There are three reasons to walk into a minefield: ignorance that it exists, being naïve about the dangers therein, or curiosity about its true destructive potential. Ignorance and naivete are essential parts of the third, curious reason. But, if you can find a way to limit their presence, that reckless curiosity can take you, and everyone around you, a long way toward a greater understanding. It is in this spirit that I’m introducing Sound American Issue 8: What Is Jazz?
If you’ve been involved in the sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-subculture that is Jazz music, you know already that the road taken within this issue is both well traveled and perilous. If there are politics in music, and we all know that there are, then the debate about what is or isn’t really Jazz, could easily be held up as a prime example of the divisive and damaging social dynamic that can come about by trying to put a name or label on something as ambiguous as a musical tradition.
The idea of this issue is to take the word, Jazz, and start to examine it, even if it’s on a rudimentary level. For example: what happens when we try to take the label out of the context of what we already know: the history, legend, tradition, romance, racism, sexism, lack of/recreated legitimacy? Writers and historians have an answer, and it’s valid and correct from that point of view. Listeners and fans have another answer; again, equally valid and correct. The musicians, those closest to this music and its namesake, should be easily able to talk about what Jazz means, but sometimes those deepest inside what the word represents have the hardest time expressing its true meaning. Knowing this, I put together a loosely-Cartesian experiment in hopes of alleviating some confusion and starting the conversation that may relieve the word Jazz of its ballistic power.
And so, with one foot in front of the other, we tread together…
I submit that, if enough musicians are presented with a short series of very limiting and pointed questions about how they define the word Jazz, two outcomes are likely:
The first is that a good percentage of the participants will give similar enough answers that it’s possible to construct a sort of ersatz definition made-up of technical chewing gum and ideological wire as a basis to some sort of understanding. This is a valuable tool because:
a) It gives a picture of how a large sample of musicians actually views Jazz.
b) By reading between the lines, we can begin to apprehend the care contemporary musicians take in approaching the problem, which illuminates the social aspect of being a public figure in a musical community.
The second is that there will always be a few people who will sidestep the very limiting and pointed questions, using them simply as mental exercises to dig deeper into the philosophical and social implications of the word. In conjunction with the structure built by those who take the questions at face value, these answers start to provide us with insights into the multi-layered value (positive and negative) of the Jazz label.
To test the thesis I sent out invitations to fifty musicians around the world to answer two questions for me, leaving the possibility open to expand our conversations with more questions. Out of this fifty, about forty agreed, and I ended up with thirty-plus completed interviews, which are arranged in alphabetical order in this issue.
For these interviews, conducted via email unless otherwise noted, each participant received the same two questions:
What one thing HAS to be present (musically, socially, historically, whatever), in your mind, to constitute “Jazz”?
Thinking in the same broad terms, what one thing CANNOT be present in “Jazz”?
These questions were intended to limit the conversation to the word Jazz as something that can be fundamentally constructed and deconstructed. This served the purpose of giving the interviewees a very specific problem to work through, allowing them to push beyond a cliché such as “America’s classical music,” and to think of the word Jazz as an object of study. The questions also had the added intention of serving as an indicator of how musicians would choose to handle the controversy of labels and names generally, and specifically the word Jazz.
These questions became the basis of our conversations, during which I played devil’s advocate to see if we could coax even more meaning out of the initial answers and how the musician related to the word. In some cases, the interview ended at the two questions due to time commitments or a feeling that what had been said was sufficient, others followed their own paths to a logical conclusion. Throughout, I did my best to remain neutral (outside of the above mentioned devil’s advocacy), so that the subject was talking about their experience with the word and not being affected by my opinions.
In a handful of cases, I set up two musicians to interview each other so that conversations could take different courses without even my subconscious input. Each pair was presented with the same information and questions as the thirty-plus personal interviews, then allowed to use that information in whatever way they saw fit, following their own logic, and making their own conclusions without limitations.
Not surprisingly, the answers did tend to follow certain patterns. The most frequent answer to what has to be present in Jazz was some sort of improvisation. The way people chose to define improvisation varied, but most agreed that it had to be present for the music to be labeled Jazz. Certain ideas around rhythm, whether “swing” or a more abstract concept, were mentioned by a number of interviewees as well, with fewer adding that a connection to the Jazz tradition was necessary.
The question about what must be excluded in a piece of music had a much more varied response. It is hard to find an answer that was used by a large enough portion of the participants to say there was a trend in any one direction. This does, however, give an insight to how most musicians approached the project of defining Jazz, and especially these somewhat “loaded” questions.
Although it may not be readily evident in the printed text as separate from my complete interaction with each person, the vast majority of participants (not to mention those who chose not to participate) seemed reticent to involve themselves in any form of exclusion in their answers. This is a natural response as so much of what has defined the historical and long-running debate over the word Jazz has been the open desire of some groups of people/industries/media to exclude certain individuals and groups from being able to shelter under the umbrella of the Jazz tradition.
