WHY?

The Beloved is very proud of me and what I do, something I treasure.  And in this spirit, she will often introduce me to someone she’s just met who has expressed an interest in music, and say of me, “This is the Sweetie: he has a jazz blog.”

I smile at the person after this identifying statement and wait patiently. Sometimes the reaction is, “Oh, you like Miles?” and I can then explain that my heroes are Louis, Lester, and their living friends. But more often than not the response is polite silence. And a fixed look often comes over the other person’s face — somewhere between puzzled, being struck dumb, having nothing to say, wishing the subject had never been brought up, feeling ignorant, feeling threatened.

I think it has something to do with the ominous, oppressive word

JAZZ

which for a variety of reasons seems to leave people with nothing to say in return.

I am willing and often able to converse on other subjects: the deliciousness of the food, the delights of Northern California, the other person’s interests, where the good places to eat are, how lovely or horrid the weather has been . . . the usual run of non-threatening conversation.

But simply introduce JAZZ into the conversation and the room falls silent.  Is it that people don’t like it, don’t understand it, and are thus reluctant to talk about something so esoteric, so outre?  Really, I have no intention of holding forth about, say, an alternate take of an unissued Jabbo Smith 78 I have found after decades of searching. I am not going to lasso the New Person and force him or her to listen to me play THAT’S MY HOME (badly) on the cornet, or compel him or her to watch my latest YouTube clip.

But someday I am going to try an experiment, and ask the Beloved to introduce me as a) someone who collects rare books; b) builds harpsichords; c) flies model airplanes; d) has a Lionel train setup in the basement; e) is learning the tango; f) rides an adult-size tricycle everywhere; g) just came back from a trip to Wisconsin . . . and see if the petrified stare comes out in the same way.  I wonder what it is about JAZZ that produces such silence?

Note: I have not written this post as an inducement for the cognoscenti to tell me how we are live in a cultural wasteland; how Americans are so stupid; how no one knows anything. Ranting about a current offense to taste is, to me, tedious.  I don’t encourage angry contemptuous bashing here, and hope I have not been guilty of it myself.

But it is — a la Yul Brynner — a puzzlement.

May your happiness increase! 

15 responses to “WHY?

  1. Robert D. Rusch

    it seems in the last 50 years jazz has somehow gotten a rather exotic reputation and over the years various jazz people have refused to use the name i.e. yusef lateef i often use creative improvised music more inclusive but jazz fit for your area of joy.

  2. I haven’t replied to you before but I DO enjoy most of what you write. I long ago (I’m 72) gave up on hoping that jazz would become ‘popular’ in some way-it’s never going to happen. Most people I suggest are silent because they really have idea what you are talking about and if they have any idea then they think it is somehow elitist and intellectual-in the worst sense of that word. I envy you being where you can recordshop still. Here way Downunder in New Zealand jazz has always been such a tiny minority interest that you just get used to swopping or ordering overseas. Thanks again!

  3. Hi Michael,

    As usual, you are probing beneath the surface of human thought, and conduct. I have been grappling with the question you have posed for a long time, years, in fact, and have arrived at a theory. Here it is: There has been for a very long time, certainly since before the golden age of jazz in the USA, a strong movement, initiated by pop song composers, their marketing arms (music publishers), their revenue collection arms (ASCAP, and later BMI), commercial radio, and recording companies to make music a commodity, something that can be sold and bought in the commercial marketplace. The constant undercurrent in that commercial marketplace has been to reduce music to its basic components so as to reach the widest audience (market) possible. Indeed, we have now reached the point where much of the “music” in the commercial marketplace has been reduced even further than that, to a point where it has no melody and no harmony. Moreover, the pervasive and endless marketing of recorded music, which has resulted in music of some sort being the constant background to our daily existence in stores, restaurants, gas stations, etc., has further trivialized music. Music is now truly a commodity, and a commodity whose value has been systematically diminished. Consequently, most people in the USA do not value music very highly, and do not take it very seriously.

    As you know, I wrote a book that was published a couple of years ago. It is a biography of a jazz musician. I have no illusions that the world at large has much interest in the life of any jazz musician. When people ask me what my book is about, I say, “it is about two important things–life and music.” Invariably, they laugh, because they do not think music is very important, certainly not as important as life. We who have studied jazz know differently.

    To appreciate jazz and so-called “classical music,” both of which are serious music, takes some effort. Most people who place little value on music, do not think it is worth their effort to try to understand serious music, be it jazz or classical. The result of this is the constantly shrinking audiences for any serious music, and the corresponding withering of interest in serious music.

    So when the eyes of people glaze over when they hear that you operate a jazz blog, don’t take it personally. The music we have taken the time to learn about is so rich and rewarding that we will always come out on the positive side of the ledger, no matter what their attitudes are. And I am most grateful for that.

