Monday, June 29, 2015

jazz, politics, and irrelevance, considering the cultural place of the worst-selling genre of music in America, just a little.

A few years back Terry Teachout wrote a piece called "Can jazz be saved?'
Teachout declared that however much jazz may be an American treasure, nobody's listening. The article inspired a few dissenting opinions, to put it briefly.
A couple of months ago Teachout revisited the article with an update by way of new numbers.
Contrary to widespread popular belief, I didn’t say anywhere in that column that jazz is dead. This is what I really said:

It’s no longer possible for head-in-the-sand types to pretend that the great American art form is economically healthy or that its future looks anything other than bleak. ...

and he had some numbers.  But he posted this year to note some newer numbers.
Jazz became the least successfully selling style of music in the land, basically, even more so than classical music.  If Teachout was as wrong as some said he was years ago he can't have been that wrong about noting the decline in buying customers.  You can talk about reification and commodification of music all you want.  If people aren't paying for it how does the art form survive in this cultural setting?  High school jazz bands?  Well, maybe in some places.
But in the last year there were little bursts of debate about the relevance of jazz as an art form and about its relationship to politics.  This may seem like the strange detour that it pretty much is but here's a few quotes for consideration.
By Justin Wm. Moyer August 8, 2014
 This music has retreated from the nightclub to the academy. It is shielded from commercial failure by the American cultural-institutional complex, which hands out grants and degrees to people like me
 Justin Moyer’s recent Washington Post hit piece on jazz provoked a lot of hostility, much of it deserved. It was, after all, pretty shoddy work.
 Based on the Left’s long history of embracing jazz and jazz musicians, we might feel we have a dog in this fight. But it’s been years since jazz had any claim to a counter-cultural, outsider, adversarial status, or communicated a revolutionary or even mildly reformist mindset. Any doubts on that score can be answered with a trip to the wall of corporate sponsors of jazz in Lincoln Center, followed by a visit to Dizzy’s Coca Cola club, the center’s flagship concert hall.
 If the Left is losing its affinity for jazz, that’s not really a problem: plenty of other musical styles can fill the void, and we can argue about whether they succeed in complementing a radical political and economic critique or even whether it’s important that they do so.
 The problem for jazz is that few on the left, right, or center care enough about it anymore to argue its merits — political, aesthetic, or otherwise. Moyer is an exception: he clearly cares enough to take the time to write about why it fails to move him emotionally and engage him intellectually.
 He’s right to point out the damage done to jazz by generations of uncritical consensus about its greatness, certified by a phalanx of respectability ranging from musicological mandarin Joseph Kerman and CIA operative Henry Pleasants to civil libertarian Nat Hentoff and black nationalist Amiri Baraka (not to mention the master of triangulation himself, Bill Clinton). The aesthetic status of jazz is reinforced through top-down institutional acceptance: the MacArthur awards, the endowed professorships, the Ken Burns documentary, the massive corporate and nonprofit support, and so on.
 Nonstop official consecration makes judging any given piece, performance, or artist superfluous — even risky. Listeners become anxious about expressing what they really think and feel about the music. You can’t find jazz boring and self-indulgent without appearing to be a boob. Machiavelli says that politicians should prefer the public’s fear to its love, but that’s a death sentence for an art form.
 Moyer pretty effectively slays one sacred cow implicated in this: not all improvised music is great. Yes, improvisation has produced some wonderful music, but it has also imposed plenty of tedium on audiences over the years. And given the cult of the improvisor created by generations of A-list intellectuals, listeners don’t argue, they vote with their feet — politely turning down invitations to the Village Vanguard, a university-sponsored gig by one of the remaining jazz icons, or a local band “blowing” on standards at a pizza parlor or coffee house.

Jacobin being the socialist publication it is if you don't happen to be socialist then the idea that jazz has become irrelevant by dint of a lack of political engagement on behalf of the Left might seem like the wrong reason to consider a musical art form dead.  But there's a sense in which the concern that jazz has become the music of the establishment could be a serious one for jazz fans in general.

