May 23 2013
So, I read a nice column over on jazz vocalist Champian Fulton‘s site, in which she brings up some personal anecdotes about encountering lighthearted barbs targeting Jazz in the media, and then later, discovering that Jazz legend Barry Harris shared her view on those same instances. It’s a nice column, and you should read it before proceeding onto mine… Follow this LINK to the article… because I address it below.
And, thus, my response…
It appears like there’s a few things in play here…
1. Regarding the David Letterman comment: Thelonious Monk should offend some people. Even today, his sound presents itself as innovative and unconventional. Of all the Jazz greats, it seems that Monk’s music has been the toughest for followers to emulate. That, to me, speaks of the singularity of his creative voice. Something like that is bound to rub some people the wrong way, and while it’s unfortunate that David Letterman is one of those people, I think when a musician with a very strong following is able to incite some people to say “turn that music off,” that’s a sign of the music’s strength.
2. On The Office, neither Dwight nor Angela are very bright characters. They are seriously warped in serious ways. If real people in a real job setting and behaving as they did on the show, Angela and Dwight would have accumulated an impressive amount of both job terminations and restraining orders. I wouldn’t take anything they say personally.
2.5. Now, as far as the writers of The Office and Parks & Rec taking potshots at Jazz… they’re both comedy shows, so they’re gonna take potshots at everyone. It would be worse if Jazz were ignored altogether, deemed not even worthy of a couple jabs from major network mass-consumption television shows. And that’s all they are… network tv shows… not the kind of critical pedigree that one need feel self-conscious about receiving a barb or two from. File under “whatevs.”
3. The larger picture has to do with why Jazz is the target of this kind of pointed humor. I’d posit it has to do with its reputation, deserved or not, of being a thinking person’s music. It wasn’t always that way, but that reputation has evolved over time to where we are now. Generally speaking, and with plenty of exceptions, there exists a segment of the population who might be interested in exploring Jazz were it not for the perceived barrier-to-entry of getting learned up on the subject. As opposed to, say, rock or hip hop or pop music, where one just hears a couple bands on the radio or a friend’s house and dives into the music, Jazz is viewed, by some, as having some sort of education requirement to be able to sufficiently appreciate the music, that it’s not enough to simply like a tune… one must understand why they like a jazz song and learn to like it the correct way.
Yes, yes, I know, this isn’t always the case, but it never fails to amaze me when I encounter people who express this exact reason for why they hesitate simply picking up a Coltrane album or something new by Dave Douglas. It’s unclear just how pervasive this prevailing reputation of Jazz is, but it is out there.
And, as a result, it’s why Jazz gets picked on from time to time. It’s a passive-aggressive version of self-deprecation. Scrabble players get it from people who smile and say sweetly, “Oh, I’m not smart enough to know all those crazy words.” It’s seen on sports broadcasts… the moment one of the announcers throws out a word with more than three syllables, everyone else in the booth immediately pounces with an exclamation of confusion over the word followed by a banal joke about having spent more time in the gym than the classroom. It’s seen everywhere in society when a person fears that their level of knowledge or expertise is not up to the challenge at hand, and rather than simply embrace their uncertainty and step up, they enter a defensive crouch of self-deprecation and take a jab at the perceived source of their self-generated discomfort.
But the thing of it, the absolute truth of it all, is that nothing could be easier than exploring Jazz. Its reach goes back nearly a century, and its present-day expanse covers the entire planet. The sound of Jazz is as varied as the artists who create it. We are surrounded by doors that open a path to Jazz, and it’s as simple as taking a step forward to begin. You don’t need to read a Jazz primer before beginning. You take chances on new music, and you like what you like, and you dislike what you dislike, and you continue on from that foundation. There are no pop quizzes. There is no preparation fee to begin. You go to the music store, the library, online, live shows, wherever you choose to begin exploring, and you simply begin listening. It’s as simple as that.
There are many different ways to appreciate art. Find the way (or ways) that work for you, and don’t ever let anybody tell you that you’re doing it wrong. Our connections with art, with the creativity of the artist, they’re a very personal thing that is wound up in everything we’ve ever experienced, dreamed, wished for, and envisioned, and nobody is a better judge than you of how it all plays out when you listen to a Jazz album for the first time.
There is no wrong. There is only what you like. There is no obstacle to beginning. There is nothing to fear. There is only you.
And that’s no joke.