Friday, January 21, 2005


How to be a jazz snob

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I hope that you have all rested up after last week's class on lip-curling and eye-rolling. (Remember: The curl should not be rushed, and the eye-roll should be counter-clockwise.) This week's reading is Francis Davis' "X Jazz" in the latest Atlantic Monthly. Here Davis wonderfully demonstrates some rules of thumb for beginning jazz snobs like yourselves. For this lecture, I'll be turning my back to you, which will demonstrate another key tool of jazz snobbery, pioneered by that other Davis.

1. Always appear irritated when someone who doesn't know better asks you for jazz recommendations. When this happens, perhaps at a party, it's a good time to bring out those lip-curls and eye-rolls. Try to affect an air of: "Where would I even begin with you?" And always assume the questioners are only asking because they want to be as cool as you are. It's best to start your answer off with some obscure reference to names having to do with jazz (best to use only the first name or the last name). You want to set boundaries right away: you are the jazz snob, they are the wanna-bes. Observe:
I think of Donald Barthelme's short story "The King of Jazz" whenever I'm at a party and people at a loss for appropriate small talk after I've said I write about jazz ask me to name a good place in town to hear some. [Insert eye-roll here.] They want me to point them to a hangout like the one that Hokie Mokie, Barthelme's king of jazz, strolls into after inheriting the crown from the deceased Spicy MacLammermoor--"Hi Bucky! Hi Zoot! Hi Freddie! Hi Thad! Hi Roy! Hi Dexter! Hi Jo! Hi Willie! Hi Greens!" A hangout with all the giants on the bandstand or at the bar, being fawned over by an audience for whom the music is incidental to the satisfaction of not being square.
2. When your inquiring outsider appears disappointed that you have not given them a straight answer about a good jazz place to visit, or a good jazz musician to hear, make clear that this is not because you don't deserve the "king of jazz" crown. The king is only dead, remember, because jazz is dying. That's the thing you need to emphasize as quickly as possible. The weight of the jazz world is on your shoulders: you can't be bothered by pesky questions from wanna-be hipsters. Make clear that there is a whole universe of jazz debate and insider knowledge and personal angst that they can only glimpse. Observe:
In reality, it's been two full generations since being a jazz insider was taken as proof of being hip, and almost as long since jazz fans or musicians agreed on such basic issues as what jazz is and who the legitimate heirs of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane are. [You can switch to using full names for the purpose of showing the wanna-bes that the only names they recognize are dead. Now we need heirs.] The problem with wanting to dig the scene is that there isn't a scene anymore--not one that could live up to the fanciful expectations [excellent phrase, class: remember, jazz snobs are members of the reality-based community now] of the people I politely excuse myself from at parties, by that point not merely pretending to need another drink.
3. You might think that Tip #2 should be the end of this lecture. If there is no jazz scene, if jazz is dead, what are we doing here trying to learn how to be jazz snobs? I'll let you in on a little secret only jazz snobs know. Jazz is not dead, it's just underground. That's right, buried alive. That's how you can consistently declare the scene to be gone and yet move on to demonstrate that you alone know where the scene is. It's sort of like a Greek mystery religion. Observe:
What jazz does offer today, along with a bewildering profusion of sub-genres and hybrids, is vest-pocket scenes, the most vital of which is the most marginalized [see! the alive is dead, the dead is alive; the "vital" is "marginalized"]--banished to the furthest reaches of bohemia in its home base of New York City, and documented chiefly on musicians' vanity labels and small labels here and abroad.
4. Inevitably, your wanna-be friends will want to know how this happened. One word: fusion. It was not the fault of avant-garde jazz artists that younger audiences began leaving jazz in the 1960s. That would be like saying it was your fault, the jazz snob's fault. Notice how I'm curling my lip. No, the answer is fusion. Jazz sold out. Observe:
The latter-day free-jazz scene of which Shipp is a part--along with Parker, Brown, Ware, the drummer Susie Ibarra, and the saxophonists Rob Brown, Daniel Carter, Charles Gayle, and Assif Tsahar, among others--is the only one in jazz right now with younger faces noticeably represented in the audience. I don't mean young, mind you; that would be hoping for too much. [Underline that last sentence in your textbooks, class.] I mean people a decade or two younger than Baby Boomers like Steve Dalachinsky and me. [You are dying breed, fellow jazz snobs. Make that clear. Repeat after me: "I am the last of the Bohemians."]

