“Made in Korea.”
"Ha ha, you’re still not watching the Steelers, right?”
"No, actually I’m not."
I’m probably one of the few people around here who cares, but I was enraged enough by John Halle’s lazy, self-satisfied piece on jazz in Jacobin magazine that I wrote a point-by-point response to the whole reprehensible thing.
This is straight off the dome and unedited, and you probably won’t read it, but if you do I am available to clarify or argue. Here goes:
Justin Moyer’s recent Washington Post hit piece on jazz provoked a lot of hostility, much of it deserved. It was, after all, a pretty shoddy work.
True so far. Not any farther.
Based on the Left’s long history of embracing jazz and jazz musicians, we might feel we have a dog in this fight. But it’s been years since jazz had any claim to a counter-cultural, outsider, adversarial status, or communicated a revolutionary or even mildly reformist mindset. Any doubts on that score can be answered with a trip to the wall of corporate sponsors of jazz at Lincoln Center, followed by a visit to Dizzy’s Coca Cola club, the center’s flagship concert hall.
Ignoring contemporary jazz musicians or jazz’s descendants in other genres (hip-hop, techno, and post-rock, just for starters) is bad enough, but we might charitably chalk it up to cultural illiteracy. Pretending that any genre of music existing under late capitalism has evaded capture by corporate or bourgeois forces is simply delusional. Check out the walls of sponsors at Carnegie Hall or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—I have no doubt they are longer and larger.
If the Left is losing its affinity for jazz, that’s not really a problem: plenty of other musical styles can fill the void, and we can argue about whether they succeed in complementing a radical political and economic critique or even whether its important that they do so.
At this point, if Halle had any integrity, he’d come clean about which musical style he proposes should fill the void. Spoiler alert: it’s classical music. He has elsewhere suggested that “the left’s having adopted a debased form of artistic populism overlaps with the near total defeat of the working class in all the realms which matter.” I suppose the preservation of non-European cultures in the face of histories of genocide and slavery does not matter.
Halle quite literally claims that it is the nature of classical music as performance of written text that makes it a worthy medium, unlike the recording-based forms of contemporary popular music. I hope it is unnecessary to point out that this position cheerfully unloads the weight of European racist condescension towards the oral cultures of the rest of the world onto popular musical forms, hidden beneath a cloak of luddite anti-corporatism.
The problem for jazz is that few on the left, right, or center care enough about it anymore to argue its merits — political, aesthetic or otherwise. Moyer is an exception: he clearly cares enough to take the time to write about why it fails to move him emotionally and engage him intellectually.
He’s right to point out the damage done to jazz by generations of uncritical consensus about its greatness, certified by a phalanx of respectability ranging from musicological mandarin Joseph Kerman and CIA operative Henry Pleasants to civil libertarian Nat Hentoff and black nationalist Amiri Baraka (not to mention the master of triangulation himself, Bill Clinton). The aesthetic status of jazz is reinforced through top-down institutional acceptance: the MacArthur awards, the endowed professorships, the Ken Burns documentary, the massive corporate and nonprofit support, and so on.
New Jersey eliminated the position of Poet Laureate rather than allow Amiri Baraka to continue to hold it—is that inclusion in a “phalanx of respectability?” As for “top-down institutional acceptance,” I am once again flummoxed as to how this is not a description of western classical music.
And I’m afraid I have to mention again that for the hip-hop and techno producers and experimental rock instrumentalists who continue to draw influence from jazz, there are no top-down institutional structures. There are dusty bins at local record stores full of inspirations and challenges.
This would be beating a dead horse if that horse would fucking die already, but it just won’t die.
Nonstop official consecration makes judging any given piece, performance, or artist superfluous — even risky. Listeners become anxious about expressing what they really think and feel about the music. You can’t find jazz boring and self-indulgent without appearing to be a boob. Machiavelli says that politicians should prefer the public’s fear to its love, but that’s a death sentence for an art form.
The recent satirical piece on Sonny Rollins in the New Yorker that kicked off this whole pointless fucking series of articles already proved how false this is from the get-go. See Paul F. Tompkins for another typical example of how hip it is to hate jazz.
