Why Is Jazz A Dirty Word?

Why Is Jazz A Dirty Word?
David Arivett By

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Why is it that "jazz music," and even the word "jazz" itself, is so offensive and polarizing to the average music listener today? The word "jazz" instantly turns many people off... immediately saying they don't like jazz at all. The fact is, that a very large part of the US population won't listen to jazz, period. Even further, the word " jazz" is, for many people, a dirty word!. Why is this?

Here are the top five reasons why people think and feel this way, and have already written jazz music off:

1) It's old and outdated music;
2) It's way too dissonant and too far outside the normal harmonic box;
3) It's insider musical language that only other jazz musicians can understand;
4) It's boring, with 10 minute solos featuring musicians playing strange sounding scales;
5) It's music played by a bunch of artsy weirdos and drug addicts; you have to be using drugs/alcohol to really appreciate it.

All these criticisms contain valid and legitimate reasons why the general public feels the way it does about jazz music. Let's take a closer look at these reasons.

For many today, the word jazz implies old outdated music. They consider it music of the past, and that its value and relevance has, for the most part, faded away. One of the things that is responsible for this misconception is that many purist jazz musicians today insist on only playing old jazz standards, from the 1930s and '40s. They and their music seem to be trapped into an historical box, much like many church folk who insist on singing and hearing nothing but old hymns from 100 years ago. Instead of writing and playing new jazz music, these jazzers keep on playing songs that were written "back in the day." Of course, the way that jazz is depicted in movies and on the big screen plays a large role in typecasting jazz music as old, out of touch, and therefore not relevant.

Other jazz artists, as their jazz language develops, choose to move further outside the harmonic box by writing and performing jazz that contains so much dissonance that only other jazz musicians can appreciate it. Here is how the dictionary defines dissonance:

Noun: inharmonious or harsh sound; discord; cacophony.

a. a simultaneous combination of tones conventionally accepted as being in a state of unrest and needing completion.

b. an unresolved, discordant chord or interval. Related words for dissonance are: disagreement, dissension, noise, racket.

To the average listener, it's almost as if jazz musicians just decided to be different and break all the accepted rules of harmony that classical music contains. And, on the surface, it appears that the more dissonance and unresolved chords a jazz composition includes, the better jazz composer you are.

Of course, there are many accepted rules that apply to classical music, but as music history has documented, with the dawning of the Romantic era, composers began breaking out of the harmonic box more and more, using much more dissonance in their compositions. Many of the musicians who have been trained in classical music that switched to playing jazz can testify how liberating it can be to break free of all of classical music's harmonic rules. But, let's face it: we've all heard jazz music that breaks so many conventional harmonic rules and is so dissonant that it can get on one's nerves. If there is too much tension, and harmonic clashes that are never resolved, it can leave the average listener hanging and in need of a sedative. This has been a crucial factor in turning most people off to enjoying jazz.

Of course, those who study jazz music, and are initiated into hearing more dissonance, grow more accustomed to hearing heavy dissonance and appreciating it. It then becomes jazz insider language that only the educated ear can appreciate. This jazz insider language has turned many listeners off, and has been a major factor in giving jazz a bad reputation. To the uninitiated ear, heavy dissonance used in a song isn't beautiful—it's ugly noise that irritates.

I heard a quote somewhere, where a person shared that they listened to a recording by saxophonist John Coltrane, and they thought it sounded more like a parakeet crapping out blood. That's very sad, because Coltrane was an incredible jazz musician, and viewed his playing in a spiritual way. But many have also complained about Charlie Parker ("Bird")—that his music was nothing more than noise.


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