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.

22 thoughts on “Is Jazz Boring?

  1. Good post. I agree with most points you make. But the main reason I am commenting is to support your statement:
    “There is a special circle of hell for people who play smooth jazz.” 🙂

  2. Good post. I agree with most points you make. But the main reason I am commenting is to support your statement:
    “There is a special circle of hell for people who play smooth jazz.” 🙂

  3. This is crazy, what about the ECM catalogue – they have some fantastic new artists on there, both European and American alongside the old giants like Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Jarrett. Jan Garbarek etc
    Personally I find jazz much more interesting from the 70’s onwards, Pat Metheny Group, Weather Report, Jaco Pastorius, Eberhard Weber, Mark Isham, Art Lande, they were all ground breaking and now I would trust Manfred Eicher of ECM, I love the recent ECM stuff as much as the music from the 80’s and 90’s that were on that label.

    This is an interesting read if you have not ever seen this – Pat Metheny on Kenny G

    http://www.jazzoasis.com/methenyonkennyg.htm

    Good discussion anyway, cant reply longer as at work on lunch.

  4. This is crazy, what about the ECM catalogue – they have some fantastic new artists on there, both European and American alongside the old giants like Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Jarrett. Jan Garbarek etc
    Personally I find jazz much more interesting from the 70’s onwards, Pat Metheny Group, Weather Report, Jaco Pastorius, Eberhard Weber, Mark Isham, Art Lande, they were all ground breaking and now I would trust Manfred Eicher of ECM, I love the recent ECM stuff as much as the music from the 80’s and 90’s that were on that label.

    This is an interesting read if you have not ever seen this – Pat Metheny on Kenny G

    http://www.jazzoasis.com/methenyonkennyg.htm

    Good discussion anyway, cant reply longer as at work on lunch.

  5. Good point about ECM, but it’s also fair to say that there’s an “ECM sound,” which, itself, has stagnated. Though they do keep putting out some stuff that goes beyond the traditional borders, including in classical music.

    Awesome article by Metheney…

  6. Good point about ECM, but it’s also fair to say that there’s an “ECM sound,” which, itself, has stagnated. Though they do keep putting out some stuff that goes beyond the traditional borders, including in classical music.

    Awesome article by Metheney…

  7. A cookie for you for the smooth jazz circle in hell. But only one, ’cuz even that special circle is still too good for it… 😉

    You really should listen to some contemporary & free Jazz, there is lots of very good stuff out there. Here is one for you: Keith Tippett & Giovanni Maier, Two for Joyce (Live in Trieste) (it is on iTunes). I might agree with that WaPo author (and you) if you are stuck with the Winton Marsalis School of Jazz: highly boring and scelorisified. There is indeed “a” Jazz scene that is stuck in time and formalised, particularly in the US (and Japan). One could make the same points about pop, rock music, or flamenco, etc though. And don’t get me started about “classic” music.

    If you have some time too read, issue 8 of Sound American has some good stuff to chew on (long read):
    http://soundamerican.org/sa-issue-8-what-is-jazz and http://soundamerican.org/sa-issue-8-the-interviews

    • I did mention that, in rock, things are similar. I’m sure it’s the case in a lot of genres, but pop still sounds fresh, whereas jazz that emulates the 50s and 60s sounds like it’s emulating the past.

  8. A cookie for you for the smooth jazz circle in hell. But only one, ’cuz even that special circle is still too good for it… 😉

    You really should listen to some contemporary & free Jazz, there is lots of very good stuff out there. Here is one for you: Keith Tippett & Giovanni Maier, Two for Joyce (Live in Trieste) (it is on iTunes). I might agree with that WaPo author (and you) if you are stuck with the Winton Marsalis School of Jazz: highly boring and scelorisified. There is indeed “a” Jazz scene that is stuck in time and formalised, particularly in the US (and Japan). One could make the same points about pop, rock music, or flamenco, etc though. And don’t get me started about “classic” music.

    If you have some time too read, issue 8 of Sound American has some good stuff to chew on (long read):
    http://soundamerican.org/sa-issue-8-what-is-jazz and http://soundamerican.org/sa-issue-8-the-interviews

    • I did mention that, in rock, things are similar. I’m sure it’s the case in a lot of genres, but pop still sounds fresh, whereas jazz that emulates the 50s and 60s sounds like it’s emulating the past.

