The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fine, jazz is easy to mock. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

Eric Harland plays with Dave Holland Prism at the Newport Jazz Festival last week. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
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When I was 16, I enthusiastically confessed to my guitar teacher that I wanted to become a professional jazz musician. After the lesson, he told my mother: “Don’t let him do it. He’ll be doomed to a life of frustration.”

I didn’t listen.

In the 20 years since that afternoon, I have definitely experienced that frustration. But it doesn’t define my life, and I hardly feel “doomed” to it. The jazz sub-culture is alive and, if not exactly well, as determined as ever to stay alive. We know that what we do is valid, even important, in the way that any art form is important. It is a creative act rather than a destructive one, and that makes it a valid human endeavor.

Yes, our work is underappreciated and poorly remunerated at times. That’s okay; we knew what we were getting into. Nobody lied to us about fame and fortune when we were young. We’re chasing a peak experience: When we improvise and everything comes together, when it falls perfectly into place, there’s nothing like it. It’s otherworldly. We’re happy to share this with you, but if you’re not interested, that’s okay too! We’ll keep playing.

And sometimes things turn out beautifully. As I finished a tour of Japan last week, I felt great. The gigs had been wonderful, the audiences enthusiastic, and everywhere I went in Japan — bars, shopping malls, coffee shops — I heard jazz. (Everywhere except Starbucks, anyway.)

The scolds of the world mean well, and they are very sensible in their bitterness.

So imagine my surprise (as I waited for boarding to begin at Narita airport) to find that The New Yorker, one of America’s most eminent cultural publications, had printed a clumsy satire of jazz. In it, a comedian pretending to be Sonny Rollins laments, “in his own words,” his choice to become a jazz musician. The piece was not funny; it was deeply negative, nihilistic even. It ended with “Sonny” declaring: “I hate music. I wasted my life.”

It’s not that jazz musicians lack a sense of humor. As you’d expect, we have a pitch-perfect gallows sensibility, honed over a century’s worth of badly paid gigs and lack of respect from the monoculture. Jazz musicians are the funniest people I know. But why was The New Yorker so hostile to the jazz community? It upset many of us.

The real Sonny Rollins’s online response brought me back from the brink. Every aspiring artist, musician and creatively-minded person should watch it and glean some wisdom and encouragement from the master:

I made it back to the states, rejuvenated by Sonny’s positivity. Then, between sets on a Friday night gig, I saw an article in The Washington Post called “All that Jazz isn’t all that great” in which the author lists five reasons why he thinks jazz is “insubstantial and hard to grasp.” He begins this way: “Jazz is boring. Jazz is overrated. Jazz is washed up.” What was going on? The author, Justin Moyer, doesn’t like jazz, that much is clear. Perhaps he prefers Big Freedia to Wes Montgomery; that’s a perfectly valid choice. But had August been declared national Kick-A-Jazz-Musician-in-the-Teeth Month while I was away?

Here’s the thing: Jazz has certainly not stopped evolving, as Moyer argues. When I graduated from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (a performing arts high school) in 1998, I sounded like Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Steve Masakowski and Pat Martino, with a bit of “Question and Answer”-era Pat Metheny thrown in. Since then, one of the greatest frustrations (and sometimes joys) of my career has been constantly returning to the proverbial “woodshed” to deal with all the innovation in the music since then.

On my instrument alone, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Peter Bernstein and Ben Monder (among many others) have taken music to new places. The rhythmic and metric world of jazz has moved light years beyond 4/4 time, aided by Black Codes-era Wynton Marsalis, the Brad Mehldau trio and others too numerous to mention; the music of Brian Blade and Jon Cowherd in the Brian Blade Fellowship has incorporated harmony from the most sophisticated pop music as well as the spirit of the sanctified church. Keeping up with all the innovation in jazz can feel like an exercise in futility. It’s exponential!

Pop is a commodity; jazz is artisanal.

If there is a sin that we’ve committed, it’s a sin against the market. By choosing to spend our lives playing music that isn’t easily branded or marketed, we confuse the mainstream. Jazz, at its best, is artistic entertainment — not as heady as 21st century classical music, but more esoteric and sophisticated than your average pop tune. Pop is a commodity; jazz is artisanal. People around the world understand and appreciate its place on the spectrum of musical art and entertainment, but Americans have trouble with us.

In the basement bars of Manhattan and other cities, you can see us every day: an early set, a late set, maybe a late-night jam session. When you wander by on your way home from work, looking for a happy hour, why not stop in and check us out? If you like what you hear, welcome to our world. If not, that’s okay too. Maybe the guy or girl in the corner with the corroded tenor saxophone takes a few more choruses than he should, but I assure you it’s coming from an honest place. A creative place. I hope every person, even the occasional angry critic, has a creative space that he or she can visit from time to time, without feeling a need to tear other creative people down en masse.

In W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage,” the aspiring visual artist Philip Carey receives a piece of advice from Monsieur Foinet, his painting teacher, not unlike the admonishment my guitar teacher gave my mother all those years ago. “[T]ake your courage in both hands and try your luck at something else. It sounds very hard, but let me tell you this: I would give all I have in the world if someone had given me that advice when I was your age and I had taken it.” The Foinets of the world mean well, and they are very sensible in their bitterness.

But I speak for those of us down in the trenches, fighting the good fight, who disregard those words of wisdom. We aren’t going anywhere.