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All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Opinion/Editorial

Bridges vs. Walls

By Published: April 17, 2012
By the 1980's the Jazz Continuum was dissected into a hundred styles all designed to appeal to different ages, races, generations, sub-cultures, and trends... like a myriad of kites flying in the sky all tied to the same base, tangled in the same string, but each proclaiming the illusion of independence.

Popular music had lost its "T'chass" and soul. Melody and harmony were replaced by electronic sounds created to augment and define sub-cultures. Musicians were replaced by computers, composition was replaced by sampling, and singing gave way to rapping. Locked in a perpetual battle since the Renaissance, art had finally lost to commerce.

The 80's did however see a resurgence of jazz from a very unlikely source—so-called "New Age" music—turning back the clock to the simplicity of folk melodies, acoustic instruments, International fusion, and tonal moods. However, like all other eras of the Jazz Continuum, once a musical innovation gets labeled as a new "style" or genre, it immediately begins to define itself by its own limitations. New age, ambient and world groove music was fresh and diverse at first, without a specific definition or style, until a new radio format codified and killed it.

By the 1990's, contemporary jazz had been reduced to nothing more than "easy listening" or background music. It had to be innocuous so that you could "listen while you work..." "smooth" enough to appeal to places of business where they didn't really want anyone to actually listen. Jazz was thus reduced to non-offensive white noise—perfectly designed for elevators, supermarkets, waiting rooms and voice mail servers.

The music industry was happy to create a new radio format that capitalized on a classy, upwardly mobile association with jazz, while rejecting its very essence. They formed focus groups consisting of people who didn't care for jazz and allowed them to choose the songs that they found the least offensive. To meet the demand of the new radio format, all the things that make jazz exciting were extricated by the record industry. Jazz artists were forbidden to improvise by the labels that produced their records; they had to create catchy hooks that people could lightly hum or whistle along to while they worked.

I've had several jazz artists tell me personally that they were strictly instructed by their labels to keep the music simple, keep their solos short, limit any improvisation, not jam too hard... and not to sound "too black."

On the other hand, jazz was booming around the rest of the globe—styles know as "acid jazz," "trip hop," "drum 'n bass," "deep house" and "neo-soul" were considered cutting edge in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Japan... bringing back the excitement found during various ages and eras of jazz past.

Jazz in America was primarily being heard on radio stations using the tag line, "Less talk, more music..." which removed the listeners from any actual association with the music. People won't go out and buy an artist's album if the radio station doesn't deem it important enough to tell you what you are listening to, or share any information about the music.

I ran a smooth jazz radio station starting in 2001 when the format was going strong. Many listeners claimed to love the station, and listened to it daily at work—yet no one could name a single artist or song. They liked it because it didn't annoy them—but very few were truly passionate about the music. It's hard to build momentum around purposeful passivity—so, the smooth jazz format slowly died, leaving American airwaves bereft of any jazz whatsoever.

Thankfully the internet has opened up new avenues in which to experience and discover new music. The Jazz Continuum perpetually evolves—recreated new each time someone improvises a melody or syncopates a rhythm. It remains at the root of every popular musical style listened to in the world today—yet each style is disconnected from its roots.

Now is the time to reveal the connections; to draw the lines between genres and styles showing their common origins and influences. If every young person realized that everything they listen to was influenced by the music their parents heard before they were born... and if every stylistic snob realized that their chosen genre was the step child of something much bigger... and if every culture realized that their current popular music was connected to a common thread that went back over 100 years to a place near a New Orleans sea port called Congo Square... and if everyone could see beyond their own tastes to the common influences that helped form them—the bridges would span all our differences, walls would fall, and civilization could dance freely forward through the barriers which hold us back.

We are currently a world connected by the same music, yet divided by what we call it. Every generation and sub-culture thinks that they are on to something new rather than embracing the rich heritage from which they emerged.


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