What’s most disturbing about these arguments is their racism. Implicit in this position is that African-Americans shouldn’t claim to produce works of intelligence, complexity, or social relevance. Stick to shining shoes and singing Swanee, these critics say. Am I going too far? No. Show me this sort of edgy satire of classical music.
In fact, replace “jazz” in Halle’s diatribe above with “western classical music” and then you’ll have an accurate statement. Talk about “nonstop official consecration.”
Meyer pretty effectively slays one sacred cow implicated in this: not all improvised music is great. Yes, improvisation has produced some wonderful music, but it has also imposed plenty of tedium on audiences over the years. And given the cult of the improvisor created by generations of A-list intellectuals, listeners don’t argue, they vote with their feet — politely turning down invitations to the Village Vanguard, a university-sponsored gig by one of the remaining jazz icons, or a local band “blowing” on standards at a pizza parlor or coffee house.
Not all musicians who improvise are good at it? Holy fucking shit. Somebody get John Halle the Nobel Prize for Physics. Amazing work.
Hate to keep making the same argument here, but when you only have one point and it’s wrong, you have to expect to get called out. Is every classical composer good at what they do? How are listeners voting on their work, or even that of the canonized western masters?
In the early to mid 1980s, I played gigs with a few jazz luminaries in San Francisco and New York, and I still consider myself a jazz musician, albeit of a greatly diminished professional status.
I stopped playing jazz shows — at least, of the assembly-line variety I was doing routinely back then — for reasons that square with some of Moyer’s objections. One was over-reliance on improvisation to inflate generally pretty unremarkable (and usually unrehearsed) head arrangements, almost always for one or more horns plus “rhythm section.” A drummer friend described the product as “driving the bus”: the horns, the piano, the bass and/or drums lining up to “blow on the changes.”
This is an insightful passage. Apparently, John Halle was not a very good jazz musician. Perhaps he will one day get over the resulting chip on his shoulder.
The aura of improvisation was a pretense masking an unvarying formula, the stuff of probably tens of thousands of live performances and recordings. The New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett famously described jazz as “the sound of surprise,” but now it tends towards the opposite — catering to audiences of “jazzbros” who are temperamentally, intellectually, and, probably, politically a world away from the adventure-seeking beatnik outsiders of the golden age a half century ago.
This statement does not even rise to the level of the anecdotal. Sweeping claims about jazz musicians and the jazz audience should include some evidentiary material. I could go through a list (Henry Threadgill and Underground Resistance come immediately to mind), but it should suffice to say that as in any other medium, there are those in jazz who are aesthetically radical and politically engaged, and as in any other medium, there are those who are not. This proves exactly nothing.
Moyer objects to jazz musicians stripping the words from standard tunes that make up the bulk of the jazz repertoire. He’s wrong about that. With the exception of some high watermarks reached by a few of the great lyricists, most notably Cole Porter and Yip Harburg, there should be no objection to jettisoning what is for the most part embarrassingly banal, lovey-dovey doggerel. The real problem is musicians’ failure to indicate much awareness of what the words were in the first place, often with unintentionally comical results.
Right, Cole Porter and Yip Harburg, and Andy Razaf, Lorenz Hart, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields, Ira Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, and a slew of others. We’re talking here about one of the great bodies of work in the history of American artistic production, the pre-Rock popular song. A body of work produced by African-American, Jewish, gay, and female authors, and probably several socialists.
The relationship of this form of song to jazz is far more complex than Halle is able to grasp. Jazz was a subterranean art form that drew on mainstream culture for material to subvert, distort, celebrate, critique, question, admire, and otherwise comment on. Jazz’s synthesis of the primarily Jewish-American form of popular song with African-American riff-based blues, through the mechanisms of reference and parody, was not dissimilar to the modernist practice of collage being initiated across the Atlantic. Sometimes the words were relevant, sometimes not; in any case, the entire point was restructuring context.
A nadir of obliviousness was reached by the legendary tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson through the inclusion of the standard “Without a Song” in a sequence of classic recordings paying tribute to the then-dominant Black Power movement. Some of the titles of the albums are “Power to the People,” “In Pursuit of Blackness,” “If You’re not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem,” and “Black is the Color.” So it is more than a little disturbing, in this context, to encounter the vile Jim Crow racism of the second phrase: “A darky’s born / but he’s no good no how / without a song.”
