This is the fourth entry in an ongoing conversation with my good friend, former roommate, and fellow blogger Will C. White, a classical composer and conductor. Prompted by Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Will and I are unpacking issues relating to taste, culture, and society as they relate to classical music and jazz. Click on these links to read Will's initial entry, my response, and Will's follow-up.
Wow, Maestro, this is rich stuff. Like you, I'll start with the biographical and expand to the societal.
There's some truth to your dime-store psychiatrist's analysis that my place of birth predisposed me to falling hard for jazz. Growing up in Manhattan, I had easy access to "the music," and clubs like the Knitting Factory were the first places where my high school friends and I got to be quasi-grown-ups. I'm not sure I thought of jazz clubs as "louche dens of cool," but they certainly excited me. Pursuing jazz meant leaving the comforts of my native Upper West Side and venturing downtown, which at time seemed a pretty exotic place—the streets jagged and narrow, the buildings squat and ancient. The music was the draw, but the exploration it demanded amplified the allure.
I may have thought I was pretty cool for going downtown to check out clubs like the Knitting Factory and the Vanguard, but spending Friday and Saturday nights hanging out with a bunch of nerds at music venues predominantly populated by the middle-aged was not what the cool kids were doing in New York circa 2001. It also wasn't what drew me to jazz. Long before I heard the Dave Liebman Big Band play the Knitting Factory on November 4, 2000 (my first real jazz-club visit), I considered jazz to be my music. Like you, I got hooked on "the music" around the age of 13. Unlike you, I had a very specific Road to Damascus moment.
The story goes something like this: In early middle school, music didn't particularly matter to me. I played piano with waxing and waning enthusiasm, but listening to music wasn't an activity I pursued. I remember quite vividly feeling ashamed when an older first-cousin interrogated me about my musical tastes. "What are you into?" he asked. I said, "oh, lots of stuff, I mean, kind of everything. I dunno, really." Or something to that extent. It was like a virgin answering a question about sex. There was this exciting world out there, and I had no real connection to it. I needed to seek it out.
I consummated my relationship with jazz on an early evening when I was in, if I remember correctly, seventh grade. My mother, much like yours, was a casual fan of the music I'd end up marrying. (Oedipal alert?) She and my father had some jazz records, which I'd listen to from time to time, but I understood it basically as background noise. Then, one night, I put on Kind of Blue, and all of a sudden, looking out at the amber glow of lights dotting Riverside Park as Paul Chambers and Bill Evans played the introduction to "So What," I heard jazz. It's never been the same since.
When music takes hold it does it with a vise grip—it's brutally physical. I got goosebumps the night I heard "So What." When I listen to a good performance, I can't help but move in some way. I can easily sit still for even the most riveting scene in the most riveting movie.
That animalistic attachment to music also affects the way I think about taste. I like the writings of Borges and the films of Tarantino, but I fully understand that others may not, and they probably have good reasons. Music is a different story. It hits deeper. Right now I'm listening to Bill Evans improvise on "Nardis," and I can't imagine that there's a human being alive that wouldn't like it. It's a chemical, primal reaction. Trying to imagine someone not liking the best jazz is like trying to imagine someone not liking alcohol (or someone not liking sex).
Admittedly, I'm not quite comparing apples to apples. I find it nearly impossible to imagine someone who wouldn't be moved by music, but jazz is just one variety of music. Jazz isn't analogous to alcohol, it's more analogous to Scotch, and plenty of people don't like Scotch. Still, even people who recoil from the first taste of jazz should be able to connect with its visceral impact. Someone who hates Scotch after all could still enjoy getting drunk off the stuff. Most listeners, though, don't even allow themselves to get that far. They discard jazz before even taking a sip. The problem here isn't that people don't like Scotch; it's that they don't want to be the kind of people who like Scotch.
