Combating Stereotypes: Can Jazz Get Back On Top?

I was recently speaking with one of my professors about a recent performance Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman did at The New School last week. After asking him what he thought he replied, “I thought it was the most bad-ass display of cocktail jazz I’ve ever seen.” Interesting, I thought. At that moment I had trouble thinking of an argument to it. In a lot of ways what he said was true. This music they presented could be pared down to cocktail music in its simplest form. So… I kept quiet. I laughed. I let it all go by. What my professor said ran deep though. That exchange we had kept coming back to the front of my mind over the course of the next few days. “What isn’t cocktail jazz?” I pondered. Answers aren’t easy to find.

My mind naturally compared other artists to the Mehldau/Redman performance. With this, even the greatest of the greats could be denoted to “cocktail jazz” by the unappreciative listener. BOOM. That was it. That word. Unappreciative listener.

Who nowadays appreciates jazz? It’s hard to tell. All we really know is that the number is small and it seems to be getting smaller. I can give you the whole spiel about how jazz has been called a musician’s music and all that, but in essence the people who like jazz aren’t exclusively musicians and we all know that. It just so happens that being a musician within the idiom strengthens that connection of appreciation and makes it much thicker, much deeper. I honestly believe any kind of music, whether it be Jazz, North Indian, or Argentinian, all has the capacity to touch someone if presented in the right fashion. Maybe that’s what the jazz community has never seemed to be able to do in a big way.

Let’s go back and look at the Mehldau/Redman performance and try looking at it from the point of view of someone who hasn’t explored the genre. The people who, in essence, should be our “target audience.” Maybe this can help us understand where our music is losing its attention with the general public. So, the 18-35 year old male/female comes and sits down and gets cozy in the space. At this point there is already a load of misunderstanding about what jazz is, where it’s been, and where it’s heading, etc (you can’t blame this hypothetical listener). All this person knows is that Brad Mehldau has some cool Radiohead covers that their music major friend showed him/her, and s/he genuinely enjoyed the rendition (Sorry for being offensively blunt, Brad). So now for the live performance. When the duo play, the listener is enjoying the solos but is mostly lost throughout the whole performance. Perhaps hearing some of the melodies they might have heard on the album they listened to on Spotify or iTunes before coming, but again, winding up lost as soon as another obscure standard comes and goes. In essence that listener leaves being amazed at the virtuosity of the two performers, but ultimately feeling just as confused about what jazz music is all about as they were before s/he came. Appreciation never comes because there was never anything familiar, and almost never will be. That isn’t the fault of the listener though. It is the fault of the performer and composer.

Look at what Bon Iver, Radiohead, Erykah Badu, and Sufjan Stevens do when they perform. They give you such a clear framework for their music and their concepts. So much so, you want to get more of it even though most songs do sound a lot alike. Then, you go to their live shows and you leave completely 100% satisfied and blown away at the performance because they not only gave you those recorded tunes on a silver platter but they drizzled it with actions, light shows, and so much more. The musical virtuosity is not at all on the same level as many of the jazz greats, but they do a hell of a job packaging themselves and convincing the audience it is. Purely and simply, they demand the appreciation of their listeners. With the Mehldau/Redman duo and most other jazz musicians of our time, I don’t envision the performers demanding the appreciation of anyone but themselves and other musicians around town. The target audience is insanely narrow. This is where the connection of the musicians’ music comes back, and it’s unfortunate to have to be associated with that label. I think jazz has an incredible amount of potential to come back in a big way. It has touched me, and I know the power that it can give to people who appreciate it. It’s a powerful music! The first thing that artists of our time just need to understand is that people need the familiar, the near tangible. They need the gimmick. I feel we can keep the solos, keep what makes jazz music jazz, but maybe if we were to give it a different package, the world would look at it again and take a serious interest in its developments. The world is officially tired of hearing about how our art is unappreciated. The community needs to redeem itself and has to work together to overcome that stereotype of cocktail jazz. My intent for of this introspective piece is to hopefully inspire those who wish to bring our music back the the forefront of its own society. Jazz is America’s music after all.

Best of luck on all of your musical journeys artists and listeners.