I wish I could state this with more restraint, but how dare John fucking Halle purport to know what Joe Henderson was thinking? It’s worth pointing out that Joe Henderson absolutely undoubtedly heard “Without a Song” on the radio in his youth. Perhaps his performance was an ironic appropriation. Perhaps it was a knowing historical reference to what the rest of the album states its aims to overcome. Or perhaps it was a chord progression and a melody with which Joe Henderson dared to make his own statement. Is that okay with you, John Halle?
Henderson is by no means unusual among jazz musicians in being oblivious to the silliness and, worse, to the casual racism and misogyny informing the sensibility of the golden age of American song from which jazz draws. Should this matter? Maybe not. But that doesn’t mean that the musicians are above criticism. And it’s criticism jazz should welcome, since it comes from those who care enough to listen. What really endangers jazz is having already lost the hearts of most of the public.
Back to this boring, offensive tendency of holding jazz to standards European classical music is not subject to. Casual racism and misogyny? Losing the hearts of most of the public? If these are dealbreakers, John Halle should be protesting the existence of the music department where he works.
Finally, it’s worth keeping Moyer’s attack in perspective. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that every one of his criticisms is on target: jazz is, as he says, “boring,” “overrated,” “washed up,” and more. If so, the worst consequences are that a bunch of musicians get gigs at leafy colleges, raise their kids in these communities, and give occasional concerts their students and colleagues are required to suffer through, making insincere remarks in exchange for A’s. There are worse things in the world, and here’s a list of some of them:
Infant mortality rates for blacks are twice those of non-Hispanic whites.
Average life expectancy for black males with high school diplomas is fourteen years less than whites with college degrees.
Median black family wealth has suffered the largest drop in its history, lower now than it was in 1984.
Black rates of unemployment are double those of whites.
According to the NAACP, “If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.”
The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from this list is, of course, the demonstrable contempt our society has for black people. But the implication that counts for our purposes is that the elite embrace of black music over the last few decades has made no difference to black people.
Okay. How exactly did classical music fix racial inequality again?
Or, more precisely, it has done just as much as other symbolic victories such as the installation of Black Studies programs in universities, the “national conversation about race” initiated by Clinton, and, most notably, the election of an African American to preside over the carnage inflicted by capitalism in its neoliberal phase. In fact, it has done a lot of harm, as the Left, particularly in its vampire incarnation, has become increasingly incapable of distinguishing reality, where it has been losing for generations, from symbolism, where it occasionally chalks up a win.
This is not an argument against jazz. This is an argument against capitalism. To deny its victims pleasure, expression, and selfhood in the name of the Left is as odious as the apparatuses of the state themselves.
Moyer makes no mention of any of this, of course, though, to be fair, it’s not likely the Washington Post would have regarded it as fit for its op-ed page if he did. His criticisms won’t change anything about the musical tastes of jazz fans, myself included. Our love for the music, warts and all, will remain — but that’ll only get us so far, if it gets us anywhere at all.
Leftist cultural criticism becomes tedious when its practitioners claim that any artwork that does not single-handedly dismantle capitalism is thereby reactionary. It seems to me that the field should instead be characterized by a spirit of empathy and debate, two ideals epitomized by jazz. John Halle should listen closer.
The racism implicit in the assumption that Joe Henderson was too stupid to know the words to the song he was playing is obviously the most odious thing in this piece, but I’d like to point out one more: the irony in the idea that white ‘beatniks’ were the apex of respectability when your thesis is that the target of your piece has suffocated to death for its respectability.
Just remembered I had a giant Aladdin Sane poster on my wall in high school. Almost makes me feel better about all the Tool.
Dreamed that a shadowy cabal was trying to frame me for murder in a bid to get me to off myself. At one point Inspector Kaoru Ichijo from Kuuga was demanding that I explain the confession cum suicide note as signed by myself and I barked back at him, “Dust for prints, man! I’ve never seen it — I never touched it!” Far be it for me to question my dream self and I’m certainly no forensic expert but I’m not convinced fingerprints work that way?
Kamen Rider Super-1. Or, as I like to call him, Kamen Rider Midlife Crisis.