  9. Well, jazz is my home music; it’s what I turn to when nothing else works. It has sustained me for a long time, and I’m a pretty serious listener, with a fair knowledge (for a non-player) of the various genres, movements, arguments inside the music.

    And my answer to the question “Is jazz boring?” would be…uh, sure, probably more than a lot of folks would like to admit.

    Sometimes, of course, any music can strike you as boring. You put on a cd and you’re up 30 seconds or two minutes or 10 later because it’s driving you crazy. For me, I find most of the time that happens – thankfully it’s rare – nothing will sound good to me, even, or maybe especially, the music I like most. Dylan? Nope. Ellington? Off it goes. It’s a weird, itchy feeling and the only thing I’ve ever been able to do is shut up and let it pass, usually in silence.

    So discount those moments, which are really more about the listener than the music, and consider the times when the music itself, considered fairly, just…doesn’t work. And this is something jazz is particularly susceptible to because it’s an improvised music. Jazz musicians don’t just wing it, of course; they build up phrases and ranges they like, they tend to go at a given song in the same general way over and over unless they make a conscious decision to break with what they’ve done, they acquire habits and sounds. So it’s almost never pure improvisation, but there comes a point where most jazz musicians will take a step or two or more past or around or over or through what they’ve already played, to try to get to something new.

    And there’s a bunch of them doing this at once. When it works, I have this feeling of having listened in on, felt, a kind of conversation, where deep, hard-to-put-into-words feelings are out on the table, where great, one-of-a-kind ideas bob up and disappear. It feels like possibilities.

    That’s a lot of weight for a musician, even a really good one, to carry. So a lot of conversations start out promising but then kind of peter out, or the talk falls back on old arguments, which you’ve heard better a lot of other times. And then, the music can get boring.

    Here’s what I don’t think is boring:

    – I don’t think working in an established genre is boring. Somebody makes a cool jazz or bebop record in 2014, as long as they’re telling their own story, no worries. Look: we don’t stop reading novels, including new ones, just because the form in its various guises is well understood. We look for individuals with something to say. Jazz is the same way.

    – Free jazz isn’t boring, and it isn’t noise. Well, some of it is and is, but the majority isn’t, though acquiring a taste for it is a little like learning to drink scotch. You have a “what is this s**t” moment or ten, and then you pass through it, and it comes to occupy a place in your head that nothing else can fill. There are times when nothing else will do except Cecil Taylor, and there is scant little music, jazz or otherwise, I can say that about.

    – For a music that is more obviously about form than most, it can also be nakedly emotional. There is a yearning quality to good/great jazz that saves it from being merely pretty, merely precious, merely something to think about or talk about.

    I’m not quite so much an ECM fan, or a jazz + something else fan; they both strike me as gilding the lilly, though some of it’s interesting, I’ll grant.

    Anyway, I’ve written way too much, but to circle around to the question one more time: is jazz boring? A: Depends on what you’re after.

    s.

  10. Well, jazz is my home music; it’s what I turn to when nothing else works. It has sustained me for a long time, and I’m a pretty serious listener, with a fair knowledge (for a non-player) of the various genres, movements, arguments inside the music.

    And my answer to the question “Is jazz boring?” would be…uh, sure, probably more than a lot of folks would like to admit.

    Sometimes, of course, any music can strike you as boring. You put on a cd and you’re up 30 seconds or two minutes or 10 later because it’s driving you crazy. For me, I find most of the time that happens – thankfully it’s rare – nothing will sound good to me, even, or maybe especially, the music I like most. Dylan? Nope. Ellington? Off it goes. It’s a weird, itchy feeling and the only thing I’ve ever been able to do is shut up and let it pass, usually in silence.

    So discount those moments, which are really more about the listener than the music, and consider the times when the music itself, considered fairly, just…doesn’t work. And this is something jazz is particularly susceptible to because it’s an improvised music. Jazz musicians don’t just wing it, of course; they build up phrases and ranges they like, they tend to go at a given song in the same general way over and over unless they make a conscious decision to break with what they’ve done, they acquire habits and sounds. So it’s almost never pure improvisation, but there comes a point where most jazz musicians will take a step or two or more past or around or over or through what they’ve already played, to try to get to something new.

