(more thoughts on jazz nerds, nerdy jazz, and jazz history)
by Peter Hum
June 15, 2010
On the Los Angeles Times‘ music blog, writer Chris Barton yesterday shared a lengthy message he received from drummer Jason Marsalis, who was keen to move forward in the discussion he sparked with his now-infamous and entertaining Jazz Nerds International rant.
If the whole Jazz Wars topic interests you, I’d advise you to read all that Marsalis wrote — it is strong and opinionated, but more nuanced, thoughtful and stimulating than his detractors might expect. I’ll limit myself to excerpting two passages, and in each case I’ll offer a bit of support for what Marsalis wrote.
First, Marsalis clarifies what he means by jazz nerds in this passage (which I’ve adorned with some bolding for emphasis):
Let’s define a jazz nerd. A jazz nerd, or JNA for short, is a jazz student who reduces all music to notes and concepts only. JNA worships complexity while ridiculing simplicity. JNA will hear groups lead by Dave Holland and Wayne Shorter and will marvel at the complex musical structure but ignore the historical substance behind their music. JNA saxophonists will listen to and worship the music of Mark Turner, Chris Potter, Michael Brecker, and other modern players but ignore the musicians that have influenced their music such as John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Warne Marsh, and Sonny Rollins. JNA will hear the music of James Brown and say that it’s no big deal because it only has two chords. JNA looks down on blues as “simple” while wanting to play endless non-melodic eighth and sixteenth notes over All the Things You Are in 7/4 straight feel. By the way, a slow blues is boring. Better yet, swing is actually uninteresting and straight feel is actually more “challenging” and “exciting.” Instead of embracing both, the JNA worships one while ridiculing the other. Speaking of that, 4/4 is “old” while 9/8, on the other hand, is “new.” A basic drum groove is boring unless you fill it with lots of notes. To the JNA, that’s modern music. So to recapitulate, JNA reduces music to as many complex notes as possible while ignoring the simple elements and history behind the notes.
The bolded parts of Marsalis’ essay are consistent with comments I’ve heard from other seasoned jazz musicians, including ones who don’t fall into the neo-conservative camp that many would place Marsalis in.
For example, Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett has commented on the historical short-sightedness of jazz students she had encountered. She told me that today’s students “don’t know the history of the music. They know Brad Mehldau, but they don’t know Teddy Wilson. They know Joshua Redman, but they don’t know Dewey Redman.”
Almost identically, Fred Hersch in an interview last week told me that every young pianist he knew wanted to sound like Mehldau, but was not interested in delving deeper into roots of jazz piano, learning about musicians such as Teddy Wilson or Jess Stacy. Hersch said that younger players don’t need to sound like the old giants, but they do need to “internalize” their playing, understand why they played what they did, why they thought they way they thought, and so on.
I’ve had one Canadian jazz educator express similar thoughts in a recent conversation with me. He says he has noticed that especially in the last few years, jazz students are increasingly disinterested in older jazz, which he suggested meant jazz before 1970.
And then there’s my most recent encounter with jazz ignorance. It’s not quite the same thing, in that the musicians were not complexity-loving, straight-8th playing, odd-meter worshipping jazz nerds. However, these young musicians, who are in fact reasonably accomplished, played Invitation at a jam session and because their knowledge of the tune was based on how it appears in The Real Book, they got the form wrong over and over, neglecting to take the book’s so-called coda with every chorus. For their edification, here is Invitation, played correctly.
When Marsalis refers to “nerdy” music that is complex and does not acknowledge the appeal of simplicity and the grounding principles of traditional jazz, I’m reminded of what pianist Frank Kimbrough told me, namely:
One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is music that sounds like it’s conceived and composed with computers, and I’m usually not very fond of it. Much of it is overly clever, and requires musicians to be tied to the paper, which is anathema to me. I want to hear cats listen to each other, not struggle to play a part and not get lost, playing in their own little world, too busy trying to read to listen to anything going on around them. The upside to it is that there are some ridiculously good musicians out here, many of them quite young, who are able to play anything that’s put in from of them, even if they can’t look up from their music stands. But do they listen? If so, great; if not, it doesn’t matter how “good” they are.
