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September 25, 2011


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Pat Gannon

Perhaps jazz has said everything it has to say and is happy to hang on the wall like a Picasso or a Miro masterpiece? I cringe to think of how Miles would have responded if someone suggested to him that he needed to be more of an entertainer to get people excited about jazz!!! Zappa said it best, that most people wouldn't know music if it came up and bit them on the ass! Ironically, I can't think of anyone who was more entertaining than Frank Zappa and his great bands over many years. Perhaps jazz is "cursed" with the massive American Idol and Dancing With The Stars type audiences unable to "get it" unless the performers be humiliated, lower their musical standards or...light themselves on fire? I dunno...Still, the fact that the general public can't get it makes it all the more sublime, magical and mystical...but bad for business!

Michael Steinman

I'd like to offer a few samples of jazz that still makes audiences stand and shout -- recorded live in 2011. Music with a direct line to the heart is still being played: you just have to know where to find it.

Some members of the jazz audience have championed "cerebral" music for so long that they unintentionally condescend to music that has an intense swinging beat as old-fashioned. Too bad: it still makes us feel happily alive.

Yours from behind the camera, Michael

Chris Galuman

"Acquired tastes" are worth savoring!

Doug Zielke

So many people today are just plain dumbed-down by the avalanche of pop culture crap. I applaud the jazz musicians who refuse to compromise their art. I'll continue to support them as long as they keep swinging!

keith hedger

As a jazz musician, here are the 'secrets' to musical popularity that I've garnered (but not really applied) over the years. I"m not saying they are bad or good:

-regardless of the quality of the lyrics you write for your tunes, hire a vocalist
-when the act makes the big time, get ready for the vocalist to be the star, you're now a sideman
-never play a tune more than 2:45 in length
-melody is the watchword
-the more trite the melody, the better (make sure there are a LOT of V-I resolutions in the tune)
-remember that you're not on stage to present music -- you're on stage to ENTERTAIN!
-learn some jokes
-make sure your lyrics are about getting laid, or falling in love....then getting laid.....or jackin' up the man.....then getting laid....etc etc etc
-fire the drummer, buy a drum machine
-forget about subtlety
-hire a wardrobe consultant
-never put more than 5 chords in a tune
-forget about the concept of musical 'dissonance' -- nobody wants to hear that crap
-try to be pretty/handsome -- if you're not, then do a lot of working out and wear a lot of makeup to try to compensate
-make sure at least one tune a set is 'anthemic' (try to pick a patriotic or religious subject for the anthem)
-learn to dance
-learn to dance
-learn to dance as a group (remember that group of girls that used to march behind the marching band and dance? People LOVED them!!!)
-make sure that the vocal part of your performance (as idiotic or banal as it may be) is at an 8:2 ratio to the instrumental material
-hire backup vocalists (and make sure they can, not so much)
-make sure and play at least a couple love themes from movies
-DO NOT use acoustic bass!!!!!
-all saxophones should sound like a bleating lamb being bludgeoned to death
-make up names for the people in your band, with a know, like all futuristic space traveller names -- Johnny Jetpack on guitar; Gary Gravitywell on keys; Orphy Orbit on bass: and Nancy Nova on drums...
-make sure there's lots of exploding stuff happening while you play
-if you have any technical musical education, or sense of musical history FORGET IT IMMEDIATELY!!!!

T.K. Tortch

Keith's post above is funny. Seems like back in the day Jazz compromised with pop music pretty often (or condescended to it, if you must). Problem is, if it was a condescension, back then Jazz didn't have to stoop as far!!

"All of the songs performed were rambling originals that were flat, painfully dull and unemotionally performed."

Maybe they just weren't very good musicians, after all. Imperfect Jazz Messengers!!

Could rambling, flat, dull and unemotional be a moral hazard of current music instruction? It's an honest question, I don't know at all.

At local open-mike jams I keep seeing gawky high school kids who seem to think that "Giant Steps" is a starting point. They've got some massive technical chops backed with music theory from basic to abstruse. What happens? Very complicated music that is rambling, flat, dull and unemotional. I swear sometimes one of them is going to whip out a slide rule and start measuring solos. Which is the other thing; they also appear to be committed nerds, and not in the cool way.

keith hedger

I think TK has made a very valid point here. I recently wrote on another jazz forum that I'm very disillusioned with almost all of the jazz I hear made by the 'new' generation. And the reason is the same as TK's, the music sounds flat and unexciting to me. Most of what I hear seems to be relentless streams of technically sophisticated blathering with very little melodic content, consisting largely of a single dynamic level. None of the energy of say a classic Messenger's arrangement or one of those Dizzy Gillespie small group arrangements. I remember hearing the Marsalis version of the Messenger's playing some of the old Wayne and Freddie arrangements quite well, and wondering why their OWN records didn't pop like that!
What's also interesting to me is that the avante garde doesn't seem to have this problem....listen to Ken Vandermark, Henry Threadgill, AEC, et al -- you may not like what they do, but you gotta hand it to them, it POPS!

