John Lewis, the music director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, noted: “Jazz developed while the great popular music was being turned out. It was a golden age for songs. They had a classic quality in length and shape and form and flexibility of harmony. The jazz musicians were drawn to this music as a source of material.” The Songbook, a product of a fleeting set of cultural circumstances when popular, sophisticated music was aimed at musically knowledgeable adults, was the crucial wellspring of jazz. Both jazz and its progenitor are worthy of radical—indeed, reactionary—efforts to preserve them. But despite Gioia’s ardency, there is no reason to believe that jazz can be a living, evolving art form decades after its major source—and the source that linked it to the main currents of popular culture and sentiment—has dried up. Jazz, like the Songbook, is a relic—and as such, in 2012 it cannot have, as Gioia wishes for it, an “expansive and adaptive repertoire.”
So it's not surprising to see at Books and Culture a proposal that the increasing disconnect between the practice of jazz and the vocabulary of popular musical styles and forms has led to a decline in the popularity of jazz over the last half century.
Marc Myers' Why Jazz Happened sheds light on a question like that, seeking to show how jazz has adapted to popular tastes to survive. "For the past ninety-five years jazz's survival has been based on the ability of musicians to interpret their times without relinquishing the characteristics that define the art form," Myers notes. His intent is to show how the happenstances of American social history have crucially shaped the evolution of jazz since its official beginnings with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's seminal 1917 recording.
What Myers actually chronicles, however, is less a successful series of transformations than a long decline in influence, of a music that lit up ordinary Americans in the two decades between the two world wars but then became steadily less central to the culture. Jazz's artistic development, like that of most art forms, has inevitably put it beyond the reach of the ordinary evaluator. Jazz fans tend to bristle at such verdicts. So too, in response to the equivalent argument about their music, classical music representatives insist the problem will be solved via presentation strategies and lowering ticket prices. They assume that, with those issues finally resolved, Sisyphean though the task ever appears to be, surely the music's passion, the "soul"—a term often heard from classical fans as well as from jazz buffs—will work its magic.
However, just as fish don't know they're wet, fans of refined musical forms like classical and jazz have a hard time putting themselves into the heads of ordinary listeners, especially ones nurtured in the pop-saturated musical culture of the past 60 years, focused on volume and histrionic performer charisma. Jazz in the form of candy-flavored pop tunes put across in danceable fashion—which was how most experienced the music in the Twenties and Thirties—was catnip to younger Americans of the time. However, what this kind of jazz later became—musically dense, focused on individual improvisation, and intended for quiet listening—has always been more like absinthe, now and forever a specialty taste. Myers' book neatly demonstrates this, despite his intent to reveal an art form dynamically responding to popular tastes.
And as we should all know by know, the ascent of rock and roll and its evolution from things like jump bands and blues meant that the direct simplicity of expression torch got passed from jazz to rock and pop whether jazz musicians and fans have wanted to recognize it or not.
In 1968, when Patti Smith was twenty-one and working in a Manhattan bookstore, she went to a Doors concert at the old Fillmore East. She loved the Doors. As she described the concert in her memoir “Just Kids,” everyone was transfixed by Jim Morrison, except for her. She found herself making a cold appraisal of his performance. “I felt,” she concluded, “that I could do that.” For many people, that response is the essence of rock and roll.
To this way of thinking, rock and roll—the music associated with performers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the early Beatles—is music that anyone can play (or can imagine playing) and everyone can dance to. The learning curve for performing the stuff is short; the learning curve for appreciating it is nonexistent. The instrumentation and the arrangements are usually simple: three or four instruments and, frequently, about the same number of chords. You can add horns and strings and backup singers, and you can add a lot more chords, but the important thing is the feeling. Rock and roll feels uninhibited, spontaneous, and fun. There’s no show-biz fakery coming between you and the music. As with any musical genre, it boils down to a certain sound. Coming up with that sound, the sound of unrehearsed exuberance, took a lot of work, a lot of rehearsing. No one contributed more to the job than Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, in Memphis, and the man who discovered Elvis Presley.
What springs to mind lately is that finding some kind of successful synthesis between scholastic formalist approaches to music on the one hand and an awareness of popular or folk material on the other is an endless process of experimentation. Charles Rosen, in The Classical Style, wrote a short thought about how in the works of Haydn and Mozart and somewhat with Beethoven there was this sort of synthesis.
A person could almost get the sense that both jazz and classical music face a decline in audience size and mass appeal the more its advocates and agents locked themselves to the dogma of art for the sake of art.
We're fast approaching the centennial of when many people consider the earliest blues and jazz recordings to have been made. That would seem like a case for including jazz as a high art form at a place like, oh, Yale. But some folks would prefer to not teach jazz as if it were part of the Western art music canon even though at a popular level the distance between jazz as it has been practiced as an extension of a popular sets of idioms and the popular idioms of our current era seems to have grown in the last half century.
Some believe that the last thing jazz should try to do is double down on being a high art form and some have a particular person in mind ...
In terms of technical, formal understanding, and a willingness to experiment goes, a continual fusion of classical and jazz traditions could be fantastic. But if the classical and jazz communities band together out of a disdain for pop that's not a particularly healthy response. It may be that the "death" of jazz and classical music as "popular" idioms could be precisely because of a commitment to a set canon and also to the idea that there is a concrete "sound", rather than a flexible conceptual approach. There's simply no reason we can't have a 12-bar blues become the first theme in a sonata allegro form any more than there's a reason we can't use the approach of 18th century contrapuntal procedures to play around with a blues riff. This stuff has been done in the last century, after all.