Monday, July 26, 2010


Marc Myers, with whom I was totally unfamiliar until just now, posted the following on his JazzWax blog over the weekend:

Can jazz survive Generation F? The "F" here stands for "flighty," and anyone who has watched people in their 20s listen to music today knows what I'm talking about. Songs in iTunes libraries and on iPods serve mostly as white noise for this demographic group. Music is what you put on while working, organizing photos on your computer, i-Chatting or texting...

But the way music is consumed today among young people doesn't bode well for jazz. In addition to treating music as sound rather than art, Generation F rarely listens to an entire track, let alone an entire album. The record industry has been grappling with this album problem since the arrival of the digital download. Buyers cherry pick what they want for 99 cents rather than purchase entire albums. Which means most personal iTunes libraries are vessels for thousands of individual songs. Melody fatigue sets in fast and fingers commonly click for the next song before a track is through...

Jazz is listening music. You need to pay attention and become absorbed by what the musicians are doing, how they're communicating and why what they're doing is special. Jazz has never been mass market music—it's not ideal for dancing, its melodies are complicated to listen to, and its history is too deep for a casual relationship. Now add a generation that hasn't been trained to concentrate on what they're listening to and it's hard to see how jazz will be perceived as meaningful going forward by a large percentage of this group.

First of all, people have been listening to individual songs for a lot longer than they've been listening to albums. The 78 rpm record had one song per side. So did the 45. Only with the advent of the 33 1/3 rpm LP in the mid-1950s did listening to an entire album become a common practice—because albums were specifically sold to consumers for that purpose. And throughout the early history of the LP, and all the way into the '80s, people still bought a whole fuckin' lot of singles. It's also worth noting that the formula for albums, until the mid '60s, was "hits and filler"—labels would put the band's big hit singles as the first track on each side, then fill up the rest with whatever other material was available.

Now let's walk through that third paragraph, which is what's really pissing me off at the moment.

• "Jazz is listening music." As opposed to music you taste, or smell.
• "You need to pay attention and become absorbed by what the musicians are doing, how they're communicating and why what they're doing is special." No, you "need" to respond any way the music induces you to respond. If the music makes you want to sit quietly in a chair, pipe to lips, and contemplate the specialness of the musicians' communication, super. If it makes you want to dance (the way Ornette Coleman or Thelonious Monk make me want to dance), that's fine, too. It's up to you how you respond. Which brings me to...
• "Jazz has never been mass market music..." Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and pretty much the whole swing era pantheon, and all those who came before them, would beg to differ.
• "it's not ideal for dancing..." See above.
• "its melodies are complicated to listen to..." Sometimes, but there are fistfuls of counterexamples, from Art Blakey's thick, bluesy grooves to Albert Ayler's melodies, which were practically nursery-rhyme simple. Hell, how about "A Love Supreme"? Can't get much more simple than four notes.
• "...and its history is too deep for a casual relationship." I could say the same about heavy metal. But I wouldn't, because I'm not a snobbish idiot. Music is music. Each work should be taken or left on its own merits. This is the single thing I hate most about jazz people—their fixation on the idea that jazz is a course of study, not a world of music there to be enjoyed. Not studied, though you can do that if you want to. Enjoyed. Jazz musicians, like all musicians, make music in the hope that it will give people pleasure, not in the hope that it will give people subjects for monographs and symposia decades later. This is why I say that if you want to convert a non-jazz listener into a jazz listener, don't say "You should listen to jazz." Instead, figure out what they already like, and say, "You should listen to [specific jazz album]."

It's a good thing Myers' complaining is mostly directed at people his own age or older. If people in their twenties read his whiny bullshit and reductive generalizations of their generation, they might wind up turned off to jazz, rather than mostly unaware of it, as they are now. (Here's a hint, Marc: most Americans, regardless of age, are pretty much unaware of jazz. Try making a positive contribution to the discussion next time, rather than griping pointlessly about "these kids today.")


floodwatch said...

