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America's Been Tough On Jazz

By Published: December 13, 2005
In America, he's his own man - he's got to be - no corporation seeks him out or needs him. Her attitude and attire doesn't always "cut it" with the latest vogue. He doesn't really have a particular deadline or agenda to meet. She's "got her ax down" and she's ready to carve out her own market share. He's got to lay it down and play it down with nary a flaw to be detected by friend or foe. She has no company vacation or sick time accrued for all her endless hours of practice and past performances. Any "down time" is usually spent in preparation for that next great gig in the sky. Right now they may not be as "happenin'" as the new rage rappers, but these jazz cats will always be just as hip. Maybe the problem is that jazz music, by and large, is just too hip for America or maybe America's never been hip enough to "get it".

Jazz's "Language" Barrier
The American Jazz Critic
America's Racial Overtones Affected Jazz
America's "Idol" Business
America's Lacking Cultural Pride
Jazz Education In America
Jazz' Performing/Educational Future In America

Jazz's "Language" Barrier.

The "language" of jazz especially became more difficult for most people to follow or comprehend after the "Classic/Traditional" Jazz Era (1920s-1940s). From the mid-1950s throughout the 1960s, jazz music experienced greater freedom in its written and improvisational forms. To their credit, many jazz musicians of this era were composing and performing music that was more personal and spiritual with less concern for economic success—basically jazz for jazz' sake. However, in his quest for greater musical expression and exploration by extending the complexity of the "language" (complex/"altered" chords and voicings, greater usage of modal scales and melodies, and perilous adventures into atonality) of jazz music at this point in time, the jazz musician may have made the jazz "language" more difficult to communicate.

Although the average jazz listener doesn't have to theoretically comprehend harmonic extensions/complex chordal voicings or modal melodies to enjoy jazz music, he/she usually unconsciously, savors those sounds that are so prevalent throughout the "language" of jazz. The jazz "language/sound" even found it's way into the best of mainstream contemporary music (Beatles (with a little help from their friend George Martin), Beach Boys [Brian Wilson], Burt Bacharach, Steely Dan, et al) last century. However, with today's modern "pop" music being so "dumbed-down" and so devoid of those jazzy chords/voicings and modalities—in any/most current popular music genres—society's collective musical "ears" have either forgotten or never experienced the "jazz sound". Record and radio companies who focused/focus on "formula as finance" should perhaps bear the greatest amount of guilt for this.

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The American Jazz Critic.

To an already suffering jazz world, the American jazz critic has and perhaps more than ever (given the multitude of media resources available to him/her) can malign and sideline the aspiring jazz artist.

NEA (National Education Association) jazz award recipient and saxophone great Jimmy Heath reflects, "In the (19)50s, everybody went to go hear everybody all the time. Now audiences may not come out if if the people read that the author doesn't like the music." Often times jazz (as well as in other areas of music) critics either can't state or avoid specifically stating what it is musically that offends them. More than a few jazz reviews have been literary lessons in superciliousness. In Walter Kolosky's article at All About Jazz, "The New Obligation Of The Jazz Critic," he feels that "Jazz critics are supposed to like Jazz. Yet some of the most pseudo-intellectual and vitriolic music reviews in print are turned in by jazz writers." Perhaps more than a few jazz critics should take the view that if they can't find or say anything good about a particular jazz performer, they should consider writing about some other jazz musician of interest to them. However, an exception can/should be made for one who is critically acclaimed and who has already proven his/her capabilities. If the established artist's work plunges into a pool of pablum he/she should rightly be panned.

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America's Racial Overtones Affected Jazz.

Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley asserts that "Jazz would simply not exist without black Americans and the circumstances in which they live. Those circumstances were shaped by slavery, segregation and discrimination, the defining experiences of black America." Over forty years ago Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
sax, alto
observed, "White people tend to see me as a Negro first, then as a human being. That creates a barrier." Not so arguably the best of jazz music has been created by black Americans. A vast majority of white America has never been, and to this day, is not fully supportive of this music. However, jazz musicians themselves, have done much to make strong interracial connections. Ben Ratliff, one of ten authors from the book entitled The Future Of Jazz, muses in his essay entitled "Black and White and Turning Gray" that "there is no popular music so well miscegenated as jazz." Possibly one potent reason for jazz' perennial lack of prevalent acceptance in America is rooted in the fact that it has been predominately music by and about an oppressed people largely ostracized for many years by mainstream society.

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