I've done it. I've become one of those people I hate: I went to Europe, came back and now every sentence begins with… "When I was in France." This, I hate to say, is going to be one of those moments. Here's a whole mess of sentences: When I was in France, I went to the Paris Jazz Festival; When I was at the Paris Jazz Festival, I was struck by how many Parisians were crowding the stage, how long the improvisations lasted, how avant-garde the performance, how eclectic the roster of musicians was. Now, everyone had told me, before I went to Europe, how different it would be. "We're rock stars in Europe," a jazz musician had told me, and I have to admit, I was skeptical. After all, how many nights had I sat in a club and listened to the quartet become background noise to the chattering of voices, the jubilant clanking of glasses? How many times had I heard someone say, "Jazz…I just don't get it," as if it were a foreign language? But there I was in the Parc Floral de Paris, where were thousands of Parisians laid out on blankets among Monet landscapes, sipping wine, listening intently, crowding the stage for a better look. And though there was not a single bra thrown, there was adoration.
When I returned home to tell this story, mostly people nodded, some were interested, and others were defensive. "There are dozens of big jazz festivals in the United States every where," one told me with a snarl. "Maybe you were just enchanted with France." Okay, admittedly, I'm at that stage where I begin every sentence with "When I was in…" and so I can admit there's some rose-colored enchantment going on, but, I was told by jazz musicians who have played in both countries before I left that they feel different playing in Europe. They feel like "rock stars," in Europe. Though it's true that there are dozens of jazz festivals in the US, many of them well attended, it's not true that the musicians feel equally appreciated in the US as they do overseas.
Coincidentally, at the same time I was engaged in this comparative discussion with so many friends, Herbie Hancock gave a press conference at the National Press Club, titled The Global Impact of Jazz. In it, Herbie talked about his experiences traveling with former president, Bill Clinton, his experiences teaching children at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and then he encouraged the media to play a more active role in advancing Jazz, citing a simple fact most of us could intuitively confirm-Jazz record sales are low. In fact, NPR reports that Jazz sales make up a mere 3% of music sales nationwide.
Why is this kind of sad? It's not because
I listen to jazz and have some narcissistic idea that everyone else should
too… No, it's because this is the birthplace of jazz-the first indigenous
art form to the US - and it's a romantic, perhaps nationalistic idea that
we should all be a little more excited about that. We don't have Rembrandts
and Monets, Beethovens and Mozarts, like Europe. We have Charlie Parkers and
Miles Davises, John Coltranes and Jelly Roll Mortons. Where are the lines
to the museum where we honor their remains? Why aren't these great artists
honored in every record collection in every household in the United States?
Why have we turned our ears away from jazz?
Instead of continuing the informal discussion on jazz history with friends, I turned to research. Most historians place the beginning of jazz in the 1890s, identifying its roots in ragtime, blues, negro spirituals. Of course, this is also a politically hot time in American history: civil rights for African-Americans are severely limited in most states; lynchings are epidemic in the South; union disputes and labor protests are common. The country is clearly unsettled, and then we begin to hear this sound emerging from the south - a new music - not composed by the classical traditions of Europe, but invented by a denigrated minority of the United States. Jazz, in the beginning, is an underclass art form. But the popularity of ragtime soars, and the music soon becomes cultural phenomenon, arriving at the ivory towers where all the great stone busts of Europe's great composers live.
But then, a strange thing happens: the ivory tower opens up the guarded gates and jazz enters an international dialogue on art. According to Jazzbandism, a book by University of Georgia Athens professor, Jed Rasula, jazz was ready to be received in Europe, especially by its cultural institutions. Rasula quotes a German commentator after the Great War as saying that jazz was a, "musical revelation, a religion, a philosophy of the world, just like Expressionism and Impressionism." Jazz suddenly enters a worldwide dialogue on art. It sits next to Picasso in parlor discussions, has been validated-not as the folk music of an oppressed class of people, but as the first cultural export of that young country of rebels, the United States.