This reticence, itself an indicator of the social aspect of answering the question, was combined with a pronounced hesitance among most of the participants to identify as Jazz musicians, or to use a label of any type in referring to music. This idea does have certain roots in Jazz; from Ellington’s idea of only two kinds of music (good and bad) to Miles Davis’s desire to play the music first and tell you what it is later, to certain musicians very vocally distancing themselves from the moniker in the 1970s and 80s. Beyond that, categorization for many years only had a place in record stores, radio stations, and music magazines; many of which are, for better or worse, becoming extinct at an increasing rate.
A Few Caveats:
This project is sure to raise a number of objections in thesis and methodology. I’m certain there will be more than I will address here.
There is no streaming music or video in this issue of Sound American, and pictures have been kept to one for each musician. There is no editorial paragraph introducing each of the participants and promotion has been confined to a page with links to explore the music of each musician at your leisure and if you so choose. This issue does not feature a Five Questions page so it can maintain continuity. This issue is intended as a series of ideas from a large pool of minds, with as little editorial comment as possible, for the reader to sift through, ruminate upon and, hopefully use as grist for large conversations.
Probably one of the most difficult aspects of the project is choosing the musicians. The initial list of fifty musicians attempted to represent a balanced cross-section of age, sex, race, geographical location, and musical relationship to Jazz. That balance was kept at the forefront of planning as the pool of interviewees took shape, but was always tempered by wanting to include musicians who had something to say about the word Jazz and not because they fulfilled a demographic.
Obviously, the best possible situation for a topic as knotty as this would be a long-term project with hundreds of musicians, but this is something that is practically impossible for one person to undertake due to energy constraints and the humbling notion that sometimes people just don’t want to talk to me. This last fact is typically the reason a person who seems like an obvious choice for inclusion is not present in any given issue.
Much of the success of a project like this hangs on how objectively it is handled. To that end, I have tried to limit myself to playing devil’s advocate in these discussions. However, as a musician involved in Jazz, it doesn’t seem fair to push so many people to go on record about a topic as potentially controversial and divisive without giving of myself in a similar way. It’s impossible for me to approach the above mentioned “two questions” format with a fresh mind after the last couple of months, so I will just offer some thoughts about the word Jazz and it’s place in this musical subculture. And so, I will offer these thoughts here, at the end, where they can easily be skipped if the reader deems them extraneous.
Jazz is an ugly word. It’s a hateful word. It’s a word that is base and disgusting. It’s a word filled with racism and sexism. It’s a word that is inextricably tied to America. It is a word that means innovation, inclusion, love, and brotherhood. Jazz is joy. Jazz is pain. Jazz is being poor. Jazz is freedom. Jazz is the African-American experience. Jazz encompasses all experience.
Jazz is nothing.
It’s a problem word, made more so by our freedom to use it or not. Not to identify as a Jazz musician is a personal decision that I respect completely. It opens up a door to a discussion about why that choice was made. Having that discussion brings new thinking to light about the label: its history, use, and what its use implies in a modern culture. As that discussion occurs, the power of the word as a weapon is taken away and the choice to freely use it or not is enabled.
The opinion that the word should be done away with is a egalitarian fairy tale and does a disservice to the tradition of the music, the people who made and make it, and to a culture that is already extraordinarily skittish about dealing with any subtle shades of meaning and discourse. We should not do away with labels. The differentiation that labels provide allows a tension that is necessary for us to move forward as artists and members of a social system. But this doesn’t mean that we have to limit ourselves to a simple A/B decision like this label or no labels.
This project made me wonder when acceptance became about excluding elements instead of discussing what they mean us as a culture? When did this kind of questioning become accepted as a “waste of energy” in an artistic life? Music is more than practicing punching buttons on a machine. It’s a life practice and a large part of that means discussing the finer points of ideas and opinions….using words.
And so, do I use the word Jazz?
Yes. I use the word Jazz as an opening to discussion and debate. I want to know what the word means to the person I’m talking with. And, in many ways, this may be the most profound strength of the word: opening conversations. Is it so different from the improvisation and communication that is inherent in the music it describes?
I do not intend to belittle the opinions of those who choose not to give exact labels to their music, nor to suggest that the ugly connotations and history of the word should be swept under the rug in lieu of its celebration. Instead, I invite that we raise the word JAZZ up and look at it from all angles, discuss what it means to us as musicians, human beings, and societies. Instead of raising ourselves by using (or banishing) the word to set ourselves apart, maybe the time has come to sit down, open a beer, put on a record and ask: what do YOU think?
-Nate Wooley: Editor, Sound American