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Hashtag Jazz

Hashtag Jazz
Margret Grebowicz By

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In his 1994 study Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, Paul Berliner describes American jazz as a community cutting across "boundaries defined by age, class, vocation, and ethnicity" and concludes that "it is their abiding love for the music that binds this diverse population together." (Berliner, 1994, p. 36) Twenty years later, jazz community can no longer be described in such unified terms. In fact, many contemporary musicians and fans are unified around the idea that jazz-the-artform is dead. Perhaps not dead and buried, but at least stuffed in the taxidermic sense, museified in a sort of jazz diorama. No example illustrates this better than that of the International Thelonious Monk Competition, held every year for a different instrument. A running joke in the scene is that if Monk were alive today, he would stand no chance of winning the Monk piano competition, because the music has become demographically white, aesthetically white-washed, more subject than ever to commercial pressures, and controlled by conservatories.

There is no question that jazz is in trouble, but the precise cause of that trouble is difficult to isolate and even the exact shape of it is not so easy to describe. Esperanza Spalding's Grammy for Best New Artist, for instance, was for some a reason to celebrate, a sign that the public has finally embraced jazz. For others, it meant merely that her music is in fact commercial, and the awards have once again gone to the sellouts, while the real jazz players and composers, the ones who challenge us aesthetically, intellectually, and sometimes even politically, continue to wallow in un-Grammied obscurity. For a good dose of the latter, one need only to check in daily with the anonymous blogger who goes by the name "jazzistheworst," and whose dark, ironic tweets have become a staple of jokes among jazz musicians on social media, like "#FightingForScraps" and "The average age of the Newport Jazz Fest audience is 'deceased.'" (Twitter/jazzistheworst 2015) The author of the blog is a jazz musician, judging by the amount of insider information, and it's interesting to note that musicians love circulating these tweets and blog entries. In the hands of the players themselves, the pronouncement that jazz is in fact "the worst" has become something like a form of resistance, precisely when the music itself has ceased to be resistant enough.

Many deaths of jazz have been announced at the hands of the Internet. Most famously, the Internet means the death of record labels. Anyone can self-produce a record, which means the loss of the old meritocratic weeding out mechanism that labels ostensibly provided. Jazz is also dead because artists can no longer count on record sales for a sizeable portion of their income. This affects everyone, from bandleaders to side musicians. Incomes are falling steadily, causing more and more players to look for work teaching privately and trying to get university positions, many of which take them away from urban areas, which are the only places to gig. Heated debates about the deaths and rebirths of jazz take place on Facebook, the very place where musicians announce their gigs. But technologies are themselves non-innocent. They do not merely reflect these debates and conversations back to us, but bring to the table their own, built-in imaginaries of community by definition. Thus, as jazz musicians talk to each other about the scene, the fact that they do it as a mode of belonging to social networks matters to what is said.


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