Norah Jones & Iraq

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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I think the volume of Norah discontent has been turned up several notches by the general climate...fear plus impotence equals rage, and all of that anger has to go somewhere.
The jazz community flack over Norah Jones's eight-Grammy sweep is familiar in many ways, reviving the old "pure" vs "commercial" debate that has raged since the beginning of art. There's that sniffing contempt for public taste ("well,what do you expect?"), the accusations of sell-out and injustice, and the renewed mourning that, in the race for attention and cash, those bearing the true jazz torch will always get their sneakers untied. It's bad enough that America thinks Kenny G makes jazz, but when the venerable Blue Note label surrenders so completely to market forces, it's a betrayal worse than Benedict Arnold and Linda Tripp.

Or is it? As much as we might prefer it otherwise, selling jazz music is a business. Corporate record labels are not philanthropies (too bad Bill Gates isn't a jazz fan). Bruce Lundvall has as much right to focus on Norah Jones as the rest of us have to choose our own investments — and far better luck, too. As of March 7, Come Away with Me sold 4.2 million copies, while the main thing most investors hear is the sound of something flushing.

Ideally, the Jones phenomenon will enable Blue Note to retain, and perhaps even expand, its roster of "real" jazz artists — talents like Bill Charlap, Jason Moran, Greg Osby, Jacky Terrasson, Stefon Harris, Terence Blanchard, Kurt Elling, Cassandra Wilson and Renee Rosnes — all of whom make glorious music that, while golden, will probably never go platinum. But does Blue Note "owe" this to the public? No. In reality its jazz legacy, cherished as it has been, is as disposable as McDonald's traditional recipe for French fries.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not happy about this, nor do I celebrate the crappy way jazz musicians are treated by too many labels, clubowners, and fast-talking managers, publicists, and booking agents. Meanwhile, a recent NEA survey of 2700 jazz musicians confirmed what we always knew: that their annual salaries are ludicrous compared to Americans in other fields with comparable educations (we're talking a jazz range of $20-40,000 vs non-musicians at $53,000-$66,300). And don't start me on health insurance.

But what does all this have to do with Iraq? Simply this: I think the volume of Norah discontent has been turned up several notches by the general climate. Everyone's anxious about the war and fearful that it will send our wobbly economy right over the cliff. Hesitant to make plans, we're all looking over our shoulders and stocking up on bottled water. Suddenly the future seems terribly scary and to make it worse, it seems so imposed on us, so out of control: our cries and passionate, communal NO!!!s haven't stopped the dark machine. Fear plus impotence equals rage, and all of that anger has to go somewhere. I don't know about you, but I've noticed a general increase in snarling lately, and wouldn't be surprised if the rates of substance abuse, domestic violence, depression, overeating and impulse spending — already up since 9/11 — have recently gone through the roof.

This is not a time when most people want to hear complex experimentations or free blowing — or perhaps any new music that requires the conscious exercise of a three-digit IQ. The few psychological studies in this area suggest that stress sends people straight for the favorite and familiar. The kids will always have some kind of angry thrashing to jump around to, but right now grownups apparently want something undemanding (the explosion of mindless reality TV at this juncture, with its twin peaks of humiliation and hostility, is no accident). Norah Jones — young, childlike, and vaguely sing-song — is like Melanie with her roller skates: acoustic and gentle. Comfort food for the ears. The madness — and the market — have spoken.

Is this forever? God forbid.

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