When I think of some of the acts that are chosen to perform at certain jazz festivals, I cannot help but hear the persistent voice of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Admittedly, “jazz” is a flexible term. It has to be to admit James Reese Europe and Ornette Coleman under the same vast umbrella. Ecumenical types will even let Ted Lewis and Kenny G into the tent, and rightly so. Not everyone has to like or approve of every type of jazz, and as I’ve stated before it’s okay to like what you like. Conversely, I’ve often suffered listening to what was decidedly jazz—even what was highly regarded as jazz. I couldn’t approve of it but I couldn’t deny that it belonged under the jazz big top.
There is a difference between jazz and not-jazz, and it’s not even a fine line. It’s practically a chasm. It isn’t as subjective as “I know what jazz is when I hear it” (although I do, actually). The difference is not even so much about the beat, the instrumentation, whether or not there is a discernible chord progression or melody line buried in the player’s solipsistic ramblings, or even about how loud the music is turned up. Extremes in any of those areas might render the music less pleasant to the listener, but does not immediately disqualify it as jazz.
Not-jazz to me is characterized mostly by the performer’s attitude. No matter what you play or how well (or strangely) you play it, a rock-star persona immediately bars you from the jazz bandstand. Such a persona is all about bombast, ego, image, fostering a cult of personality, and harboring a disdain for one’s audience. If you consider yourself an icon, and your iconic status is more important to you than your music, you’re in the not-jazz camp.
The rock-star personality type goes way back before Leo Fender plugged in his first guitar. The first one I can think of is violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini. Franz Liszt showed all the signs of being a rock star, and women would fight over his discarded cigar butts. He did write incredible music, though and unfailingly helped other musicians—and spent his final years in the church. Wagner had the temperament—and a healthy love for himself—but he worked doggedly to write as much as he did.
Al Jolson almost ticks off all the boxes, except that, his personality quirks aside, he absolutely never phoned it in. (Certain of his contemporaries did phone it in, but I’ll leave the reader to reflect on who they might have been.) And I’d say that a great many politicians throughout history have been rock-star types, though the main instrument they played upon was the public’s credulity.
I have also heard not-jazz musicians playing at jazz, and occasionally appearing with bona fide jazzers. In one such instance, I was eager to hear the performer (whom I will not name) only to be deeply disappointed at the level of insouciance and disdain radiating from the stage. (I was also mortified that I had touted this show to my wife.) As a phone-in, it was practically long distance. Yet this performer had achieved a considerable fame playing music that I loved. The audience lapped up the lordly rock-star indifference and responded with a standing ovation. We stood up—to leave. I apologized to my wife all the way home. Jazz beat and jazz songs—but not-jazz.
Fans of not-jazz performers love them no matter what, and it feels like severe cognitive dissonance to be in a hall packed with those acolytes. What am I missing? It feels like the whole world is gaslighting me, and that my discernment is actually a form of insanity.
At a jazz festival recently a putative jazz musician was scheduled to perform and was spoken of favorably in comparison to sliced bread. In the theater, my wife and I found ourselves in the midst of an adoring throng of fans of this performer, who to our ears was certainly not-jazz. Bombastic, personality-centered (if technically proficient), rehearsed to the point of being choreographed, and much too loud for the tiny space we were in. It was solidly in the realm of pop music, the songs all sounding about the same, with thumping electric bass and heavy drumming, and might have been rock with a little more hair. And the audience, many of whom had at least 15 years on me, loved it.
We lasted about two songs and, our ears starting to ring, scampered out of the hall.
I admit to being out of touch—and perhaps I’ve always been out of touch. (Which may be part of the reason why I’m publishing the sole national periodical devoted to prewar jazz and ragtime.) But if a series of near-identical power ballads can be classified as jazz, the term has nearly lost its meaning. Perhaps.
Shortly thereafter I had the good fortune to hear what I consider the genuine article, and my faith in my sanity (and jazz) was restored. The audience for the not-jazz mostly stuck around for the actual jazz, and was enchanted by its excellence. A standing ovation ensued.
The couple we spoke to before the not-jazz were appreciative. “It’s wonderful how jazz is big enough to include both these performers,” the woman said.
“Yeah, isn’t it though,” I replied.
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