15 December 2011

Most Jazz (and discourse about it) Sucks

An archetypal blogospheric kerfuffle has erupted over guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel's assertion that most jazz sucks. In the interest of sparing readers a linkfest, I'll simply tell you where I first read about it and assume that y'all are smart enough to follow the thread as far as you feel is worth your time. My comments follow below.

Does "most jazz suck?" The obvious explanations for the appearance of such a condition are no less relevant for being so obvious: there's more jazz now and more documentation of it, and we've never heard the mediocre players of the past because they've been forgotten. I will admit, though, that I've always felt jazz to be the most unforgiving kind of music I've been involved with. Anyone who sits through enough high school and college ensemble concerts comes to sense this over time. Perfunctory student performances of Holst and Grainger tend to be substantially more listenable than even relatively accomplished student renditions of any given Real Book tune. Most of the best student big bands I've heard tearing through some really hard arrangements don't have a single soloist who one could reasonably say is improvising on a level commensurate with their chops, and it usually is not close. In other words, jazz is not like sex, pizza and chocolate chip cookies, things which are said to be good even when they're bad. In fact, the opposite is true: good jazz can still be pretty bad, at least as I experience the world, which is why I agree with what Rosenwinkel said and don't see a hint of either hypocrisy or hyperbole in his doing so. I would freely grant that most of my performances and all of my records suck, that I'm in a near-constant state of personal crisis over this, and that I'm constantly seeking a way forward. I'll also say without hesitation that I frequently encounter self-important charlatans who are very comfortable with having achieved much less than I have, and I imagine that with KR being as accomplished as he is, those people are far more numerous in his life than in mine. It sounds to me like all he's asking for is humility and dedication; doesn't sound like much, but it is.

An aside on the use and value of blogging: by conventional wisdom, some of the highest-profile contributors to this brouhaha broke the cardinal rule of online conduct by writing things that they almost certainly would not have said to one another in person, or at least not verbatim. Anyone who's spent two seconds on the internet knows that it would indeed be a much kinder, gentler place if this rule was never broken, but at the same time, I can't shake the feeling that the way it emboldens people to let loose on each other is also one of its most useful features. Because of people's natural tendency to play nice in person, the potential for uproarious diatribes over issues like this really exists only online, ergo, insofar as these eruptions further the dialogue, the dehumanization of rhetorical opponents in each others' eyes could actually be seen as a valuable foil to polite set-break conversation, where little beyond mere diversion can be accomplished.

It may be duplicitous to shoot straight online while playing nice in person, but until each one of us truly becomes the straight-talking, tell-it-like-it-is, brutally honest person we all say we are, blog comment threads might remain the only way some of the most important issues get an honest treatment. Keep it about the topic at hand, but please don't keep it civil; we can always kiss each others' asses at the gig. And as is inevitably uttered once all hell has broken loose in one of these threads, shouldn't we all just go practice instead? Yes and no. Rosenwinkel's complaint about musicians not being all in enough of the time is just as relevant to our discourse as it is to our music-making. Paradoxically, the same faceless passive aggression which enables such great wastes of online time and energy may also be the most direct route to a more incisive dialogue than that which polite musical company typically permits.

1 comment:

freejazzlessons said...

Hi Stefan,
I agree with your interpretation of KR's comments. I think humility and dedication are wonderful and under used qualities. Thanks for your article and insight!