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The Day the Music Died

Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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The next time you’re at a gathering of Jazz fans, look for the guy clutching his box set of Thelonious Monk’s Complete Riverside Recordings on vinyl and refusing to talk about anything recorded after 1961. Don’t be that guy.
On one of my infrequent trips outside the 'Dome recently, I stopped at a convenience store for a cold Coke Zero when I noticed a man about my age (48. 52, in heels) driving a red 1988 Pontiac Trans Am and blasting Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" on his car stereo. He wore Zubaz workout pants that were at least twenty years out of style, a faded Def Leppard T-shirt, and sported a greying mullet. In that moment, I could imagine him waking up one morning in the late Eighties, putting on that outfit while listening to Hysteria on his cassette deck, glancing out the window at his sweet ride, and thinking, "This is absolutely as good as it gets. I have achieved the pinnacle of my existence. I will never look better than I do right now, I will never feel better than right at this moment, and music cannot possibly get any better." And he locked that moment into his mind, reliving it every single day since.

It's easy to make fun of that poor bastard, stuck in a relatively embarrassing moment in history, but he's hardly unique. Particularly when it comes to music, where more people than would care to admit it have reached a moment in their lives where they've simply decided that all the music worth hearing has already been played. Among my former high school classmates, their musical universe begins with the Sixties music their parents listened to, the Seventies music their older siblings listened to, and the Eighties pop of our high school years. Right about 1985, music just ends; everything that comes after will never measure up. It says something about where I came from that the unofficial anthem of the Class of '85 was "Born to Be Wild," a song to which many of us may have been conceived.

Jazz fans are not immune to this phenomenon, just because we tend to be smarter and hipper than average doesn't mean that we're not susceptible to closing the gates once our favorite longhorns are in the corral or reaching the end of our own personal trail and deciding that's where the last round-up will be (Sorry. I've been reading Louis L'Amour's Trailhand's Guide to Jazz lately). Anyway, pardner, there are far too many aficionados of Our Music who have simply decided that all listenable Jazz was made during a certain period and everything else is a sad substitute. I have made no secret of the fact that, even though I came to Jazz via the big band tunes I played in the high school band and the early recordings of Wynton Marsalis, Jazz for me ended in the early Sixties when the creeping rot of all Art, Abstract Expressionism, landed on Our Music with both feet. Though initially bold and provocative, like Jackson Pollack's 'No. 1' or Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come, it soon falls victim to the cognitive decay and narcissistic pretensions that kill all means of individual expression once they are unmoored from objective standards of technique or creative discipline. Pollack soon devolved into a paint-slinging hack, and Coleman never did recapture the breathtaking innovation of that original quartet.

Once arrived at that point, I could not allow myself even to consider Fusion as a viable genre. The neo-classic revival of the late Seventies and early Eighties sparked some interest, but not enough for me to pursue it past a few representative examples in my record collection so that I would appear well-rounded. It should be noted that my tastes in other genres of music have continually evolved throughout my life. I strayed off the beaten path with punk and New Wave in the late Seventies, and have continued seeking out new sounds throughout my life. I like vintage alternative and modern rock, and I have a special affinity for Little Bands That Should Have Made It But Didn't. I have CDs in my collection from bands so obscure that a couple of guys who were in the group don't remember them. But lest you think I'm some sort of over-aged hipster, relishing my knowledge of the little-known and proudly boasting that I was into something before anyone else, I should point out that I have never been one for any bandwagon, no matter how intimate and retro chic it may be. For the most part, I find modern hipster to be every bit as cloying as trend-chasing teens pumping their heads full of autotuned top forty dreck.

Jazz has always been a personal anomaly for me. As adventurous as I am when it comes to so many other areas of experience, from food to modern rock, I am still loathe to allow the possibility that I might enjoy any Jazz that is not strictly acoustic and which might not conform to my rather narrow stylistic definitions. Most other forms of music, I view as a large and exotic buffet of endless possibilities; Jazz, I'm like the kid who will only eat chicken fingers and Tater Tots®. (Disclosure: I love Tater Tots®) And I'm not sure why I have developed this block. Nowhere else in the pantheon of my extensive musical tastes do I have such a profound prejudice against the new. I'm certain that there is still good Jazz being played, exciting new sounds that will enrich and enliven my sonic palate, even as I occupy my mantle at the premiere repository of everything Jazz related. I like some of Donny McCaslin's more traditional stuff, I like what I've heard of Brad Mehldau and Dave Douglas, and I like Chapman Stick virtuoso Greg Howard's solo work. But none of them wake the same passion in me that I get from listening to Monk, Trane, Miles, or Pops. That, I believe, is a Me problem and does not reflect on any of those artists.

There is something about Jazz that speaks to a different part of me than any other music can. Because of the sometimes abstract emotional constructs conveyed by Our Music at its best, it is perhaps the most personal music. Jazz, to me, is like the Holy Spirit as described in the Bible: It intercedes for us with groanings the heart cannot utter. To put it another way, it makes us feel the things we often cannot put into words. The best music always does, and Jazz is among the best of the best music there is. But for the music to do what it can do, we must first allow it to do so (a thorough explanation of that sentence is available upon request).

No two people are exactly alike, as the clones from the 'Dome's current Favorite TV Show Orphan Black prove. What wakes the soul in one might do nothing for someone else. I get that, I do. But that doesn't explain how so many of us, including me, can completely discount all music made past a certain point in time. For Our Music to survive, it cannot be left in the hands of librarians, who catalog and preserve but add nothing to it. Jazz must continue to be a living thing, and it must be allowed to take us places we might not have wanted to go if left to our own devices. Even if that means listening to a Swedish pianist while hanging out in IKEA because, you know, those meatballs.

But I digress.

The only cure for this malady, I'm afraid, is shock treatment. We must each fight against our own boundaries and immerse ourselves in the new. That's the only way we'll ever discover the next artist who speaks to our soul the same way our old favorites do. And we'll give an ear to those on the front lines in the fight for the survival of Our Music, the ones who will carry the Jazz flag (yes, we have one. It flies over AAJ headquarters daily) on to the next generation. We have a choice: we can embrace the now, or we can end up a bunch of sad bastards with silly haircuts trying desperately to hold on to the day we made the choice to stop growing.

As for me, I'm fortunate to be a part of AAJ. If there's something happening in Jazz, it's happening right here. Well, not right here; this is an article about the happening, not the happening itself. You can see the happening from here, but if you're waiting for me to bring the show to you, you're in for a long wait. I've got this article to finish yet, and it's Taco Night at the 'Dome. I won't delay Taco Night for anyone, not even Terence Blanchard. And I'll say that to his face.

Anyway.

AAJ guides me in new directions and helps me discover new music, and it does so without forcing me too far out of my comfort zone. I can find Christian McBride and Trombone Shorty without having to stray too far from the safety of my beloved Miles and Coltrane. And so can you. The next time you're at a gathering of Jazz fans, look for the guy clutching his box set of Thelonious Monk's Complete Riverside Recordings on vinyl and refusing to talk about anything recorded after 1961. Don't be that guy.

Till next time, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.
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