Who Killed Jazz and When? - JazzWax

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May 30, 2008


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Michael Steinman

I don't pretend to know what High and Low are in art, and I wonder if those are boxes that ultimately prove confining. What does occur to me is that the gap between jazz and popular music widened year by year -- depending on how those terms were defined. In 1928, Bix could happily fit in with Whiteman; in 1938, Berigan could co-exist with a sweet singer or a formulaic arrangement. With the harmonic and rhythmic changes that bebop required to define itself -- in opposition to what had gone before -- the gap was too broad to jump. It's very hard to imagine a Fats Navarro chorus on a Frankie Laine record. This is perhaps lamentable in terms of jazz and the marketplace, but all artistic movements take their identity in opposition to something, so it's inevitable. Musicians DO want to be famous and affluent, and who can blame them -- but if the cost of fame is the loss of one's soul, then it's sad. Ironically, the current marketplace doesn't even seem to offer fine musicians much opportunity to sell out . . . something to consider! Thanks for provoking such thoughts, Marc.

Stan McDonald

Seems ironic to me that the decline of popular interest in jazz is attributed both to musicans' self-indulgent failures to follow the fads of R&B and Rock, while some were drawn into them; especially "marginal" players who allegedly couldn't hack the "high art" that jazz then or now supposedly has to purvey.

I sailed through the 1950's and the dearth of the 60's, blissfully ignoring the pop fads and later what I considered the bop and "cool", diversions. Even now, I sail on in ignorance, as I have done for over 50 years -- being a member of or leading a seven piece traditional jazz band (no,not "Dixieland").

Having a good day job was key to playing what I liked. "Let them come to me" still works for me, and they do -- not in the greatest numbers, but the quality of appreciation is as heartening as if playing for thousands (as I had at times in the past)

We continue to play everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Bechet and Ellington, with an abundance of pop tunes that lend themselves to swinging, collective improvisation (with some head-arranged parts.) And, yes, dancing is encouraged and greatly enjoyed -- as it was when this all began.

The comment that musicans were or are not good enough to play "high art" applies not only to those in the 50's or 60's who did not have the sophistication implied, but it is my firm belief that the decline of music that is popularly "accessible," such as that played by my Blue Horizon Jazz Band -- and superbly exemplified by the De Paris brothers in the 1950's and 60's -- applies at least equally to traditional jazz, and those musicians who ignore or eschew it.

Either most musicians are not interested in the art of collective improvisation, or most likely, it is simply too challenging and difficult to do so in a coherent fashion, requiring full mastery of the key elements of any music that can be meaningful to the public: melody, harmony and rhythm. This is truly a High Art that is implicity ignored.

It strikes me that bands gave up on this concept for the sheer individual and collective difficulty of playing improvised, small band music cohesively; hence the evolution of big bands; written arrangements; their economic infeasability; and the subsequent modernist tendencies which gave any individualist free reign to ignore the basics, and the tendency for technique to become an end in itself.

The public -- my public at least -- remains loyal and regularly moved by the expression of EMOTION, which is what I first thought and continue to believe that jazz music -- or any other art form -- is all about.

Technique is only useful to me -- or my band -- to the extent that it serves that end. We work at that and judge ourselves accordingly -- as does our audience -- on how successfully we express our individual and collective feelings. As we play, we are totally engaged in a dialog about those emotions and our pleasure in sharing them with ourselves and with our audience -- most especially in putting them in clear and musically transparent terms -- including expressions that would be socially unacceptable if put in words -- or equally so if muddled by incompetent improvisation.

That is the challege of my traditional jazz, the source of my pleasure in playing it and above all, the excitement and joy our audiences take in sharing the inherent risks of balancing spontaneity and organization -- as they truly perceive our endeavor.

Stan McDonald www.bluehorizonjazzband.com


Art forms have a natural, organic life of growth, maturity and decay. One might as well ask, "What happened to the epic poem?" Or, "What happened to the blank verse play?" Yes, these thing survive, but can hardly be considered active art forms. They are museum pieces, or academic subjects. Similarly, playing Dixieland and paying no attention to some of the most important revolutions in music, is also a form of academicism, at best. Jazz will only sirvive if enough people exist who can use the form to express their deepest artistic and aaesthetic insights, and enough who listen for those insights.

