The reasons most people seem to develop a variety of skin rashes and hostile reactions when the word jazz is uttered in conversation are simply too complex to summarize in one neat explanation. As a jazz fan and practitioner I’ve come to the point where jazz no longer feels like a musical style but rather an art form that gets my creative juices flowing. People embrace the medium that feels right for them. Poetry, pottery, ornithology…jazz. In my experience, it’s the only school that you want stay in after classes. And I’m talking metaphorically of course. It’s a very demanding school that makes you acutely aware of the plethoric possibilities of musical human expression and communication, regardless of genre. Sure there’s a rich and fascinating history of jazz and a very specific language I wont’ bother to delve into right now. Sure, there are accessibility and insularity issues involved that tend to turn off the layperson. But instead of listing the many reasons why jazz is not a popular “genre” I’d like to indulge myself and venture a little crazy theory that popped into my head today.
So I got to thinking… Classical musicians must conform to a strict suit-and-tie code when performing in the straight-laced ambiance of the concert hall. Rockers arguably care as much about the music they’re offering to their audience as about how they’re dressed to perform it on stage. Every band has a well-honed sartorial style tied to the kind of music they play. Imagine the Ramones with crew cuts and baggy multi-colored pants? No. But I’ve noticed something about some jazz people these days. It’s not across the board but still. Except when performing at certain uptight concert venues, they don’t seem to care much about their looks. Back in the 60s though, watch any performance by Miles, Monk, Coltrane, you name it, they’re all wearing suits. You had to dress sharp. Jump ahead to the 70s, and guys have curling mustaches, gaudy Hawaiian shirts or even in certain extreme cases wife-beaters and terrible mullet hair! I was watching a YouTube video of a musician I like the other day, performing at some Summer festival in Italy, wearing open-toed sandals and shorts. I know it’s hot and you want to be comfortable but man, you DO NOT wear sandals and shorts when performing music of that caliber! It’s about the visual element. Regrettably, humans see you before they hear you. I’m not one to put clothes before musical content but you have to admit there are some lines that can’t be crossed if you want to be taken seriously!
Eureka! All my previous hypotheses went down the drain: It’s not the endless soloing, it’s not the mass culture stereotype, it’s not the fact that jazz musicians tend to keep their eyes closed when playing – a disturbing distraction to some people struggling with insomnia – it’s not the rhythmic convolutions and showy odd-meter shenanigans ( That’s cool man but what’s the point of playing the song in 11/4 if you already know it in 4/4), it’s not the sax-heavy instrumentation prevalent in the music and that some consider as jarring as a dentist drill mistakenly lodged in their ears, it’s not that jazz is too intense a style and people live way too stressful lives to take it all in and that they need easy stuff they can just forget about their miserable existence to, it’s not that jazz is mostly an instrumental music and people need vocals in their music, and relatedly, it’s not that the melody of jazz songs is often just weird and a lame excuse for pointless navel-gazing improvisation, it’s not that people are ignorant consumers of pop culture ill-equipped to appreciate genuine art, it’s not that jazz people tend to have obscure debates such as was Philly Joe Jones’s beat the right call for Bill Evans in the 70s or is Wynton Marsalis detrimental or beneficial to the appeal of jazz to young audiences, or did Ornette ever play the changes in his music, it’s not that jazz sold out to academia and abandoned its seedy after-hours club origins, spawning new hordes of virtuosic musicians that only get the good gigs with jazz forebears that could be their grandfathers and so they are virtually unknown to people under 60, etc.
No. The real reason why people have an issue with jazz is because frankly, jazz musicians’ clothes really SUCK! Come on guys, you need to dress up your act here. I know even your heroes also have their weak moments and walk on stage with matted greasy hair and mismatched tennis socks. But that’s a bad example. Have a little respect for the countless hours you spend working on your instrument and getting your chops together alongside your peers. Is it because you’re disillusioned about your craft in the digital age and fail to squeeze your way into the throng because you hate Facebook and won’t have your face Photoshoped into a business card on your musician website? If you want to make a dent out there, at least put a decent shirt on and lose the overgrown kid outfit.
At the end of the day, I doubt jazz needs to be saved or rescued from anything. It’s actually gotten more exposure with the new media boom of the last decade. Of course I’m just having fun with this silly theory, but I do feel that even the most serious music is good when humor and lightness are part of it.