Similarly, Hersch last week expressed his disdain for music that he arose when “hip cats are playing hip shit for hip cats.” By that, I think he meant music students playing what Marsalis would regard as jazz-nerd music for music students. I’ve also read a DownBeat article in which Kurt Rosenwinkel, the hero of many a jazz-guitar nerd, make similar statements about what he called “insider jazz.”
How does one get beyond whether the music on the page is nerdy or not? Consider what drummer Matt Wilson told me last year:
My stuff is not too hard… I’m proud of it, actually, they’re easy. I like ‘em easy so that I can see what people can do with them. I’m big into how people can look at something and go with it. And go from there.
Sometimes I’ve played some music that’s more difficult and I find it really satisfying and more challenging…
As long as the music doesn’t get in the way of the musicians, I think it’s pretty cool. But when the music inspires the musicians and gets stuff out of them, it’s really great. That’s what all the good writers and arrangers, all those conceptualists do. They know how to usher people into an environment and allow them to play with it and see what can occur. I dig that part of it.
Further to his reflections about the lack of interest in jazz history, Marsalis coined another phrase — one that may not be as catchy as “Jazz Nerds International,” but which resonates with me. That phrase is “innovation propaganda,” and Marsalis explains:
if you don’t study the history of jazz, or music for that matter, the good news is that you have an out clause. Jazz magazines and writers created this flavour of Kool-Aid named “innovation,” and when a musician drinks “innovation kool-aid,” you believe the following principles:
1. Jazz has to move forward into the future.
2. We can’t get stuck in the past with hero worship.
3. Swing is old and dated. We have to use the music of today.
4. Jazz is limiting. You must take a chance by bringing in current styles.
5. I don’t care about the past. I have to do my own thing.
6. We’re past playing American songbook standards. That’s yesterday’s music.
To be very brief: I agree with 1 and 2 and the last half of 5, but disagree with 3,4, the first half of 5 and 6. But a few months ago, I wrote this very long post in which I argued that innovation in itself is not the alpha and omega of jazz, and that self-expression and a commitment to beauty on one’s own terms are at least as important for good jazz.
In a related post, I’ve argued that in jazz, personal authenticity matters more than cultural relevance.
The last words (for now) go to two Canadian musicians who gave the Marsalis missive a read and commented on my Facebook page:
Manitoba pianist Michelle Gregoire wrote me:
“OK I read it – I’ve been trying to figure out why the older I get, the more I feel drawn to the earliest pianists and I can just never get enough of the Blues. I find more and more in it, and I can’t get enough…. My music needs to say something, and I think at this age I know what my voice is, and I want it to speak. I’m not worried about the kids too much, cause to me they are just getting some tools together. As they hopefully continue to grow and develop as people, I think their sense of musicality could grow as well. Jason is about the same age as me, so his point of view is certainly interesting. I totally agree — inclusiveness is the trick. Because the more tools the kids have, the more they’ll have to find their voices…each person is a total and unique individual, and not everyone will fit into the boxes people like to create….everyone has the right to find themselves in some way and have the same experience all the greats had when they truly did their thing.
Ottawa-raised, Montreal-based guitarist Steve Raegele, whose beyond-jazz CD, Last Century, I reviewed, wrote:
I think this only matters if you worry about whether people think your music IS jazz. Beyond the pragmatism of playing with musicians with training (which for me means people who at one point played “jazzy jazzer jazz”) I have no need for the jazz litmus test. I can’t really get into his concerns. It’s more of a marketing issue.
Music is has the potential for infinite variation. Worrying about whether it carries the proper number of signifiers of an increasingly vast checklist of past musics is just as ridiculous as asserting that your music need not have any signifiers at all. Music can do whatever the hell it wants. Artists can blend however much or little of the past they choose to. Whether anyone cares to listen is another question, but if the only concern is pleasing people, I think it’s pretty clear what to do. What does one do, however, when this attempt to curry favour with a fickle public falls flat?