Is Jazz Boring?

Oh, my, over at the Washington Post, they’re getting into click-baiting. A recent article states that All that jazz isn’t all that great, and begins with the following pronouncements:

Jazz is boring.
Jazz is overrated.
Jazz is washed up.

To be fair, I have to agree, somewhat. Not so much that jazz is boring, overrated, or washed up, but it has certainly stagnated.

Author Justin Moyer lists several reasons why jazz is bad:

1. Jazz takes great songs — and abandons the lyrics that help make them great.

Nah, that’s not a big deal. Great songs are great music; lyrics aren’t essential.

2. Improvisation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

A valid point, sometimes. He says:

“The knowledge that great music is improvised makes it more remarkable. But the fact that music is improvised doesn’t make it great. If it did, Phish and the Grateful Dead would be better than they are.”

Well, the Grateful Dead are (were) pretty good, in part because of the improvisation (I don’t get Phish), but it’s a different kind of improvisation. It’s much more structured.

For me, the problem with a lot of jazz improvisation is that it is too loose, or too formatted. Many musicians play songs where each member of the band gets a solo, rather than choosing specific songs where a given soloist may improvise better. When improvisation becomes the rule, yes, I think it’s boring.

3. Jazz stopped evolving.

That’s probably true. My jazz collection runs from the late 1940s to the 1970s, with a few exceptions (Bill Evans recordings through 1980, Brad Mehldau, through the present, some Pat Metheney, etc.)

Two terrible things happened in jazz: “free jazz,” where anything goes, and nothing sounds like music, and “smooth jazz,” which is elevator music with saxophones. There is a special circle of hell for people who play smooth jazz.

(I also avoid any group with the word “Project,” “Collective,” “Experiment,” or similar words. There’s something wrong with musicians who want such clinical names for their bands.)

If you check out new jazz releases, there’s not much going on that’s radically different from what was happening between, say, the 1950s and 1970s. Some jazz musicians are using electronic music, or copying it (such as Dawn of Midi, with their album Dysnomia). But, overall, jazz new releases mostly sound like they could be decades old. One could, of course, say the same about rock music; since the 1980s, not much has evolved, other than the use of electronics.

4. Jazz is mushy.

The author quotes Wynton Marsalis, who said “Too often, what is represented as jazz isn’t jazz at all.” True. But that’s not a problem with jazz, it’s problem with the way music is marketed. I think Wynton was referring to smooth jazz…

5. Jazz let itself be co-opted.

The author says “This music has retreated from the nightclub to the academy.” Perhaps, but I think there are still lots of jazz clubs out there. Yes, a lot of jazz musicians are playing concerts in concert halls, rather than clubs; because there’s a demand.

It’s hard to tell if this article was serious. In the beginning, the author writes, “this is not satire,” but in the comments, he claims that it is.

The piece above is a work of parody and was not meant to be taken seriously. My apologies to anyone who thought it was real.

But I think he raises valid points. I like jazz, and I don’t listen to much new jazz. Perhaps that’s because I’m still discovering all the “classic” jazz, but most of what I sample that’s recent just bores me, or sounds like pale imitations of the great jazz musicians of the past.

However, the click-bait nature of the article, and the claim, at the beginning, that it’s not satire, followed by his statements in the comments that it is satire, show very poor judgement on the part of the Washington Post’s editors.