Ed Leimbacher

If Keith Hedger just scribbled down/rattled off that amazin', amusin', amazon-strength list of stage to-do's, then heck with it, he definitely should take over the blogging on Jazz while us pretenders hang down our heads and hang up our fusion-soul shoes. As Miles once rasped, "Cat can play."

As for our host, Mr. Myers, on the Marc as ever... "a left-field pop outing"? Well, 'pun my word!

Bill Kirchner

As a performing professional musician and bandleader for over 40 years, I'll simply say this: if you give an audience an entry into your music (what Alec Wilder called "a quality that lets you in," and that can be done in a variety of ways), they'll meet you more than halfway. But don't expect them to do ALL of the work.


For serious jazz musicians, the greatest reward is having an audience that actually listens to the music, and to some extent understands and is moved by it. Playing jazz requires intense concentration and many players find it difficult to put on a show at the same time. For those who are good at showmanship, it can become a slippery slope. As they start getting more, better paying gigs, the show becomes a bigger part and the genuine music a smaller part. When your costume changes start lasting as long as the musical selections, you know your in trouble.

Pat Gannon

Keith Hedger's comment above was truly funny and...funny, how true! When you are in a position to hear what people think about jazz music you are really in for a surprise. I have a small barber shop and jazz is most likely always playing not so subtly in the background.Had Coltrane on playing a ballad and a customer asked me if the guy playing on the stereo was practicing his scales! Just hearing what people consider as jazz is kind of scary (thank you smooth jazz players and promoters). Once the melody melts into improvisation people can stop listening no matter how it swings.Staying true to the art form of jazz is virtuous though not necessarily profitable.


Does jazz complain too much? You're on the money with the example of the squandered opportunity. An example of an artist who gets it right is David Sanchez. Saw him recently at the Chicago Jazz Festival with Stefon Harris. The dynamics, rhythms, virtuosity and energy were phenomenal and accessible. In short, they killed. And they unfortunately had only a short time slot. He's an artist who really understands connecting with his audience. Others should take note.

John Hulaton

A lot of us musicians forget that music is all about communicating. I see a lot of acts (mine included) just talking to themselves, trying to look cool, and not making an effort to reach out to anyone. Pops, Dizzy, Duke, Art Blakey, etc.; they never forgot they were telling stories with their music. And good storytellers have the ability to make people listen.

Larry Kart

Funny -- I heard that David Sanchez performance at the Chicago Jazz Festival and found it very hard to take. His and the band's engagement with Latin rhythms was initially attractive, but after a while Sanchez seemed to me to be a very lick-oriented, predictable player.

Malcolm G. Moore Jr.

From your commentary about "the whining of jazz" I was impressed that this is a recurring lesson that practitioners of the art of jazz have to keep learning. Jazz players are some of the best technicians on their respective instruments—many were truly virtuosos and wanted to feel unique and different to separate them from the ordinary. They used hep jive during the Swing Era and hip talk during the days of Bop. In the 60’s avant garde really came to the fore (excuse the pun) with free form from Dolphy, Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders. Like you said this was real serious improvisation requiring the rapt attention of the listeners. John Coltrane may have spun the finest free form solos there ever was, but his more melodic solos like Blue Train and Giant Steps and his beautiful ballad work with singer Johnny Hartman, for example really captured the audience’s ear. The sense of play that was present in New Orleans jazz and in 30’s with Swing was absent in the more cerebral and complex jazz that followed except for the likes of a Dizzy Gillespie. Who else would have penned a jazz tune called “Salt Peanuts”. I wrote an obituary letter to the editor honoring Dizzy and think I expressed then the same thoughts that music has to connect with the audience:

Greensboro News Record; Greensboro, N.C.; Feb 11, 1993
Jazz and the world lost a unique character with the death of Dizzy Gillespie this January past.There's no dispute about his being a master of the trumpet and of jazz improvisation. Yet he was undervalued for an important contribution to the music scene: his spirit of playfulness and humor.
Jazz, like many musical forms, became sophisticated and complex. Diz loved to air out its stuffiness and break down its pretensions. Who else could have written a tune called "Salt Peanuts"? Sometimes he may have overdone the clowning, but he regularly reminded us of the "little kid" in us that needs to come out and play.
When Dizzy performed, he had fun. I was reminded of that when I looked at my photograph of Diz and his happy feet tap dancing at the American Dance Festival in the early 1980s at Duke University. From his happy cheeks to his happy toes, Diz was havin' fun. Art doesn't always have to be so serious.
Malcolm G. Moore Jr.

I think my photo of Dizzy dancing with Honi Coles at the American Dance Festival at Duke University in Durham in 1980 well illustrates the playful spirit that allowed Gillespie to really reach his audience not just with his stratospheric solos on trumpet but with his wit and play.

Malcolm G. Moore Jr.

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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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