Myers is adopting the same kind of snobbish mentality that pushed classical music to the fringes of popular obscurity years ago. It's just pathetic, really, and serves little purpose except to satisfy the same contingent of woe-is-me whiners who bitch and moan about "these kids today."

What these curmudgeons fail to realize is that young people are very impressionable, and use these initial impressions to form associations. If "jazz" is continually associated with "condescending, chin-stroking single white male in his 40s," can you blame them for steering clear of it?

I covered a fair amount of contemporary jazz on my blog while it was active, in addition to the variety of hip hop, metal, rock, and other random shit that I felt like giving some shine to. I remember I struggled with reining in any preachiness that might potentially come across in my jazz coverage for fear of setting off the hyper-sensitive "high and mighty" detectors of any outsiders. It didn't really work, unfortunately - my jazz posts received the least amount of comments and feedback. I tried to adopt a casual "good music is good music" mentality that was incredibly naive on my part, but I didn't know better at the time. Still, I received a few emails from people complaining that I should drop the "bullshit" and cover jazz exclusively. It was disheartening to see such a dividing line between jazz vs. everyone else.

Anyway, I'm rambling a bit now, but bottom line: I feel your retorts against this Myers fellow are spot-on and justified.

Steve Hicken said...

Agreed, Phil. Good response.

Jason Crane said...

Hi Phil,

Marc Myers is a good guy who really loves music and believes in helping it thrive and survive.

I think he's completely wrong in his analysis of "Generation F" and probably not very skillfull in his presentation of his case, either. But that's not because he's a bad person, he's a good person making a bad argument.

And your rebuttal is right on, where the underlying facts are concerned. Thanks for writing it.

All the best,

Jason Crane
The Jazz Session

Phil Freeman said...

floodwatch - What astonishes me is that jazz fans are often much more narrow-minded about what they'll listen to, and much more fervent about defending the borders of jazz, than jazz musicians are. Jazz musicians I've interviewed have expressed enthusiasm for everything from Notorious B.I.G. to Motörhead, but the genre's "fans" continue to insist that rock is nothing but vulgar trash.

Steve - Thanks for reading.

Jason - Yeah, I tried to stay away from personal assaults (though "snobbish idiot" slipped through) and just give his logic the bludgeoning it deserved. As I said up front, this was the first time I'd ever heard of the guy. And if he says something I agree with as strongly as I disagreed with this, I'll definitely point that out in equally strong language.

Fernando Ortiz de Urbina said...

I pretty much agree on Phil Freeman's points re: Myers' post. I think Myers is doing an important job giving exposure to a certain kind of jazz musician who tended to be overlooked, but in this case I think he got it wrong.

Regarding Freeman's points, I remembered an interview with Ben Young, whose work as a producer and tape researcher (especially for Verve/PolyGram in the nineties, or with the Holy Ghost set) is immaculate, where he says something about "jazz making you feel something" being what it makes it important.

Below are the links to the video interview. The bit I'm talking about is in the first video, from 3:49 onwards.

Ben Young I
Ben Young II
Ben Young's History of Jazz


Easy does it

Jyro said...

OH, YOU KRAZY KIDS: this from an old jazzer who knew it, blew it, and grew with it -- unlike most of you.

Point is, I believe Marc Myers has a pretty good handle on what has evolved in the state of recorded jazz and how it pertains to the music choices of today. Things have changed, which is only to be expected with all the technology made available over the past 40 years. While today's generation of 20-somethings have massive sound bytes at their listening disposal, they really only have time to skim. They’ll deny it of course, but they only have themselves to compare to when it comes to determining this generation’s listening habits, right? Perhaps too much of a good thing? For jazz fans, that which suffers the most because of these technical advances is the development of a new audience, one that accepts the necessity of focused attention in order to truly get the most from the art form. Unfortunately, a lot of us focused folks are dying off. But, as Marc also implies, jazz will never suffer from a dirt nap. There will always be an audience, just one that’s smaller and more selective than the main stream music buffs who think they know what makes jazz tick today.