    And there’s a bunch of them doing this at once. When it works, I have this feeling of having listened in on, felt, a kind of conversation, where deep, hard-to-put-into-words feelings are out on the table, where great, one-of-a-kind ideas bob up and disappear. It feels like possibilities.

    That’s a lot of weight for a musician, even a really good one, to carry. So a lot of conversations start out promising but then kind of peter out, or the talk falls back on old arguments, which you’ve heard better a lot of other times. And then, the music can get boring.

    Here’s what I don’t think is boring:

    – I don’t think working in an established genre is boring. Somebody makes a cool jazz or bebop record in 2014, as long as they’re telling their own story, no worries. Look: we don’t stop reading novels, including new ones, just because the form in its various guises is well understood. We look for individuals with something to say. Jazz is the same way.

    – Free jazz isn’t boring, and it isn’t noise. Well, some of it is and is, but the majority isn’t, though acquiring a taste for it is a little like learning to drink scotch. You have a “what is this s**t” moment or ten, and then you pass through it, and it comes to occupy a place in your head that nothing else can fill. There are times when nothing else will do except Cecil Taylor, and there is scant little music, jazz or otherwise, I can say that about.

    – For a music that is more obviously about form than most, it can also be nakedly emotional. There is a yearning quality to good/great jazz that saves it from being merely pretty, merely precious, merely something to think about or talk about.

    I’m not quite so much an ECM fan, or a jazz + something else fan; they both strike me as gilding the lilly, though some of it’s interesting, I’ll grant.

    Anyway, I’ve written way too much, but to circle around to the question one more time: is jazz boring? A: Depends on what you’re after.

    s.

  11. About the evolution of music: I believe that part of the appeal of music is that small amounts of variation are usually enough to keep listeners interested. (Gary Marcus, a cognitive scientist who is also an amateur musician – see his fascinating and amusing book “Guitar Zero” for an account of his experiences learning guitar – makes this point.) So I’m always kind of puzzled with the “jazz hasn’t evolved”, “rock hasn’t evolved”, etc comments. There are still people making vital and new rock (e.g. Jack White), but it’s not that far removed from the so-called heyday of the ’60s and ’70s.

    I think there is also a selection bias at work: from the standpoint of 20, 30, or even more years, without realizing it we sweep the drek into the memory hole and only recall the good; or we lump all of the bad together as an aberration – e.g., the “disco era”. If you look at the top 40 charts across the decades, you’ll find that Sturgeon’s Law has never been repealed.

    Second your comments about improvisation. Good improvisation has a meaningful trajectory; this has been the most difficult lesson in my travails learning to play guitar.

  12. About the evolution of music: I believe that part of the appeal of music is that small amounts of variation are usually enough to keep listeners interested. (Gary Marcus, a cognitive scientist who is also an amateur musician – see his fascinating and amusing book “Guitar Zero” for an account of his experiences learning guitar – makes this point.) So I’m always kind of puzzled with the “jazz hasn’t evolved”, “rock hasn’t evolved”, etc comments. There are still people making vital and new rock (e.g. Jack White), but it’s not that far removed from the so-called heyday of the ’60s and ’70s.

    I think there is also a selection bias at work: from the standpoint of 20, 30, or even more years, without realizing it we sweep the drek into the memory hole and only recall the good; or we lump all of the bad together as an aberration – e.g., the “disco era”. If you look at the top 40 charts across the decades, you’ll find that Sturgeon’s Law has never been repealed.

    Second your comments about improvisation. Good improvisation has a meaningful trajectory; this has been the most difficult lesson in my travails learning to play guitar.

  13. 3) Jazz stopped evolving…

    Nah…When you listen to bands like ‘Esperanza Spalding’ and ‘Snarky Puppy’ and ‘Hiromi Uehara’ they address not just statement No3 but all of the above statements.
    I mean maybe we could argue ‘Snarky puppy’ are not Jazz but then what is jazz? please define it!