With a stamp of approval, jazz moves into the commercial limelight, spilling its distinct sound from the open mouth of an old Victrola. In the roaring 20s musicians, like Jelly Roll Morton, were touring the country writing and recording the music that would codify jazz. The 20s soon gives way to the depression and a dance craze obsessed with swing, and the big bands of Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman. Soon great pioneeers like Jelly Roll Morton found themselves flattened by the press of the steam rolling commercial machine, relegated to playing in the dives of Washington, DC, told they were too old, couldn't swing.
And though jazz enjoys its greatest commercial success in the US during this time, it was also quickly heading down the road of ultimate demise. It was heading towards rock and roll and the, now legendary, swing of Elvis's hips.
Now, this little history of jazz is brief, only scratching the surface of the pressure of commercialism on art and music. But my mind sticks on that early comparison of great creative artists - Charlie Parker to Monet. If jazz is our country's first cultural export, our first indigenous art, why don't we honor these musicians and this music with the same devotion as Europe honors its Van Goghs and Beethovens?
It occurs to me there's a confession in the often spoken statement, "I don't get jazz." There's the idea that it has to be gotten, which is strange considering we don't feel that we must be able to transcribe rock and roll, classical, country in order to enjoy it… why jazz? Here is my startling revelation, my sneaking suspicion: Jazz was claimed by the ivory towers a long time ago. No casual jazz talk now. It's a study, a serious occupation. And though jazz enjoyed a time of commercial success, it's now talked about in terms that are about as interesting as algebra, academic jargon meant to describe that simple music that came so naturally to those, often self-taught, early innovators.
Case in point: While I was researching jazz festivals in the United States, I ran across a review of the 2003 NYC JVC Jazz Festival from the New York Times. The opening paragraph read: "An armistice in jazz's doctrinal disputes was apparently declared on Tuesday night when the trumpeter Randy Sandke led the Inside-Out Jazz Collective, topping a JVC Jazz Festival triple bill at Kaye Playhouse. Musicians associated with tonal, mainstream jazz and musicians associated with wild-eyed experimentalism cheerfully performed side by side, without fisticuffs or stylistic clashes."
Sounds like a show for everyone doesn't it? (Cough, cough.) Perhaps Mr. Hancock should have added to his instructions to the press: "Please don't use alienating terms that make people feel like they have to have some expertise to listen to us play." Jazz, like any "high" art has its fair share of rhetoric and terminology. And let there be no mistake: I undoubtedly-without any reservation-believe jazz deserves that place among the fine arts. As Ralph Ellison once said, jazz is a great American institution, and I would add that it houses some of the most skilled musicians and most surprising innovations in music to this day. What I will disagree with, however, is this idea that one needs an education to listen to jazz, a set of jazz decoder rings that will allow for proper appreciation.
At this point, it's hard not to feel like
I'm not dangerously close to Sally Struthers, rattling a tin can for jazz:
"Feed an artist, for just ten cents a day," making some appeal to
a principal: "You need to patronize jazz, because it's the great artistic
indigenous form of your country, and its artist's accomplished and deserving.
We would not let a rocket scientist starve." But then, my mind clings
to a quote by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of Independent India,
who said "The art of a people is a true mirror to their minds,"
and I then, in horror, I watch a pop music parade dance by with their band
of barely dressed dancers, and I unabashedly extend my tin cup: "Please
try some jazz on," because really, if we don't patronize the arts, their
basis for survival is gone… and who among us wants to live in a place
where all that can be found on the radio are variations on "Oops…
I Did It Again"?
www.allaboutjazz.com Contains free mp3
downloads, a searchable database, press releases about albums listed and extensive
www.pandora.com This is a personalized internet radio site where the user can create a radio station based on their individual listening preferences. At Pandora you can choose an artist, like Louis Armstrong, and the program will generate other artists that are musically similar. A great way to explore a new genre.
www.citysearch.com After providing your city and key search terms like "live jazz," this site will generate listings of establishments that feature jazz in your area. Listings, however, are somewhat bare and don't tell you what to expect musically.
www.jerryjazzmusician.com A fun introduction to jazz. The site contains products, original art for purchase, interviews and broad event announcements. You'll generally find samples of featured artists there as well.