Ray  Hunter

I can remember reading a paperback book on Jazz by Marshall Stearn and in the back fly leaf was a fold out which had on it a really great "family tree" drawing setting out all the branches of music that came in at the roots and how out of trunk that was JAZZ,out came all the of shoots of modern music as was then in the late 60's and you can add on if you will all who have come about since, His basic idea was That Jazz is the backbone of the last century's music and i still hold that to be true , the most recent forms are as i see it the very week top most branches burnt by the sun (too much money from an audience that never got the chance to hear the likes of the music i have in my collection)

Ray  Hunter

I can remember reading a paperback book on Jazz by Marshall Stearn and in the back fly leaf was a fold out which had on it a really great "family tree" drawing setting out all the branches of music that came in at the roots and how out of trunk that was JAZZ,out came all the of shoots of modern music as was then in the late 60's and you can add on if you will all who have come about since, His basic idea was That Jazz is the backbone of the last century's music and i still hold that to be true , the most recent forms are as i see it the very week top most branches burnt by the sun (too much money from an audience that never got the chance to hear the likes of the music i have in my collection)

Peter Gerler

I must disagree with Marc Myers that “jazz is for listening, not dancing.” There’s an old saying in New Orleans: “If you can’t shake it, what’d you bring it for?” More than anything else, jazz has always been defined by its rhythm—and as Gunther Schuller has pointed out in his "Early Jazz," most African languages have no word for “art.” This is because in Africa as well as in New Orleans, music wove itself into the fabric—the action--of everyday life. In the Crescent City, daily parades for advertising, holiday celebrations, and funerals pulled people along in the street, high stepping and gyrating in “second lines.” Anyone who has moved with such a parade feels no distinction between him- or herself and the music. Memoirs from numerous turn-of-century New Orleans players recall the mandate for playing softly—so they could hear the dancers’ feet. Why? Because the rhythm of those feet was part of the music. Just as in call-and-response in the Baptist and Sanctified churches, the musicians responded to the shuffle of those feet. That rhythm—together with the live playing of their fellow band members—was their “score.”

Those doubting that jazz music is for dancing need only listen to Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers doing "Kansas City Stomps," or Clarence Williams’ Blue Five playing "Mandy, Make Up Your Mind" (with Louis Armstrong on cornet and Sidney Bechet on reeds). Anyone who can remain calm, stationary, and “just listening” to these performances has at least a few unconnected wires. And that music—out of New Orleans—is what first came to be called “jazz.”

So—I agree that jazz changing from dance music to “art” helped bring about its commercial demise. But a change in form may not equate to a change in substance. Even in today’s (June 2, 2008) posting of the Cecil Taylor/Jazz Ensemble You Tube, one can still hear the pulse and color of a New Orleans brass band, fading into the distance.

Here’s the thing: music—any music--begins with rhythm. A regular succession of events (beats) becomes a frequency—and a pitch. Lose those events, and you lose the music. It doesn’t matter how far down the river of jazz we have traveled. Ellington said it right: “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”

These days, we too easily associate the word “swing” with the “Swing Era”—as though it were just a style. But swing comes from an event: it is a verb—not a noun or adjective. Swinging comes from letting go into a moment, into gravity. It comes from playing together, in concert and in feeling. Louis Armstrong showed us how to swing as soloists. But Louis came up among the great brass bands of New Orleans, listening to Joe Oliver blow with the Onward, and playing himself in the rocking Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra, with Papa Celestin. Louis got his pronounced swing out of the steady four of those marching bands, and from their evolving rhythmic pulse as they began to “rag” the music. When that happened, nothing in American—or world—music would ever be the same again.