...  Regarding jazz and the Left, Halle’s perspective is, if not distorted, severely limited. From what I’ve seen, jazz players and left-leaning politics remain naturally connected. Recall the concerts that jazz musicians staged in support of U.S. President Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008, the various pieces such as Robin Eubanks’ Yes We Can that celebrated Obama’s victory, or Toronto saxophonist Rich Underhill’s performance for at the 2011 state funeral of NDP leader Jack Layton. Recall the anti-Bush statements of albums such as Charlie Haden’s 2005 album Not In Our Name, the World Saxophone Quartet’s like-minded 2006 disc Political Blues, or Montreal saxophonist Christine Jensen entitling her 2006 CD Look Left. Now try to name some meaningful right-wing expressions or shows of support by jazz stars.

 This is not to say that all music is politically charged or needs to be. When jazz musicians show their stripes, they seem to have skewed left (myself included), but at other times, the music is simply apolitical. As Iverson writes, sometimes pieces such as Without A Song “are just good tunes for a improvisor to dig into.”

Put it this way, sometimes the jazz musicians on my Facebook feed get political and decry Stephen Harper or climate change, and at other times they simply promote their gigs and post photos of cats
Socialist realism's never going to completely go away from socialists embarking on the arts.  That's not going to change. But perhaps the clearest indication that jazz has a kind ofe stablishment status hit Wenatchee The Hatchet while waiting on hold for some bureaucratic thing, mayhbe it was a government office or a customer service thing for some bill  The main take-away was the hold music was Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.  So what, literally!
When classic albums from jazz have become hold music you get to listen to while waiting to talk to someone who may or may not actually care about your situation then, well, jazz has become establishment music in the worst possible way.  This should not detract from the beauty of its art but it was a memorable occasion for Wenatchee The Hatchet to consider that those who resent jazz may not just resent it for musical reasons.  They may feel that jazz is aimless and snobby and that can be utterly true .. but those are extramusical values, too. 
To some degree Teachout pointing out what has since become more obvious did not need to be the occasion to point out that he writes for right wing publications.  Wenatchee The Hatchet obviously lkes reading stuff ranging from Commentary to Jacobin and is curious about stuff across the entire spectrum.  It's fascinating how much traditional and arch conservatives agree with some progressives on the innate evil of Jeff Koons, for instance. :)  But let's not dwell on that now.
We were writing about actual art, after all. :)
In light of the recent passing of both Ornette Coleman and Gunther Schuller we could ask how effective Third Stream fusions may be if classical and jazz are among the worst-selling styles of music out there.  Two of my favorite types of music, obviously, these are.  Even in the peak of my days being involved with Mars Hill "engaging culture" by knowing or caring what was going on in pop music at large was not exactly my thing.  The last album I got that was neither classical nor jazz would have been ... the third Portishead album, I suppose. 
It's been interesting reading about music and the state of music.  Wenatchee The Hatchet at one point considered the possibility of getting into the music business.  It seems a bit unlikely now.  But even if it were to happen it's interesting to read about the cries artists believe are upon us.  Perhaps the most striking crisis that has not been discussed quite as thoroughly as it could have in the wake of the "Blurred Lines" verdict is how very little of our musical mass culture is actually public domain.
The case for publicly sponsored music education has often hinged on the idea that promoting the arts is good for well-rounded citizens.  What if we playfully propose another reason for music education in schools, if you tell the kids these days what is and isn't public domain it helps them learn fro molder musical styles so they can have the musical literacy to draw upon source materials less likely to land them in court.  If corporations are going to sue infringers then it would seem a public service to citizens to let them know in school, while they're young, which music they can copy without fear of getting sued by massive corporate interests. 
And having spent the last few months blogging about the ways in which guitar sonatas from the early Romantic era can be easily transformed and mutated into ragtime, a more thorough-going musical education which treats Western music as a unified whole spanning European classical music as well as American pop music seems like a more honest way to approach music education.  You'll give people more fo a chance to suffer, maybe, if yu show that a Haydn string quartet and a Weezer song have the same linear pattern between Op. 76,2 and "Island in the Sun" if they don't like that music.  But if we can talk about music AS music and not just as lifestyle associations then some real fusion in musical culture can happen.  When the chords and tunes in early 19th century guitar sonatas can be changed into ragtime my personal take is that the boundaries between the two styles of music are not that big.  It's not a matter of the harmonic and melodic vocabulary, really, so much as it is about the categories of thought organizing the material. 

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