June 23, 2016

ALMOST FAMOUS, ALMOST BROKE: HOW DOES A JAZZ MUSICIAN MAKE IT IN NEW YORK NOW?

“One of my pet peeves,” says Rio Sakairi, the artistic director of the Jazz Gallery, the forward-thinking not-for-profit space, “is when organizations say, ‘Jazz: America’s greatest art form.’ My reaction is always like, ‘Are you saying this because you don’t want people to listen to it?’ Because that sounds really goofy and not very attractive….I’m thinking, ‘Why are you putting out this really goofy, douche-y image of jazz?’ I’m puzzled by that.”

You shouldn’t be — jazz has been in audience rejection mode since elitist bebop killed popular swing bands dead in their tracks, thus unintentionally launching populist and easy to dance to rock and roll in the 1950s, as Mark Gauvreau Judge has written:

Suddenly, jazz was Art. Gone were the days when 5,000 people would fill the Savoy Ballroom to lindy hop to the sunny sounds of Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie. Bebop was impossible to dance to, which was fine with the alienated musicians in Eisenhower’s America. (You can bet this era will be well represented by beatnik [Ken] Burns.) Even bebop’s own founders weren’t safe from the ideological putsch: when Bird himself made an album of pop standards with a band backed up by a string section, he was labeled a sellout. Then Elvis, to simplify matters greatly, reinvented swing for a new generation, and the Beatles arrived with sacks of great new melodies, and jazz was over as a popular music. Remarkably, beboppers and their fans still blame the drop-off on American racism. Miles once called pop music “white music,” and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in a documentary about the Blue Note label, offers that “whites couldn’t appreciate anything that came from black culture.” Yet whites were as responsible as blacks for making stars of Ella, Basie, and other black swing artists. Only two kinds of music were allowed on the radio following the news of FDR’s death: classical and Duke Ellington.

Ellington, like Armstrong, wasn’t too wild about bebop or its offshoots, hard bop and free jazz. In his 1998 book of essays, Always in Pursuit, the unflinching critic Stanley Crouch tells a funny story about Ellington that sums up the problems jazz has had finding an audience since the bebop revolution: in the 60s, bassist Charles Mingus suggested to Ellington that they make an “avant-garde” record together, employing some of the chaotic elements then popular in the free-jazz movement. Ellington replied that he had no desire to take jazz that far back.

Today, you can see Wynton Marsalis playing mid-60s-era cool jazz in freeze-dried form at Lincoln Center. Or as Mick Jagger quipped when he inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, “Jean Cocteau said that Americans are funny people: first you shock them, then they put you in a museum.” As with rock and roll and old media’s Newseum, which John Podhoretz accurately dubbed “The News Mausoleum,” once a genre builds a museum for itself, it’s effectively over as a creative form.

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