Two days ago I tuned into my local MPR station and within 30 seconds had correctly identified the two gentlemen talking – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. There was something about how they presented themselves which made me immediately think about Watergate and Nixon. I didn’t even get the gist of their topic before I knew who they were. One of them (can’t remember which), when talking about that era, mentioned that he thought they were working for the greatest editor (Benjamin Bradlee) and the greatest owner (Katharine Graham) in the business. Lo how the mighty have fallen.
I don’t know how the Washington Post is doing on the subject of politics, religion, economics, or anything else, but I will guarantee you that it is at its nadir when it comes to culture. Exhibit #1, this stunningly immature anti-jazz rant by Justin Moyer, who is listed as Deputy Editor of the Morning Mix (whatever that is). This jaw-dropping exercise in self-indulgent nihilism is the very antithesis of what should appear on the opinion page of a major newspaper. By his own admission he “just doesn’t get [the] aesthetic” of jazz, and somehow that translates to him as a green light to trash an entire genre of music. Not just individual artists, mind. An entire genre, a style of music that is a direct forerunner to 95% of the music produced in western culture today.
Well, no matter. It’s his opinion, and he has 5 reasons to back it up:
#1 – Jazz takes great songs — and abandons the lyrics that help make them great.
Essentially his argument here is that without the lyrics the music doesn’t make any sense. OK, let’s forget the fact that there is actual jazz that doesn’t have lyrics, or that many jazz composers tacked on titles and/or lyrics after the music was written, or that Felix Mendelssohn threw that baby out the window 200 years ago with his Songs Without Words. I live in a wonderful neighborhood, and just down the street are a 3 year old and his 1 1/2 year old brother. It’s very interesting observing the difference between them and my own kids (13 and 11). Any child psychologist will tell you that there is a certain point in brain development when we stop relying completely on the concrete and start developing an understanding of the abstract.
This is an incredibly important moment for a person, and it leads to the growth of that which makes us most human – imagination. Without imagination we cannot project past what we immediately experience and grasp those abstract concepts. It is this imagination that is the foundation of all art, great or otherwise. Unfortunately, Mr. Moyer has just admitted that his imagination is not sufficiently developed to be able to see beyond the lyrics of a song into what the song represents. Goodness, I would hate to try and explain to him how Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade works or Erlkönig functions or … hell, While My Guitar Gently Weeps (not written by Schubert in case you’re playing along, but you get my drift) actually weeps. Shall we completely abandon Symphonie Fantastique or Pastorale without adding some lyrics, just in case the idea doesn’t seep through? So congratulations, Mr. Moyer – my neighbor’s 3 year old has more musical imagination than you do.
#2 – Improvisation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Wow. Really? Again, let’s ignore the fact that you have now essentially dismissed the entire oral tradition of music, western or otherwise…… actually, let’s not ignore that fact. What do you think Irish music is? Let alone most of the music of the Middle East, the Caucasus, Africa, etc., and why don’t we spend a few minutes on the Indian subcontinent with the Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Renée, darlin’, you know I love you, but Nusrat is still the greatest voice I’ve heard live) or the Pandit Ravi Shankar (saw him twice, still trying to recover). Shall we equally ignore the fact that improvisation is what those Rock guitarists do when they play a solo? Or that the greatest composer ever, one Sebastian Bach, was in his lifetime more famous for his improvisations than his written music?
The majority of the music on this planet comes from an improvisatory tradition, and let me tell you this last thing – as someone who has studied improv, worked alongside some true masters, and has reluctantly come to the conclusion that he hasn’t the chops to pull that stuff off – I would give important parts of my body to be able to Take A Ride on the A Train, if you know what I mean (which, it’s become increasingly obvious, you don’t).
#3 – Jazz stopped evolving.
No, Mr. Moyer, you’re understanding (or lack thereof) of jazz stopped evolving. Jazz continued to and continues to evolve, spawning all sorts of bizarre and strange offspring that wander around obscure corners of the planet. Two days ago I found myself in a conversation with a good friend and colleague who had recently been to a festival in Slovakia dedicated to the Fujara (yes, the world is a mighty strange place). My buddy was the token Westerner, fluent on sax, flute, and reeds, and he found himself jamming with fujara players and some Romany pianist who was all “McCoy Tyner” with his bad self. They conversed through jazz and melded all these musical styles into a conversation. That’s evolution.
And while I’m thinking of it, let me introduce you to Bill Bruford and his band Earthworks. Bruford was the drummer for such musical outliers as YES and King Crimson, but towards the end of his career he returned to the roots of that music, jazz. I saw Earthworks 3 times, and if that stuff wasn’t evolutionary I don’t know what is. A special mention to Django Bates, who was playing in Earthworks the first two times I saw the band, and released one of the most interesting albums of the 1990s – Summer Fruits (and Unrest). That, Mr. Moyer, is a big band, and although Mr. Ellington would instantly recognize it he would also admit that it’s a very long way from that train up to Harlem.
On a personal note – dissing Ornette Coleman? really??? Get. A. Life.
#4 – Jazz is mushy.
What the hell does that mean? I mean, really, what does that mean??? You continue:
“Louis Armstrong is nothing like Kenny G. Charlie Parker and John Zorn do not seem to occupy the same sonic universe, let alone belong in the same record bin or iTunes menu.”
Now I might agree with you on that Kenny G crap, but honestly. Might you understand that labels like “Jazz,” “Rock,” “Classical,” or “Pop” are by their very definition generalizations? Whether we like it or not if you want to download gregorian chant and Nixon in China you will direct yourself towards the “classical” section of iTunes. The label of “classical” does not refer to how the music sounds, but rather the tradition of performance and/or creation that the music sprung from. Same as “jazz” or anything else. Yeah, it’s a catch-all. Welcome to life.
#5 – Jazz let itself be co-opted.
This music has retreated from the nightclub to the academy. It is shielded from commercial failure by the American cultural-institutional complex, which hands out grants and degrees to people like me.
Oh, please. Funny enough, there’s a bit of schadenfreude here, because this is the exact argument that I make about classical music in the ’50s – ’70s. I think I’ve mentioned the moment when a faculty composer at USC starting dissing Leonard Bernstein for his “populist” music, and the fact that it remains one of my greatest regrets in life that I didn’t immediately kick that person squa’ in the nuts. And yes, the “if you’re not wearing a tie and playing exactly what the composer originally wrote then it ain’t jazz” school is as completely full of it as “the only music worth composing, playing, or listening to is 12 tone music” school (“all things Schoenbergian”….. pathetic). To libel an entire genre of music suspect because of that is immature in the extreme. It falls under the “I don’t like broccoli therefore I don’t like vegetables” category, and most of us grow out of that once we’re old enough to make up our own minds about things.
On another note – I’m pretty sure that any bastion of academia that you attended is currently scrambling to disassociate itself from you. Any school that I went to wouldn’t let your “opinion” piece pass muster in a freshman English course.
Unfortunately, this is what passes for “opinion” at the Washington Post these days – infantile ravings and ill-informed over-generalizations pawned off as erudite conclusions. Mrs. Graham is spinning in her grave.