All what jazz? Or: How to declare something dead without listening to it

The Internet is overflowing with bad ideas. What should we do when we step in one?

Scrape it from our boots and quietly walk away? Retweet it in anger? Blog a rebuttal? Wait a few hours for someone else to blog a smarter rebuttal? How should we take part in the conversation when the conversation feels so urgent, yet so stupid?

These are questions that have been chewing up my brain for the past few years and maybe they’ve been chewing at yours, too. I was asking them again on Friday afternoon when a friend emailed me “All that jazz isn’t all that great,” a Washington Post editorial by Justin Moyer declaring that jazz music has become irrelevant and is diverting our attention from greater (unnamed) concerns.

“Jazz has run out of ideas, yet it’s still getting applause,” he writes in a bullet-pointed essay that gooses Coltrane fans and beret owners. If you like or love the music, this position might annoy or infuriate you, which appears to be its only purpose.

But if the piece is sincerely wishing a swift death to jazz, I would like to wish a swift death to music journalism that doesn’t bother to do any listening. Of the 19 jazz musicians listed in the piece, zero of them made their recorded debut in the 21st century. How can the author assert that an entire genre of music “needs a reset” when he shows no evidence that he’s been paying any attention to it?

I’m all for well-argued music criticism that talks trash and throws dirt on graves. (If they’re worthy, the buried will claw their way out or get dug up by curious descendants.) But when Moyer writes that “jazz is washed up,” he’s filling out his death report without checking for signs of life.

A quick response to his bullet-points.

1. “Jazz takes great songs — and abandons the lyrics that help make them great.”

Actually, the idea that vital music requires lyrics is a point of view so out there, I’d love to read a more coherent argument for it.

2. “Improvisation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

Moyer supports this point by asking why Phish isn’t a better rock band and complaining about being subjected to Wes Montgomery tunes at Barnes and Noble. “Not my cup of tea” is never a position worthy of publication.

3. “Jazz stopped evolving.”

Debatable, obviously, but what 21st century musician hasn’t been confronted by a sense of creative gridlock in the superabundance of the information age? The frontiers are becoming more difficult to find in every genre of popular music, but I do go to a decent share of jazz performances and sometimes I hear artists feeling for the edge. Rafiq Bhatia, Colin Stetson, Vijay Iyer, Wadada Leo Smith, Christian aTunde Adjuah and the trio Dawn of Midi all spring to mind.

4. “Jazz is mushy”

“Charlie Parker and John Zorn do not seem to occupy the same sonic universe, let alone belong in the same record bin or iTunes menu.” Puzzling, this beef with variety, but it applies to most pop genres. Do Buddy Holly and Captain Beefheart belong in the same record bin?

5. “Jazz let itself be co-opted”

Again, this applies to all enduring genres of popular American music. Show me something that survived 100 years in a capitalist system without being co-opted. (Actually, that’s another piece I’d love to read.)

Ultimately, rebutting the substance of this argument feels deeply unsatisfying because there is so little substance to rebut. But toward the end of the piece, there’s a kernel of an idea should have been pursued further: “This music has retreated from the nightclub to the academy.”

There’s an entire of generation of rising young jazz players wrestling with that perception — and with the idea that jazz music belongs to the past, not the present. Two years ago, the inventive young pianist Robert Glasper told me, “I love all my jazz masters and my elders that came before me, but I always say that people have killed the living to praise the dead.”

The refusal to investigate Glapser’s world — i.e. the present — is what makes this argument so bothersome. The article dismisses an art that the author is not currently engaged with, tamping his broadside with the disclaimer of simply speaking one’s mind. These are “some of my problems,” Moyer writes. (And Moyer has a fascinating mind — I’ve known him through the D.C. punk scene since I was a teenager.)

But personal and provocative declarations are what make the Internet hum, and in music journalism, (and everywhere else), the clicks have become more important than the quality of the conversation. So the conversation stays urgent and stupid, preventing a substantive dialogue from ever getting started. A little more brain gets chewed up and spit out.

That’s far more troubling to me than hearing Wes Montgomery in a book store.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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