With some regularity, I get an email note from a sincere, curious JAZZ LIVES reader or viewer who has encountered a stirring, perhaps unclassifiable musical performance: “What style is that?” or “What do you call that kind of jazz?”

The questions make me sad.  Sometimes it seems as if listeners are made nervous by the music’s potential to surprise, as if jazz had become a little dog, very sweet-natured, that could turn around and bite badly.

Uncertainty makes us tremble, but I didn’t think that the need for certainties would have so infected our ability to love the music on its own terms.  Some people with good hearts and ears will only be truly easy and happy when they know that a performance of ATLANTA BLUES is “down-home,” “Mainstream,” “pre-bop,” “trad,” “neo-retro,” and the like.  Pick your terminology.  It reminds me of those charts in INTRODUCTION TO JAZZ books with everyone neatly listed, either in tables or in timelines, from Buddy Bolden (he was “New Orleans,” we knew) to Charlie Parker (safe at home in “be-bop”).  Roy Eldridge gave birth to Dizzy Gillespie, and so on.  I always found those charts annoying because of their conservative narrowness: were Ben Webster and Lester Young “Swing” players who weren’t allowed to go out of their front yards?  And the charts left so many people out: I never saw Joe Thomas anywhere.

Although I am an “academic” by profession (I have taught English to college freshmen and sophomores for longer than Bix Beiderbecke’s time on earth) I blame the academics even before there were Jazz History courses, in their attempts to standardize, categorize an organic art form into something teachable — with final exam questions to be determined later.  Charts and boxes, timelines and categories are attempts to quantify something that threatens to spill out and over the edges.  These restrictive mechanisms have governed literary anthologies (organized by “schools” and arranged by the birthdates of the writers being studied) for many generations.

It’s a tribute to any art — jazz, poetry, painting — that such well-meaning acts haven’t killed it dead.

Then, of course, jazz is a music that blessedly stirs up fierce allegiances.  That’s a good thing!  I love to see people who hug their music to their hearts: both they and the music are fully alive in such moments.  But allegiance devolves into party skirmishes and ideological statements: my music is PURE; yours is COMMERCIAL.  Mine is THE TRUTH; yours is CORRUPTED.  The journalists and critics saw good copy here and thus we had DIXIELAND versus BE-BOP and the like, the ancient doing battle with the new.  The musicians knew better and respected each other: Baby Dodds and Max Roach weren’t at war.

But the need to name, to classify, to take big living entities and force them into little boxes — a chilling process — hasn’t gone away.  Too bad.  It gets in the way of our ability to sink deeply into the collective creativity that jazz offers us if we’re wondering what to call what we’re hearing.

Let us be guided by Eddie Condon: WE CALLED IT MUSIC.

4 responses to ““WHAT DO YOU CALL THAT?”

  1. Oh how I agree! As a professional musician I get constantly frustrated by the need to have to ‘pigeon-hole’ myself into a certain style. I guess people (promoters, agents and the like) who need to ‘sell’ the music need to be able to describe it……..but how sad that so many people are anti this or that style of jazz. Of course, Parker et al who made their groundbreaking recordings all those 60 or so years ago are still referred to in some quarters as ‘modern players’ ………… Much as it pains me to say it, I fear this problem will not go away! Keep up the good work Michael!

  2. Beautiful post, Michael. I’ve sparred online more times that I care to remember with people regarding this. Those folks who like to put things into categories like “dixieland,” “traditional,” “Chicago,” “New Orleans.” Generally, my response is – categorize these things:
    Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines’ recording of Weatherbird
    Any number of the Joe Venuti – Eddie Lang small groups
    Frank Trumbauer’s For No Reason at All in C
    Mound City Blue Blowers
    Washboard Rhythm Kings

    I likely could come up with many more that don’t fit conveniently into boxes.

    I was recently playing a gig here in England when an audience member came up and asked why the band played “Do What Ory Say” in a dixieland style. As far as I was concerned, all the music in the set was played in the same style (whatever it might need to be called). My response was “I don’t know.” I couldn’t come up with any other answer, but it was not what he wanted to hear. However I just dropped it there, to let him come to his own conclusions.


  3. My instant response to your initial question would be, “Hmmm. Do we have a big box called BEAUTIFUL LIFE-ENHANCING MYSTERIOUS GENIUS? Oh, no? What a pity.” Cheers back, Chris!

  4. I guess the ultimate response was Duke’s “beyond category!” (What a wise man he was!)

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