Peter Gerler


Seriously, if abandoning pop/dance culture to produce music by Clifford Brown, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Stitt, John, Coltrane, etc, was what it took, good riddance to mainstream philosophy. I can't fathom how people would rather want to turn a high form of art such as jazz in to garbage that can be commercialized. If that's the case, might as well turn great paintings by Picasso or Michaelangelo into garbage and commercialize it. I mean seriously, how can you dance to Monk's "Brilliant Corners"? I'd rather have Monk's music for listening than "dancing jazz" any day.


I just finished watching the Jazz PBS documentary, and that's EXACTLY the conclusion I got too!

Charlie Parker, who created the "new era" for jazz in the '40s, was actually the assassin of mainstream jazz. He killed it with his bebop (and whatever came after it, which was a continuation of his style).

See, in the '40s, swing was STILL popular, but was growing out of favor too. People simply were hungry for something new, but not too new, just evolutionary. However, if you listen to swing dance jazz music in the '40s and the first rock'n'roll hits in the '50s, they are ALMOST identical. So basically, rock'n'roll took the place as the "next dance music", as an evolution rather than a revolution (musically speaking, because socially became a revolution in the '60s). Rock'n'roll only survived because jazz let it, by going "artistic".

So jazz people should not be unhappy about the music labels, rock music, or "consumers who know nothing of music", and the what not. The blame goes all to jazz musicians who followed Charlie Parker as their stylistic innovator, instead of simply evolving swing further (the way rock'n'roll did).

In other words, jazz created an opening. And rock'n'rolled took it, and rocked with it. It was a strategic mistake for jazz. A non-conscious one, but a mistake nonetheless. Jazz could have won both the experimental and mainstream markets if they wanted, but its musicians went experimental almost exclusively. And now the genre fell out of favor.


I must disagree with the author that jazz is for listening and not for dancing btw. From the moment you take a music genre and you define it as "non-danceable, high art only", you limit the genre's value. You literally wrote there, without realizing it, that jazz is limited music. It's not.

Jazz was originally ragtime, and later swing. These were both danceable. That was jazz: having good time. The loss of the "good times" music came later, with Charlie Parker. But Parker and his followers is only half of the story of what's jazz.

And besides, as Louis Armstrong said, "if a piece of music makes you tap your foot, then that's good music".

The fact that a piece of music makes you feel good and want to move your legs does NOT make that music "cheap" or "bad". EVEN if it sells millions of records!

This is a bad assumption from many music geeks (and hipsters) that whatever is mainstream must be bad. No, the majority of what's mainstream is not bad. In fact, the majority of mainstream music is actually good -- to your amazement, I'm sure. Take the Billboard top 100, and I'd say that about 70% of it is actually pretty good. Otherwise people wouldn't buy it. Marketing and radio-play can only do so much to convince people to buy records. People must ultimately like the record to buy it.

And people buy music if that music mirrors their daily life and the way they understand their world around them. See, it's very snobbish, and wrong, to say that "people don't buy jazz, or other experimental music, because they're musically illiterate, or just plain dumb" (many hipsters say that). But in reality, it's the musicians who play such music, and then complain that people don't buy their records, who are the dumb ones. See, if these musicians are creating music that mirrors the daily lives of people from 20 years in the future (at a time when their record would indeed be recognized as masterpieces), then that's their problem. They ran 20 years into the future, ahead of everyone else. And that's commendable. But it's not CURRENT. Sure, these avant-garde artists are free to make the music they want to make, but BY GOD they SHOULD NOT complain that people of the present don't buy their music! Such music doesn't TOUCH the audience, because the audience doesn't live 20 years in the future. They live into the Today. And they want to have fun. Dance! Sing! Swing their a$$ with the rhythm. And when they feel like it, why not, listen to some of the more demanding pieces of music too! But it should never be one or the other. Jazz is both high art, and dance/mainstream. As ANY kind of modern music is -- and as they should ALL be.

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  • Marc Myers writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and is author of "Anatomy of a Song" (Grove) and "Why Jazz Happened." Founded in 2007, JazzWax is a two-time winner of the Jazz Journalists Association's best blog award.

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