Here, I'd like to address the final and wonderfully pithy point you make in your post: "a big problem with jazz is that it’s neither promoted as being 'good for you' nor is it commonly viewed as being 'bad for you'." You're right. Jazz continues to be an uneasy fit in high-art institutions (as the polarizing nature of Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center attests) and no parents are ever going to worry that their jazz-loving son is listening to the Devil's music.
But I think this analysis ignores a big fact of contemporary American art and commerce. In 2011, no music is bad for you. Who are today's edgy rock acts? The ones who suburban mothers are really afraid of? Who are today's truly edgy rap acts? The ones who arouse the ire of today's Tipper Gores? I'm not sure I could name any. Lil Wayne went to prison for wielding a handgun and Bill Clinton said he was a fan and was excited for his release. Tyler, the Creator seems like an edgy young dude, and he's already appeared on Jimmy Fallon and sold a TV show to the Cartoon Network. This isn't news, of course, but the aughts brought us an almost total synchronization of commodity and art to the point that no mainstream or even marginally mainstream group really challenges the social order. When you live in an era when a Slovenian Marxist-Lacanian professor can get called both "the most despicable philosopher in the West" and write an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, you know that we're in a sad moment for radicalism. (N.B.: I wonder if the Occupy movements are responding not only to income inequality but the paucity of loud radical voices.)
Since no musical genre is currently "bad for you," I have a hard time believing that jazz's problem has much to do with it's admittedly conflicted status as both high and low, good and bad. Jazz's problem is that it's "too old for you;" it suffers from the perception that it's something that happened a while ago and continues as a kind of repertory music. The fact that by far the biggest jazz star of the past thirty years, Wynton Marsalis, is a self-consciously retro artist only underscores this point. To the general public, jazz is five black guys in suits playing more or less the music of Miles Davis's first quintet, and if you go to a lot of jazz clubs, that's in fact much of what you'll see. When that music is played well, it's still going to move me; but I can understand why people would recoil from it. No one, save Walter Sobchak, really wants to live in the past.
"Too old for you" is the big classical problem too, isn't it? A great symphony concert should blow anyone away. It's more powerful and visceral than stadium rock, but the optics are all wrong for recruiting young listeners. We both know that Valery Gergiev is far more of a gangster than any rapper in the US (how many of them are close with someone like this guy?), but this is about performance not life. Who was the last famous American classical musician who spoke fiercly to the moment? Yo-Yo Ma is pretty famous; fierce he is not. Lenny was certainly in the zeitgeist, but I doubt even he drew scores of young fans.
Because we're young and we feel passionately about jazz and classical music, we want more of our peers to like it. I'd be excited to live in a world where my knowledge of contemporary jazz carried over into more areas of my life; and I'd be excited to live in a world where I had more good company at shows. But I think it's worth asking what a world in which classical and jazz were less marginalized would really look like? Would it mean that there would be more people like us? Or would it mean that we'd have to let go of our attachment to genre? Would popular jazz and classical music end up meaning an end to jazz and classical music as we know them?
As a way of closing, I'll briefly consider the case of the very-often-referenced-on-this-blog Guillermo Klein. Guillermo doesn't consider himself a jazz musician, and while his music is probably more jazz than anything else, he sings with the unpolished voice of a rocker and he borrows from Ligeti and Reich as often as Ellington. It's not that hard for me to imagine Guillermo singing on a few more tunes and getting labeled a "jazz-ish indie-rocker." I could see this Guillermo getting popular in Williamsburg and earning very high marks on Pitchfork.
On one hand, this would be the ideal scenario for young jazz fans—one of our own making it in the indie mainstream. But I'm also a little freaked out by the idea. Having Guillermo as a jazz musician means that I can see him in small clubs and talk to him after the show and that I feel like I have a small degree of ownership over his music. If he'd never been a jazz musician, my relationship with him and his music would have been very different.
Maybe we really want our genres obscure and marginalized. We were the middle-school kids who were listening to Miles Davis and Verdi when everyone else was listening to Eminem. What would we have listened to if everyone else had been listening to Miles Davis and Verdi?