America's Been Tough On The Jazzman

Eric Pettine By

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Not only does he have to master his ax, isolate himself (to an extent) from mainstream society to create in solitude, engage in often maddening self-denial, but the jazzman is constantly judged by his creations on the spot by his listening audience and as well as by his peers. Most doctors and lawyers don't have to endure that kind of intense scrutiny. Popular professional sports figures maybe endure that public pickiness for a season but get paid more in one season than most jazzmen will receive in a lifetime. Even in his own field, a jazzman must accept the fact that a rapper has to spew only rhythm and rhyme to make mega-moolah.

Consider The "Language" Barrier.

Although the average jazz listener doesn't have to theoretically comprehend harmonic extentions/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 (w/ a liitle 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.

Consider Our Attention Span.

It's difficult for most people to pull themselves away from that hyperkinetic/hypnotic flick they've just rented, that pro/college/amateur football game they're rooting for and/or betting on, the online poker game that's pecking at their last chip or that Playstation "T" or "M" rated game in which they're virtually vicariously victorious. These folks, it seems, are not willing or much less likely to check out Nancy Wilson, Cassandra Wilson, Bill Evans, Bill Frisell or the local jazz cats on a Friday/Saturday night or Sunday afternoon anymore. For many Americans maybe jazz just isn't wiggy enough.

Consider This "Idol" Business.

Only in America, it seems, would we have a hit TV show entitled "American Idol". Maybe it's asking too much for a series called American Talent which could showcase the vocally and instrumentally gifted performing original (jazz or other stylistic) compositions rather than feature a plethora of karaoke king and queen wannabes. If idol equals image and image equals icon (in the most pejorative sense of the word) as it does so prevalently throughout the US, the fate of the jazzman in this country is in serious trouble. We know that Miles made various funky fashion statements throughout his career, Dizzy had the coolest looking chops around, and Coltrane was Cosmic, but, in the end it was what came from their horns, heads and hearts that will be remembered miles beyond.

Consider our Lacking Cultural Pride.

It's been said that America's been great at inventing and reinventing itself and from a technological standpoint who can argue? We are the models of mass-materialism and the masters of massiveness. Jazz is an American invention that has stood the test of time and like other popular American inventions namely baseball, football and basketball, it should be held in high esteem and perpetually and popularly celebrated. Maybe not so ironically jazz is and has been lauded consistently in a very big way in Europe (especially in Italy, Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and France) where the people have always cultivated culture. Saxophonist Dave Leibman in his article entitled "Europe - Its Role In Jazz" says that George Wein (founder of the Newport and JVC Jazz Festivals) once told him: "If it weren't for Europe, there would be no jazz!" America's a tough crowd indeed.

Consider Jazz's Future.

It seems jazz is no longer solely America's music. Mike Zwerin, noted jazz critic and author states that, "the future of the music (jazz) is growing out more than up...it is getting everywhere. There appear to be no more Coltranes on the horizon ... on the other hand you can now go to just about any city in the developed world and hear a world-class rhythm section." It would make sense that, jazz in the truest sense of the word—as a creative, improvisational and personal and high art form—would flourish overseas rather than in an America seemingly infatuated with a "fix" rather than a foundation. The European people, by and large, know how to enjoy jazz and each other's company better than we Americans do. The cafe is still THE place for great jazz and conversation. However, it's difficult to imagine jazz cafes springing up in the ubiquitous strip malls across America, although, there's always the possibility of reinvention.


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