"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Creativity
March 15, 2012

Jazz And Other False Dichotomies

A friend’s father once put me on the spot about the kind of jazz I liked to listen to. It was an odd experience.

One of my oddest high school experiences came early in Grade 12. I had gone over to a new friend’s house, after school, to listen to some records. Back in those pre-digital days, teenagers would descend on someone’s place, put some vinyl on the turntable and, get this, listen to music.

Heck, there wasn’t much else to do.

Music Fans Ask The Oddest Questions

It was my first time over at this friend’s place. They clearly had more money than my folks (although my parent’s Hi-Fi was better than theirs!). As I came into the house, my friend’s father hit me with the twenty-questions – where was I from, what classes did I take at school, did I play sports – that sort of stuff. Then we got onto music tastes.

“Do you like Jazz?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied eagerly. He then stumped me with his next question – “Trad or Modern?” “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” was my weak reply.

I’ll never forget his next statement. “Traditional or Modern Jazz son. You have to choose. One or the other. You can’t like both.”

I can’t quite remember what I said after that. I know my fumbled answer did mention Miles Davis and John Coltrane. But, the truth was that, for the rest of the afternoon I was wondering what the difference was between Traditional and Modern Jazz.

The WWOZ Thing

In recent months I’ve taken to listening to online radio. In particular I’ve fallen in love with WWOZ, which broadcasts from New Orleans. WWOZ advertise themselves as a Jazz and Heritage station, but the range of music they broadcast is impressively wide.

The other night I was listening to Jelly Roll Justice’s show and he programmed a solid hour of Jazz Guitar, which turned out to be an encyclopaedic survey of the genre, from acoustic Gypsy Jazz to funky Jazz-Rock. A few hours later there was a typical turn where, in the space of five songs the programming went from edgy Electric Blues to sweet Big Band Swing.

I love the wonderfully eclectic programming on WWOZ. Sure, it’s unfashionably wild and unpredictable at times, far from the genre-focussed narrowness of most radio stations. But, it reflects the way musicians listen to music.

Every musician I know listens to a far wider variety of music than the stuff they actually play. They tend to spend more time sharing and enjoying the music they discover rather than debating questions like what is jazz?

False Choices

I visited that friend’s place quite regularly for about three years, before, as often happens at that age, we drifted apart. The odd thing was that for all the posturing about Traditional versus Modern Jazz, I never once saw (or heard) my friend’s father listening to music. I saw him reading the newspaper, watching television, doing a jigsaw puzzle, but never listening to music, or Jazz, either Traditional or Modern.

Update: Sadly, David Averbuck, AKA Jelly Roll Justice passed away in 2019. Here is a tribute to him from WWOZ.

Toni 12 years ago

Sticking my neck out a little here, but I’d guess he was differentiating on the basis of one form being musical while the other being a selection of notes and rhythms apparently chosen for their ability to grate on the ear, and to suggest that while there might be some kind of music happening, it would be beyond ones intellect to decipher it.

Jazz is curious now, because as you point out, the genre is used as an umbrella covering blues, funk, soul, big-band, gypsy and even the ‘modern’ (not modern at all really) stuff. But 30 years ago if you mentioned trad or modern most people would know just what you meant. TBH I find the inclusion of all these other genres somewhat odd, really – a kind of land-grab to justify the validity and growth of a particular art form that has lost its position within western culture. Sure they may have their roots in the form, but the trunk and branches have grown somewhere else.

Fernando Gros 12 years ago

Toni – I see what you did there 0_0

I don’t see the broadening definition of jazz as a land-grab, so much as a diffusion. In a way the same thing has happened in other genres. What people imagine, today, when they hear the term “rock” is far broader than what “rock” meant in the 70s, for example. Recently I heard a very well evidenced argument that rock was basically “pop with guitars,” which is a position that would not have made sense in the early 80s.

I guess my point here is that most genres are broader and diffuse than they were, so perhaps we should, as we talk bout the music we make and the music we love, accept that diffusion and the slipperiness it brings to labels like jazz or rock.

Toni 12 years ago

You make a very good point about diffusion, and perhaps ‘land grab’ was a little too extreme, although discussions I’ve seen with jazz bass players suggest they do consider their musical form endangered, and will try almost ‘anything’ to boost it’s acceptance.

Music is more or less replicating most other fashions, where the boundaries have become less important, and everything seems to bleed into everything else. On one level that may be good, allowing fusions to take place. At the same time it *feels* like music has become toothpaste, in a kind of minty bland flavour that’s just squeezed from a tube. The shades of light and dark, or rainbow colours are becoming blended into a kind of brown paste.

That’s not to say there isn’t some excellent music being made. I’ve recently come across a band called Vintage Trouble, who fuse a number of styles together and DO sound good. And yet they also lack anything distinctive ion their style – kind of old pop with guitars.

I’m not really as grumpy about this as it may sound, and it probably also reflects my frustrations with ‘worship’ music, where it can be difficult to tell who the artist is whichever side of the pond they come from. I guess that’s the root of my dislike of the musical brown goo – there is so little musical flavour, it’s like eating salty gravy.

Mike Mahoney 12 years ago

I don’t think we’ll ever come to a point where we stop debating about the boundaries of what is jazz and what is not. There are so many sub-genres now anyway. It’s similar to the “diversification” (for lack of a better word) of heavy metal music, and the same trouble distinguishing the lines… what is “metal” and what is “hard rock,” etc…

The irony being, many of the seminal jazz players never considered jazz as a separate genre or even as a thing. Famously, Duke Ellington said “It’s all music.”

As to your freind’s father, perhaps he was a frustrated jazz musician.

Fernando Gros 12 years ago

Toni – I saw a fascinating documentary on fashion designer Tom Ford, where he basically said fashion doesn’t always need to be moved forward anymore. I guess that’s where we are. Of course, it means that the last 20 years, in fashion, in music, in the arts has been totally unlike the 50 years that preceded it.

Sticking with fashion, if you dressed like the 70s when I was a teenager, you stood out & looked odd. That had been the pattern for over a generation before that. But, nowadays you can dress like pretty well any era from the, well, 50 years and get away with it. Mad Men has even made early 60s fashion mainstream again!

Coming back to music I believe that one thing we have lost, or at least, we have less of, is the sense that music comes from somewhere. It used to be that places were associated with a particular sound, not just in pop and rock, but also in jazz, blues and country. Not so much these days.

Fernando Gros 12 years ago

Mike – I am certainly under the impression that Metal has more categories and sub-genres than Jazz.

I find genres helpful as a way to talk about musical qualities and to map out the history of music. But, when we get into using genres as a way to, in effect, call people musical heretics, then I tune out.

Toni 12 years ago

I gues what I’d like is for a reggae band to play reggae, a rock band to rock etc.

I blame U2 – it was probably their fault. 😉

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