Free jazz was wrongly blamed for chasing people away in the late 1960s, around the time that the graying of the jazz audience first became a grave concern. The truth was more complicated. By then soul music and psychedelic rock not only had achieved greater popularity than jazz ever dared to hope for but also, in some odd way, had eliminated any need for it. No longer greasy kid stuff, pop suddenly offered simplified [key word: fans of pop music are always "simple," and I mean that in the snobbiest of ways] and easier-to-find versions of everything that had once drawn certain kinds of listeners to jazz: its own Charlie Parker and John Coltrane in Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, its own Stan Kenton in Frank Zappa, its own wigged-out Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra in Captain Beefheart and George Clinton. ...

Jazz survived despite all of this, but just barely. It joined classical music as one of those fine arts that people pay lip service to out of guilt but shy away from out of fear they might be too difficult. [Nice shout-out to our fellow classical music snobs.]
"Just barely" survived. That's the key. It's not dark yet, but it's getting there. This makes you, the jazz snob, like Saint Denis. According to legend, "after his head was chopped off, St Denis picked it up and walked several miles, all the time preaching a sermon." That's you! It's like you've had your head chopped off by Jimi Hendrix's axe, but you still manage to stumble across the Brooklyn Bridge and walk down to the Vanguard every week, head in hand. Remember the point I made in my second lecture: only a few letters separate saintliness from snobiness.

5. Saint Denis preached a sermon, so to conclude, make sure that you keep preaching. The best sermon is one that makes sweeping generalizations about how jazz might be saved. For instance, you've noticed that there are some younger faces (not too young) at a jazz venue. There's a mystery to it, I know. But you need an answer for this. Here's how to come up with one: What do you know about young people these days? Have an answer in your head? Great! That's what you can use to explain their inexplicable attraction to jazz! You may be worried that the only thing that popped in your head was the only thing you know about young people these days. That's okay. If you say something absurd about youth culture, this will only reinforce your standing as a jazz snob--aloof, saintly, perpetually crucified. Observe:
Today's youth culture is a body culture, and both Shipp's music and free jazz as a whole are far too cerebral ever to become a significant part of it. [Hopefully by now you know which words to underline without me telling you.] Even so, I suspect that in listening to free jazz, many intellectually curious younger people vicariously experience [remember: they can only like jazz vicariously; you're the one on the cross] a thrill similar to the one experienced by participants in skateboarding, motorcross, BMX, and the sports featured at the annual X (for "extreme") Games. ... A good name for what Shipp and his fellow revivalists are up to might be "X Jazz"--even when it's acoustic, it's amped. [If you want, you can throw in some other words here like "bodacious," "radical" and "gnarly," just to get you some "younger people" cachet.]
Well, folks, that concludes this week's class. Be sure to study up for next week's quiz on "inside jokes." Have a gloomy Sunday.

Collective Improvisation:
That was so Fafblog.  

Posted by Jason Kuznicki

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/21/2005 10:11:00 AM : Permalink  

How to be an anti-jazz snob:

1. When you get home from work, set your bag down and then say "Could you turn that down please?" It is important, when saying that, to sound slightly annoyed, but like you are TRYING not to be annoyed. That way it sounds like you are really doing all the giving here, simply be being in the presence of jazz.

2. Compare annoying people to a "squealy saxaphone." 

Posted by Abigail

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/21/2005 04:28:00 PM : Permalink  

Opps! Perhaps I should try the preview button next time I comment. In addition to the minor spelling error (be should be by) I actually typed my blog URL in wrong. This link is the corrent one. 

Posted by Abigail

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 1/21/2005 04:51:00 PM : Permalink  

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