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

Genius Guide to Jazz

The 9% Solution

By Published: December 4, 2003
Recently, as I was doing my extensive research for these little excursions, I was on my way to the refrigerator for another bottle of inspiration when I happened to overhear a report that stated pop music accounted for only 9% of all record sales. Frankly, I was stunned. All of the fawning media attention given to pop stars and their wares, the seemingly ubiquitous presence of pop music in every facet of American life, it all seemed a little excessive for less than a dime's worth of the American record-buying dollar.

Though I stopped listening to top forty radio when I got too old to pick up high school girls, and I haven't watched MTV since the M actually stood for music and not marketing, I've still managed to hear at least snippets of pop tunes. Despite my best attempts to the contrary, I know that little Spears girl apparently did it again, some fellow known as Nelly (what the hell?) has a hard time keeping his clothes on, and a funny white guy named after a hard-shell candy gets nervous in front of people.

So I got to thinking.

If pop, with only 9% of total record sales, can command such obsessive cultural saturation, what would it take for jazz to do the same? After all, jazz fans certainly have a greater command of disposable income than the average 15 year-old girl that pop music seems to be of, by and for. Mobilizing the kind of resources the average jazz listener can bring to bear might very quickly place our music back in the prime and in the process, make this country a wider, happier place in which to live.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're also thinking that, in order to reclaim jazz's rightful prominence in the American cultural main, some compromises may be required. We'd have to dumb down the music, tart up our women, and require our men to tattoo every visible inch of their bodies and speak in a mixture of indecipherable colloquialisms and profanity. Eventually, one of us would be required to marry Jennifer Lopez.

I remind you, however, that one of the defining characteristics of pop culture is transience. Fifteen years ago, I sported a then-fashionable mullet and wore my skintight Levi 501 jeans tucked into my Reebok hi-toppers. While you can still see this look in Wal-Marts and on Dairy Queen parking lots throughout this fine land, it is nowhere near as chic as it was back in 1988. A few years from now tattoos will be embarrassing relics, the brand of a bygone herd; and closed-over piercing holes will be explained away as acne scars.

For pop culture to survive, it must be in a constant state of flux. The things that make a teenaged girl delirious at fifteen make her roll her eyes and sigh with the practiced ennui of a liberal arts major at twenty. The trick is to catch on at the right time, and adapt as we go. Jazz has never been afraid to reinvent itself, at one point going from good-time dance music to an atonal lab experiment in music for intellectuals not to get laid by within the span of a generation. If jazz could go from Benny Goodman to Pharaoh Sanders in twenty short years, then shoring up the gap between boy bands and Bebop should be no problem.

One potential problem, however, is the disparity in skill levels required between jazz and pop. Jazz requires a high level of technical ability augmented by years of practice and, in most cases, formal training. Pop requires secondary sexual characteristics and good hair. At one time, pop required at least the ability to sing or play an instrument. Now, most pop stars couldn't sing "Happy Birthday" without an effects processor the size of an industrial freezer or oversinging to the point of yodeling. And they couldn't play "Pop Goes the Weasel" on comb-and-tissue-paper. Rap asks nothing more than the ability to swear quickly over top of someone else's music and look menacing even while dressed like a rodeo clown who hit the lottery. Electronica is nothing that couldn't be achieved by a group of 12 year-olds playing with a demo Casio keyboard in K-Mart.

What I mean is that part of pop's appeal is in its eenie-meenie-meinie-mo path to stardom. Since any semblance of talent or ability has been eliminated as a requirement for pop success, anyone has a reasonable chance of making it big. Just look at American Idol. Can you imagine a television show where random people are taken off the street, given instruments, and expected to riff a few choruses? Or even asked what in the hell "riff" and "chorus" mean? While Wynton Marsalis assails them unmercifully for not swinging it like Louis did?

Note to creatively bankrupt TV programmers: I was being facetious, not brainstorming. I'd rather see another fatuous, unfunny sitcom or pretentious, "quirky" drama than another tired-joke high concept reality program. Not that I actually watch any of it. I've got cable, and I'd rather watch a two-hour Discovery channel documentary about corn than anything you network dry holes are pulling out of your collective primetime slots these days.

But I digress.

If I was indeed heading towards a point (and that's never altogether a certainty with me), it would be that while jazz may have to change in order to garner popular attention, the changes need not be pronounced nor far-reaching. We must simply understand how to manipulate the perception of our music so as to cause the masses to relax their guard against the unfamiliar. Well why the hell didn?t I just say so?

One of the defining characteristics of jazz has been its adaptability. You could drop jazz in the middle of Wyoming in the dead of winter, blindfolded and with only a can opener and four raw veal cutlets and it would not only survive, but come back to avenge its father's death and marry its high school sweetheart. Starring Tobey McGuire ( Spiderman ) as Blue Note founder Alfred Lion, Mila Kunis ( That 70's Show ) as Norah Jones, Norah Jones as Mila Kunis ( That 70's Show ), and Mitzy the Wonder Pony as Supreme Court Justice Byron "Whizzer" White. Rated R for language, adult situations, and this one part where a guy gets disemboweled by a tenor saxophone.

Meanwhile.

It is not unthinkable that jazz should change, even if only slightly. In fact, it does it all the time. Jazz is about spontaneous invention, drawing from everything going on around it. You could release an album of six different versions of Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things" and no two versions would be alike. The music exists in the moment, a snapshot of the instant of its creation. Compared to that, the burn-rate of the MTV attention span is interminable.

One of the primary faults of most jazz fans, myself especially, is the tendency to pick our favorite moment in jazz and stop right there. My own collection tails off right at the point where Coltrane's conversations with God started to get a little fuzzy (perhaps He was on a cell phone) and Miles decided that the idea of a trumpet as lead instrument in a rock band was just crazy enough to work.

We also get very defensive of our music, and very clannish when it comes to the influence of outsiders. We sometimes love to look down our noses and use words like "plebeian" and "bourgeois," all while throwing our shoulders out of joint patting ourselves on the back for how Not Like Them we are. And by "we," of course, I mean "you people."

I?m almost 96% certain that was a joke.



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