    Michael P. Zirpolo,
    Author
    “Mr. Trumpet…the Trials, Tribulations
    and Triumph of Bunny Berigan”

  4. 1. The race card. The word “jazz” plays it even when the music doesn’t. The average intelligent person can’t begin to figure out why it’s a Black music that Black people, by and large, won’t listen to. Getting deeper into the question only puts them off more.
    2. Even most people who play/support/love jazz have redefined it so the 1950s and 60s are the height of the art form. Ken Burns did Louis’ legacy some good, but everybody else before Bird passed by in a blur. Benny Goodman is little more than a music bed for nostalgia shows about Brooklyn, and Hawkins and Young are for jazz students to listen to but not learn from.
    3. The race card.
    4. It’s not just a smaller % of people who enjoy jazz today. It’s a smaller % of sophisticated people. Much of their attention has been taken over by other musics that are more culturally or socially relevant, simply because more sophisticates enjoy them. it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    5. The race card. There really is no getting around it, because even as race becomes less of a factor in daily life (a big if), jazz has been centered in acrimony about race, and for many, that acrimony is the only thing they know about it.

  5. Not to be discouraging here. I just feel things like this ought to at least be considered if we want jazz to thrive, or older jazz to thrive again. What can’t be thought about can’t be changed.

  6. I think there is actually a rather simple explanation; the word ‘jazz’ means so many different things to so many different people. We – or ‘the media’ – use the word to describe 1920’s white Chicago music, 1920’s black New Orleans music, the somewhat generic ‘big band era’, Kenny G, 1970’s jazz/rock, 1980’s jazz/funk, Ella, Sinatra, Diana Kral, Cecil Taylor or Fats Waller. The word is almost our own worst enemy. From a purely commercial stand point, I use the word as little as possible in my own publicity material & promotion……I use terms like ‘music from the 1940’s’ (or whichever decade…..) ‘swing era music……’ Etc etc. People are often frightened by what they don’t understand………I’m sure I speak for almost every musician when I say I have lost count of the number of people that come up to me after a performance and say words to the effect of “I don’t normally like jazz but I liked what you did……”
    Keep up the good work Michael!

  7. Hmm, never thought about that stare before, I’ve seen it my whole life and thought it was normal. Come to think of it, it’s probably the same look and silence I give other people when they talk about sports.

  8. jOhn P. Cooper

    I wonder if many people do not know what “Jazz” is?

    When I tell people what kind of music I like, I often say Jazz and then qualify it by stating ‘big bands, swing, New Orleans.’ No one seems to baffled. many people have heard of Swing and big bands. Some younger people even know a few big name leaders. If they don’t, a couple bars of In the Mood or Sing Sing Sing and they go, ‘Oh, yeah. I’ve heard that.

    OTOH – maybe people just don’t know what Jazz is. It’s not for everybody. But it never hurts to spread the word. So, good show, Michael!

  9. I think Eddie Condon had the right idea “we call it music”!

    Tom Sharpsteen had the right idea with his band the Orlandos, he never wanted the band to classified as a ‘jazz’ band, for those who don’t remember Tom, he was a fierce individual with a very strong voice, he played the albert system clarinet, his 2 heroes were Alphonse Picou and George Lewis, he had taste for jukebox hits of the 30’s and 40’s and light classics. He played music for people. in fact, we made 2 CD’s in 10 years, and he made it clear he didn’t want the records to be reviewed by critics, he told me he didn’t make the records for critics, he made them for the public…

    I believe that jazz on the larger cultural landscape is doomed, or the idea of jazz as ‘art’ music is limited, however those of us out playing for the public find that the music is very much alive on the local level… Tom had the right idea. The oddest aspect of the Tom Sharpsteen Story is that Woody Allen used 5 tracks off the first CD in 2 movies ‘Whatever Works’ and ‘You Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’
    It was sad that Tom didn’t live to see this happen, he would have loved that his little band, which entertained at small parties and Ice Cream Socials ended up being on the big screen. You just never know where it all leads…
    I have recommitted to idea I play ‘music’ for people, thus reaching back to the old New Orleans musician tag line on their business cards
    ‘Music for all occasions’

  10. Just calling it something other than jazz is hardly a solution in fact its rather a pathetic solution. Jazz as a music has a wonderful history it seems to me calling it something else is a just a copout.

  11. I love jazz and try not to overwhelm people by frothing at the mouth about it. I have experienced the silence you speak of when I have mentioned jazz. I actually feel badly for these people. They obviously have not “experienced” jazz. Jazz is a happy welcoming music and if you have not relaxed and let yourself be drawn into the music you are not going to understand what people are talking about when they speak of jazz. I get so much enjoyment out of the music I would like my friends, etc. to experience that feeling as well. But they are not interested. I am so grateful I grew up with this music. Music is therapy and I feel our young people have missed out on something so important and special.

  12. I have another suggestion for your list of potential introductions Michael – “I write a music blog”. I wonder if you’d get a different response?; will people ask, ‘oh what kind of music?’, will they still fall silent when you reply ‘jazz’, or will you have eased them in? I’m genuinely curious!
    I can really relate to what you’ve described – it happens a lot when you tell people you home educate your children!
    When I tell people I play jazz I quite frequently get ‘I didn’t know there was violin in jazz’, and when I explain what kind of music with some examples they quite often say ‘I didn’t know that was jazz’.
    I think its certainly is true as others have said, that a lot of folks have an idea of what ‘jazz’ is that doesn’t include pre-1950s.
    So much more I could say about this but I’ve got to go and feed those children!

  13. Is calling ‘jazz’ music a cop out?

  14. Michael Burgevin

    “Now see what you’ve done, Ollie!” …

  15. Whenever someone tells me they don’t like jazz, I ask what kind of jazz they don’t like.

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