  14. 3) Jazz stopped evolving…

    Nah…When you listen to bands like ‘Esperanza Spalding’ and ‘Snarky Puppy’ and ‘Hiromi Uehara’ they address not just statement No3 but all of the above statements.
    I mean maybe we could argue ‘Snarky puppy’ are not Jazz but then what is jazz? please define it!

  15. Educators teach classical and Jazz Harmony! they don’t teach Rock and Pop or at least not to any serious developing musician.

    That’s not to say there are not some truly great rock and pop artists, but when rock and pop runs out of ideas it has to look somewhere for inspiration.
    Where do some of our great rock and pop musicians find this inspiration?
    Answer = in some of our great pioneering and well educated jazz musicians!
    How do I know this?
    Because some of the greats like Prince are FULLY aware of what is going on, and what is ‘FRESH’ which is why he has guest appearances by jazz artists like ‘Esperanza Spalding’

  16. Educators teach classical and Jazz Harmony! they don’t teach Rock and Pop or at least not to any serious developing musician.

    That’s not to say there are not some truly great rock and pop artists, but when rock and pop runs out of ideas it has to look somewhere for inspiration.
    Where do some of our great rock and pop musicians find this inspiration?
    Answer = in some of our great pioneering and well educated jazz musicians!
    How do I know this?
    Because some of the greats like Prince are FULLY aware of what is going on, and what is ‘FRESH’ which is why he has guest appearances by jazz artists like ‘Esperanza Spalding’

  17. Probably Jazz is boring to someone who doesn’t know what to listen for. Psychological studies have shown that we want to be able to anticipate what we hear 50 percent of the time. If we are able to guess what is going to happen much more often than that, then the music is boring (which is why I don’t like most pop.) Also, if the percentage of time we can anticipate what is coming next is much less than 50 percent, we find that boring as well. That is probably why many people are bored with free jazz. But to someone who speaks the language (and make no mistake, jazz improvisation is a language) it is easier to follow what is going on. For this reason, I can listen to free jazz and like it more than when I knew less jazz. Ornette Coleman uses the language of Charlie Parker in a new harmonic and structural context, so if you have listened to Charlie Parker you are more likely to like Ornette Coleman. Similarly, late Coltrane is hard for many people to listen to, but less so for those who have followed Coltrane’s whole career. A similar issue is in play for those who prefer Miles Davis’ early career to his later one, or vice versa. Probably the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is in effect… if we know exactly where a musician is in an improv solo we don’t know much about where he is going, but if we know where he is going, we may not really be tuned in to the moment as well. So our own involvement in the listening process is what keeps the music from being boring. This does not relieve the performer of the responsibility to create something new and interesting, but it also puts the discussion in the proper context of a system that includes both the improvisor and the listener. If the listener makes no attempt to learn the language, then everything is boring, like listening to a language you do not understand. I hope that clarifies things somewhat.

  18. Probably Jazz is boring to someone who doesn’t know what to listen for. Psychological studies have shown that we want to be able to anticipate what we hear 50 percent of the time. If we are able to guess what is going to happen much more often than that, then the music is boring (which is why I don’t like most pop.) Also, if the percentage of time we can anticipate what is coming next is much less than 50 percent, we find that boring as well. That is probably why many people are bored with free jazz. But to someone who speaks the language (and make no mistake, jazz improvisation is a language) it is easier to follow what is going on. For this reason, I can listen to free jazz and like it more than when I knew less jazz. Ornette Coleman uses the language of Charlie Parker in a new harmonic and structural context, so if you have listened to Charlie Parker you are more likely to like Ornette Coleman. Similarly, late Coltrane is hard for many people to listen to, but less so for those who have followed Coltrane’s whole career. A similar issue is in play for those who prefer Miles Davis’ early career to his later one, or vice versa. Probably the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is in effect… if we know exactly where a musician is in an improv solo we don’t know much about where he is going, but if we know where he is going, we may not really be tuned in to the moment as well. So our own involvement in the listening process is what keeps the music from being boring. This does not relieve the performer of the responsibility to create something new and interesting, but it also puts the discussion in the proper context of a system that includes both the improvisor and the listener. If the listener makes no attempt to learn the language, then everything is boring, like listening to a language you do not understand. I hope that clarifies things somewhat.

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