What's With This Surge in Jazz Bashing?
How did jazz lose its position as America’s homegrown musical treasure to lately become a symbol of pretentiousness and ‘eat-your-broccoli art’?
Jazz doesn’t get much coverage in the mainstream media, and hasn’t for many years. But something strange has happened during the last four months. Over a period of just a few weeks, a host of high profile periodicals have published smug, scornful dismissals of the music. Is this just coincidence, or has something changed in the cultural dialogue?
How did jazz go from America’s musical treasure to whipping boy? Let’s go back to the last day in July, when The New Yorker set the tone with the publication of an interview with Sonny Rollins. Here the sax legend offered observations “in his own words” on his life and times. But, as the jazz community soon learned, this wasn’t really an interview with Rollins, now 84 years old, and the comments attributed to him weren’t his own words, but a satire concocted by a writer who had learned his craft at The Onion.
The article itself wasn’t very funny. (Here’s a taste: “The saxophone sounds horrible. Like a scared pig ... jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with.”) But its premise—that jazz artists take themselves far too seriously—would get repeated again and again in subsequent days. Rollins himself was perturbed enough by the phony interview to make a live rebuttal that streamed on the web and got covered in the press. But that was too little, too late: the new meme was already in play.
Just nine days later, the Washington Post ran a caustic article that began with three memorable sentences: “Jazz is boring. Jazz is overrated. Jazz is washed up.” This article might also have been satire, or perhaps it represented the author’s actual opinion—in either case, it was a clumsy affair. Yet the eerie echoing of the earlier faux interview in another major media outlet was unsettling for jazz lovers. After years of complaining that their favorite music got too little attention from journalists, they now began to long for those days of blissful obscurity.
But more was coming. A week later, Slate ran an article about a journalist who wrote an article ridiculing jazz, and was so embarrassed by it that she secretly deleted it—although her editor had no problem with it. Three days after that, the author of the original Rollins piece published a defense of his skewering of the sax icon. “The overly academic, overly lionizing sentiment that pervades so much of jazz writing and the music’s general presentation is certainly something that is ripe for satire,” he explained to the readers of Jazz Times. But the high point—or low point, depending on your perspective—arrived on September 11, when Deadspin published its condescending polemic: “Jazz Needs a Better Sense of Humor.”
Here was “blame the victim” rhetoric of the worst sort. Jazz lovers who had taken exception to the previous bashing were told to lighten up, and stop complaining. These pathetic folks need to accept that “jazz has replaced classical music as the dreaded incarnation of eat-your-broccoli art.” I found little to agree with in this assessment, but it provided one more measure of the emerging view of the jazz artist as prig, and the music’s fans as insufferable snobs who felt that they were above criticism.
Perhaps jazz advocates brought on this backlash by the persistence with which they have demanded that the public take their music seriously. This push has been a major concern of musicians and fans for more than a half century. Their efforts have paid off in many ways. Jazz is now entrenched in high schools and colleges, and gets honored with Pulitzer Prizes and genius grants. But this same attitude irks many outside the art form, who are quick to stereotype jazz as the music of the pompous and pretentious.
And if you still have doubts about my assessment, check out the Twitter feed for JazzIsTheWorst, where an anonymous pundit publishes a steady stream of hostile observations, each designed to showcase the smugness of the jazz world. “In 2014,” our tweeter announces, “jazz is something you 'study', not something you listen to.” Or: “Jazz isn't dead ... unfortunately.” Or: “Jazz: Just pretend you like it, that's what everyone else is doing.” Inspired by the feed’s growing band of followers, JazzIsTheWorst has now launched a blog to build on this success.
A few years back, I wrote a book entitled The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, in which I noted a growing skepticism about the attitudes and artistic works that once defined hipness. Since then, many developments have confirmed my assessment—perhaps most strikingly, the transformation of the very word “hipster” into a term of abuse. But even I was surprised by the new hostility to jazz. Strange to say, it has become the music people love to hate.
I had some hopes that all this might pass, but two more articles, issued in quick succession, tell me that this meme may have a much longer life than any of us initially suspected. On October 4, The New York Review of Books—a highbrow periodical that seldom notices anything happening in the jazz world—published a scathing attack on the avant-garde work of jazz legend John Coltrane under the title “Catastrophic Coltrane.” This was noteworthy if only for the importance of the target—Coltrane may be the only saxophonist of the last half-century whose reputation outstrips even Sonny Rollins’s. No artist is above criticism, but within the jazz pantheon John Coltrane is as close as you can get; yet here he was the focal point of an aggressive takedown in a journal that often sets the tone for our cultural dialogue.
Three days later, The Atlantic Monthly also made a rare sojourn into the world of jazz criticism with a tough assessment of guitarist Bill Frisell, who it claimed was surrendering to nostalgia and making “a trip down memory lane.” The latter article wasn’t as dismissive as the Coltrane piece, yet many Frisell fans cringed at the description of their guitar hero diluting his reputation with "three- and four-chord Western tunes in the key of G or C."
Above all, there was heavy irony in these two articles appearing in quick succession—one complaining about an artist who was too experimental, and the other expressing reservations when an artist wasn’t experimental enough. Their appearance in periodicals that rarely cover jazz suggests that these unsympathetic critiques on the music represent the preferred angle on the art form, at least as judged by the editors who run influential journals.
I hope I’m wrong. The idea that jazz has become a catchword for pomposity is painful for those of us who care deeply about this music. Yes, I believe that jazz deserves respect, and if that spurs a backlash, I’ll put up with it. But I also want jazz to be loved and enjoyed, to serve as a source of enchantment and delight. That’s the role that it has played in my life, and my desire to share this unpretentious pleasure was a major motivator in my decision to become a jazz historian and critic. The absence of that love from the prevailing public discourse on jazz is even more painful to me than the crude generalizations now applied to the music. My biggest fear is that the current dissing of the art form will make it even harder for newcomers to experience the sweetness of swing and the joys of jazz. After all, it’s hard to find pleasure in any music if your starting point is resentment against the people who make it.