism. And it’s criticism jazz should welcome, since it comes from those who care enough to listen. What really endangers jazz is having already lost the hearts of most of the public.

Finally, it’s worth keeping Moyer’s attack in perspective. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that every one of his criticisms is on target: jazz is, as he says, “boring,” “overrated,” “washed up,” and more. If so, the worst consequences are that a bunch of musicians get gigs at leafy colleges, raise their kids in these communities, and give occasional concerts their students and colleagues are required to suffer through, making insincere remarks in exchange for A’s. There are worse things in the world, and here’s a list of some of them:

  • Infant mortality rates for blacks are twice those of non-Hispanic whites.
  • Average life expectancy for black males with high school diplomas is fourteen years less than whites with college degrees.
  • Median black family wealth has suffered the largest drop in its history, lower now than it was in 1984.
  • Black rates of unemployment are double those of whites.
  • According to the NAACP, “If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.”

The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from this list is, of course, the demonstrable contempt our society has for black people. But the implication that counts for our purposes is that the elite embrace of black music over the last few decades has made no difference to black people.

Or, more precisely, it has done just as much as other symbolic victories such as the installation of Black Studies programs in universities, the “national conversation about race” initiated by Clinton, and, most notably, the election of an African American to preside over the carnage inflicted by capitalism in its neoliberal phase. In fact, it has done a lot of harm, as the Left, particularly in its vampire incarnation, has become increasingly incapable of distinguishing reality, where it has been losing for generations, from symbolism, where it occasionally chalks up a win.

Moyer makes no mention of any of this, of course, though, to be fair, it’s not likely the Washington Post would have regarded it as fit for its op-ed page if he did. His criticisms won’t change anything about the musical tastes of jazz fans, myself included. Our love for the music, warts and all, will remain — but that’ll only get us so far, if it gets us anywhere at all.