On Jazz Nerds + Misc. Musings

About a month ago, I bumped into a friend whom I hadn't seen in quite a while. We were at a jazz venue in the Village and stayed until 2 a.m., after which we split to get falafel and head home. Talking about what we had seen that night (it was a jam session), my friend said something I thought was really interesting. He said, "You know, I didn't really enjoy that. I really got the sense of a jazz nerd vibe in there." It was late so I didn't bother to ask what he meant by "jazz nerd vibe," but I kept thinking about those words. Jazz nerd?

From what I gather, there was a bit of a controversy after this video was posted on YouTube two years ago: an explanation of what Jason Marsalis calls the "jazz nerd."

This excellent LATimes blog post clears up what Marsalis was getting at in the video. In Marsalis's own words, "JNA ['Jazz Nerds of America'] reduces music to as many complex notes as possible while ignoring the simple elements and history behind the notes. This kind of music will have audience members sitting on their hands suffering boredom." Essentially, the problem with JNA is that the proliferation of the jazz nerd attitude results in a disconnect between musicians and audience members: not only does the music suffer, but the audience members do—and, for Marsalis, the audience is as important a component of a successful performance as the technical achievement of the musicians. The source of this disconnect has to do with prioritizing formal aspects of the music—metric, harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic complexity—over the aspects of the music that Marsalis believes are more fundamental to the music: groove, danceability, entertainment, accessibility (to a certain extent).

I think it's a good thing for the music that this debate has passed on (and the twitter hashtag, too), and I don't mean to revive this as a topic of debate—it's a dead horse, clearly. But, I'm still curious about the idea of a "jazz nerd vibe." What does that mean? Intuitively, I felt I knew exactly what my friend was talking about, but had never taken the time to think about what it is exactly, how it's effected, and how to avoid giving off that vibe yourself.

I agree with Marsalis that the trend of the jazz nerd is related to the rise of institutionalized music education. Jason and his brothers were all musically educated on the post-secondary level—I mean, Branford, who went to Berklee, and his generation are guys who went through a similar kind of training as many young musicians today three decades later. But, there were definitely jazz nerds pre-Berklee and all of that; maybe jazz nerds didn't have the same tools we have now (e.g., jazz blogs like this one), but there were still the annoying people at shows who only talk about things like, "Have you checked out this cat _____? What??? He's so killing, you have to check him out; I can't believe you haven't. Have you checked out the record _______?, etc.

Other signs of the jazz nerd? Maybe the "jazz nerd whoop"—you know, when some plays a cool-sounding line like an ascending arpeggio like #4-5-1-3 up a few octaves really quickly a tritone away from the chord being played, and, all of a sudden, a bunch of unshaven, 20-something dudes go, "Woooo!" I noticed this (the coordinated whooping) as a trend in high school, and started doing it, too. I mean, it was a thing—how could I not and still feel like I fit in? I still do it, but I'm ambivalent about it: you should be able to express how music makes you feel at a live show—in the moment, and all that—but putting it on as an affectation so as to show off your own hipness (like what I used to/still do, sometimes) isn't cool. 

I think that's partially what my friend was unhappy about: younger musicians cheering on playing that might have been "killing" and harmonically/rhythmically hip and all that, but not necessarily grooving or having any true emotional meaning, i.e., not doing anything more than impressing you, rather than affecting you. A great quote from a story on Ambrose Akinmusire from Angelika Beener's Alternate Takes comes to mind: Ambrose says, "I try to surround myself with musicians who I feel challenged by as opposed to musicians who are just killing." 

Just killing, meaning that "being killing" isn't enough to be great, to be an artist, because there are plenty of musicians in the world who are absolutely, undeniably killing who aren't doing anything for the listener, the audience member who's paid a $20 cover plus a drink minimum to feel something, rather than be subjected to something, impressed by something. And so there's another one of those subtle points about music: killing ≠ musical, or meaningful, or artistic, or tasteful. Killing is just killing. (On a side note, is that where "Most Other People Do the Killing" gets their name? The notion of leaving the killing, murdering, and pillaging to other musicians so that they can work on making music that isn't just killing?)

