Back when MySpace was at the forefront of the social media race, an old college friend of mine used to have a good profile tag-line that read “I’d rather be relevant than famous.” But in looking back at that phrase, I could argue now that those who are famous are indeed relevant. I say this because the energy behind our continuous conversations about them make them so. In short, when we entertain conversations about them we’re constantly reassessing (albeit subconsciously) who our morals and values align with so as to identify who is safe to embrace within our inner circle of trust and who to keep at arms-length. Therefore, it can be argued that the sliding scale of a person’s relevance is tied to the amount in which we think we might benefit from having certain types of conversations about them. So if you believe that relevance can be equated to usefulness, then allow me to ask “what is Jazz and why is it worth talking about?”
As we’ve already seen, and continue to see within the styles of Hip-Hop, Rock, R&B, Pop, etc., they provide the public with more obvious ways of incorporating their perceived values (for better or worse) towards their everyday lives. So in an attempt to make my assertions understood, let’s quickly take a look at one of the most pervasive forms of music to come about in roughly the last 35 years: Hip-Hop.
It has been said that never in a time throughout the documented history of music have large contingencies of people (especially the youth) ever chosen to identify themselves as being specific products of a musical movement like they do with Hip Hop (i.e. “I am Hip Hop,” “I live Hip Hop,” “I eat, breath, and sleep Hip Hop”). Now granted, during the formative years of Rock & Roll, and even Jazz for that matter, we find that it was also the youth who rallied behind these two movements as well, as they too would periodically use certain aspects of the music to help them pseudo validate some of the energy behind the various opinions that they may have held about the world around them. However, the power of Hip Hop—which really has to do with America’s long standing fascination with anything associated with black male youth—is that its aesthetic is now just as interwoven into the everyday fabric of our society as is the name recognition of Starbucks and Nike. So how does this relate to Jazz? With Jazz being thought of as instrumental music by an overwhelming majority of people who have had no significant history of attempts at learning how to play an instrument well—coupled with a lack of images of modern day Jazz musicians (let alone instruments for that matter)—the public’s relationship to Jazz is generally one of indifference. However, when they do think about some Jazz that they may have liked, it may have been related to a vocalist, as this is one “instrument” that we’ve all tried practicing to be good at behind closed doors. And to further prove my point about the public’s general feelings of indifference about this art form is the fact that the point of consumption for most people happens to be within public spaces where the volume is low enough to be talked over, thus further conditioning an already indifferent public to further regard it as a piece of interior decoration that doesn’t really require ones full attention. A perfect case in point would be when the Grammies had Esperanza Spalding, of all people, performing as background music immediately following her upset over Justin Bieber for “Best New Artist” in 2011 while they made their announcements about the next artist to receive their awards. That wouldn’t have been done to any other artist from another genre of music. So as you can see, what Jazz needs is a total branding overhaul. But in order to do so, it would need to be done in a way that still reflects the hidden values that have helped to sustain Jazz up until this point. So the first step in rebranding this music appropriately lies within an understanding of what it is in the first place.
The word Jazz, just like any other style of music, is merely a marketing term. No more, no less. After all, real musicians put their energy into trying to play what they hear, not figuring out what to call what they’re playing. It’s also important to remember that the word Jazz had already been in circulation before it was ever attached to a sound. So a fair etymological definition for Jazz would be that it’s a term that was first used to describe popular American music at the turn of the 20th century, whose roots can be found in both the Blues and Ragtime music. And whereas the Blues is more akin to an African-American sensibility towards early “American” folk music, Ragtime is more reflective of the musics that fall within the lineage of Western European Classical music, and most notably early marches that were championed by people such as John Philip Sousa. However, the important piece of connective tissue between the Blues and Ragtime is the application of the black aesthetic on both of them. So when you combine these two styles, and run them through an early black filter, what you get is a distilled version of the type of Jazz that people such as Louis Armstrong help to champion.
Now granted, this information is all well and good, but what good can an understanding of Jazz really have on America, as well as the world at large? Well, in the same way that we’re able to extract and apply certain values within sports upon our daily lives, we can also use Jazz as another structural model to evaluate the democratic nature of our relationships to one another. So for those who may be even mildly interested in understanding Jazz a little better, I’d suggest that you start by attempting to aurally identify within a live setting where you think this democracy has either failed or flourished, and then cross reference that with visually observing the reactions of the musicians among themselves, because to recognize the connection between certain musical events and the responses of the musicians to said events, will in fact move you closer to being the type of listener whose just as knowledgeable about what to look for in this music as is someone who would know what to look for within anything from a great bottle of wine to a school that could best serve the needs of their child. And with the game of life having always been about learning how to transform any life situation into an opportunity to respond in the most appropriate way, Jazz music (just like martial arts) is actually the practice of the art of moment-to-moment decision making.