Ted Gioia is an American jazz critic and music
historian and author of The Birth (and Death) of the Cool,
The History of Jazz and Delta Blues, the latter
two selected as notable books of the year by The New York
Times.This articled originally appeared in The
Daily Beast and is reprinted with permission.
doesn’t get much coverage in the mainstream media, and
hasn’t for many years. But something strange has happened
during the last four months. Over a period of just a few weeks,
a host of high profile periodicals have published smug, scornful
dismissals of the music. Is this just coincidence, or has something
changed in the cultural dialogue?
did jazz go from America’s musical treasure to whipping
boy? Let’s go back to the last day in July, when The New
Yorker set the tone with the publication of an interview with
Sonny Rollins. Here the sax legend offered observations “in
his own words” on his life and times. But, as the jazz
community soon learned, this wasn’t really an interview
with Rollins, now 84 years old, and the comments attributed
to him weren’t his own words, but a satire concocted by
a writer who had learned his craft at The Onion.
article itself wasn’t very funny. (Here’s a taste:
“The saxophone sounds horrible. Like a scared pig . .
. jazz might be the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with.”)
But its premise -- that jazz artists take themselves far too
seriously -- would get repeated again and gain in subsequent
days. Rollins himself was perturbed enough by the phony interview
to make a live rebuttal that streamed on the web and got covered
in the press. But that was too little, too late: the new meme
was already in play.
nine days later, the Washington Post ran a caustic
article that began with three memorable sentences: “Jazz
is boring. Jazz is overrated. Jazz is washed up.” This
article might also have been satire, or perhaps it represented
the author’s actual opinion -- in either case, it was
a clumsy affair. Yet the eerie echoing of the earlier faux interview
in another major media outlet was unsettling for jazz lovers.
After years of complaining that their favourite music got too
little attention from journalists, they now began to long for
those days of blissful obscurity.
more was coming. A week later, Slate ran an article
about a journalist who wrote an article ridiculing jazz, and
was so embarrassed by it that she secretly deleted it -- although
her editor had no problem with it. Three days after that, the
author of the original Rollins piece published a defense of
his skewering of the sax icon. “The overly academic, overly
lionizing sentiment that pervades so much of jazz writing and
the music’s general presentation is certainly something
that is ripe for satire,” he explained to the readers
of Jazz Times. But the high point -- or low point, depending
on your perspective -- arrived on September 11, when Deadspin
published its condescending polemic: “Jazz Needs a Better
Sense of Humor.”
was “blame the victim” rhetoric of the worst sort.
Jazz lovers who had taken exception to the previous bashing
were told to lighten up, and stop complaining. These pathetic
folks need to accept that “jazz has replaced classical
music as the dreaded incarnation of eat-your-broccoli art.”
I found little to agree with in this assessment, but it provided
one more measure of the emerging view of the jazz artist as
prig, and the music’s fans as insufferable snobs who felt
that they were above criticism.
jazz advocates brought on this backlash by the persistence with
which they have demanded that the public take their music seriously.
This push has been a major concern of musicians and fans for
more than a half century. Their efforts have paid off in many
ways. Jazz is now entrenched in high schools and colleges, and
gets honoured with Pulitzer Prizes and genius grants. But this
same attitude irks many outside the art form, who are quick
to stereotype jazz as the music of the pompous and pretentious.
if you still have doubts about my assessment, check out the
Twitter feed for JazzIsTheWorst, where an anonymous pundit publishes
a steady stream of hostile observations, each designed to showcase
the smugness of the jazz world. “In 2014,” our tweeter
announces, “jazz is something you 'study', not something
you listen to.” Or: “Jazz isn't dead . . . unfortunately.”
Or: “Jazz: Just pretend you like it, that's what everyone
else is doing.” Inspired by the feed’s growing band
of followers, JazzIsTheWorst has now launched a blog to build
on this success.
years back, I wrote a book entitled The Birth (and Death)
of the Cool, in which I noted a growing skepticism about
the attitudes and artistic works that once defined hipness.
Since then, many developments have confirmed my assessment --
perhaps most strikingly, the transformation of the very word
“hipster” into a term of abuse. But even I was surprised
by the new hostility to jazz. Strange to say, it has become
the music people love to hate.
some hopes that all this might pass, but two more articles,
issued in quick succession, tell me that this meme may have
a much longer life than any of us initially suspected. On October
4, The New York Review of Books -- a highbrow periodical
that seldom notices anything happening in the jazz world --
published a scathing attack on the avant-garde work of jazz
legend John Coltrane under the title “Catastrophic Coltrane.”
This was noteworthy if only for the importance of the target
-- Coltrane may be the only saxophonist of the last half-century
whose reputation outstrips even Sonny Rollins’s. No artist
is above criticism, but within the jazz pantheon John Coltrane
is as close as you can get; yet here he was the focal point
of an aggressive takedown in a journal that often sets the tone
for our cultural dialogue.
days later, The Atlantic Monthly also made a rare sojourn
into the world of jazz criticism with a tough assessment of
guitarist Bill Frisell, who it claimed was surrendering to nostalgia
and making “a trip down memory lane.” The latter
article wasn’t as dismissive as the Coltrane piece, yet
many Frisell fans cringed at the description of their guitar
hero diluting his reputation with "three- and four-chord
Western tunes in the key of G or C."
all, there was heavy irony in these two articles appearing in
quick succession -- one complaining about an artist who was
too experimental, and the other expressing reservations when
an artist wasn’t experimental enough. Their appearance
in periodicals that rarely cover jazz suggests that these unsympathetic
critiques on the music represent the preferred angle on the
art form, at least as judged by the editors who run influential
I’m wrong. The idea that jazz has become a catchword for
pomposity is painful for those of us who care deeply about this
music. Yes, I believe that jazz deserves respect, and if that
spurs a backlash, I’ll put up with it. But I also want
jazz to be loved and enjoyed, to serve as a source of enchantment
and delight. That’s the role that it has played in my
life, and my desire to share this unpretentious pleasure was
a major motivator in my decision to become a jazz historian
and critic. The absence of that love from the prevailing public
discourse on jazz is even more painful to me than the crude
generalizations now applied to the music. My biggest fear is
that the current dissing of the art form will make it even harder
for newcomers to experience the sweetness of swing and the joys
of jazz. After all, it’s hard to find pleasure in any
music if your starting point is resentment against the people
who make it.