Of course, great music need not necessarily be considered "easily accessible" or harmonically or technically dumbed down in any way, as Marsalis and others have pointed out. The point is that you've got to do the complex stuff for a reason—often historical, but also maybe out of a personal aesthetic and a sense of integrity to follow that aesthetic. So in a way, Marsalis's perspective on the whole jazz nerd situation is that art shouldn't exist necessarily for art's sake—art exists for people's sake, for humanity's sake. I'm completely lacking and unqualified in the Kant department regarding this topic (not to mention that it's been written about extensively for hundreds of years by brilliant scholars), but I think that if I want to be serious about making music, I should at least have a stand on this. I know most great musicians do; Jeff Coffin, for instance, once told me that "Music is a service industry"—you can never forget the audience. That's one perspective. 

Brad Mehldau has a slightly different perspective. Check out this clip from a documentary—on the topic of how Bird and Trane figure into jazz history, he says, "Maybe some people would say Charlie Parker was like that, but for me, I get that from Coltrane—they're saying two things at the same time that would seem not to go together. His music is saying 'Fuck you' to the audience, but in a really beautiful way. It's like, 'Fuck you. I love you. Now let play you some beautiful music."


Brad goes one to say, "There's this feeling that they're going to do whatever they want and assert their own will, and not worry about how it's being understood or whatever, but the beautiful thing is that it speaks to people." (around 4:40) Brad goes on to explain that the music succeeds because of historical awareness in the music and also strong technical proficiency—in Brad's words, the music is "grounded." Not so different from Jason Marsalis, then!

Some detractors might say that this perspective is just really pretentious and all sophist rhetoric, but I think there's something to the idea of "Fuck you. I love you." Maybe it's an attitudinal thing: the jazz nerd only has the "Fuck you" part—the "I love you" isn't quite there yet. Sometimes you have musicians that only have the "I love you," and you end up with something insipid and failing to communicate or emotionally affect because there's no edge, no artistic integrity or pursuit to create a dialogue between performer and listener.

Excuse all the digressions, but I think there's still one more thing about the jazz nerd vibe: the feeling that the music says it all, that the music is always, incontrovertibly first. This kind of gets back to the annoying crowd of people who only talk about jazz all the time. It's not that talking about jazz is intrinsically snobbish or whatever, at least in my opinion. It's just that it's boring if some people only talk about jazz all the time. This came to mind just as a wandering thought at the Jazz Gallery tonight, but I think there's an oblique but helpful analogy that can be made between jazz nerd/not jazz nerd and formalism/historicism in literary studies. 

I'm not an expert in jazz or literary studies, but a point one of my professors made last semester came to mind. In discussing one of the works in a great books class (maybe Dante's Inferno or Homer's The Odyssey), a question was posed by a student about the difference between "historicism" and "formalism," two looming, fancy-sounding terms that get thrown around a lot in English departments. Louis Menand gave what I thought was a crystal clear way of thinking about it, as another analogy. I'll do my best to reproduce it here:

Let's say we're talking about football instead of literature. A formalist would say, "This is what football is: football is all that is encompassed by the rules of the game, by the stats on the players and the teams, by everything that happens on the field." So, a formalist is focused on the technical stuff—that's what is important to understanding, analyzing, and appreciating football. 

A historicist would say, "But wait, that's not all football is! Football is the rules of the game and all of that, but it's also tailgating and mascots and halftime shows and Superbowl ads and all the stuff that comes to be intimately associated with football. That stuff outside of the game itself can be just as important to our understanding and appreciation of football; if you leave that all out, then you're really missing out on a lot." In literature, then, a formalist is focused on the text only so as to avoid being misguided by things outside the text? A historicist is checking out the text plus the social, historical, and cultural context to better understand what the text means.

So, I probably lean more towards the open historicist side of things: great jazz/contemporary improvised music isn't just what happens in the music itself—it's about the culture of jazz, it's about the venue, it's about the funny anecdotes that get passed around, etc. Maybe jazz schools focus too much on the technical and the formalist side of things in preparing students for a professional career (although that wouldn't be enough to make it!). Or, maybe students are too easily drawn to those formal aspects and not so much to the rest of the things that make jazz what it is—anecdotes, vibing, the hang.

To get back to my friend, I think he felt that people were missing out on the point of just being at the session: to make the hang and to be a part of the scene. Yes, it's totally cool to check out the music—that's the original reason to be there, of course—but that's not all there is.

Wayne Shorter to me seems like an example of a musician who clearly isn't a strict formalist—everything in life enters his music, from the sandwich he eats at lunch to the movie soundtracks he's listened to over the years to the brightness and colors of the lights on the stage that night. At the beginning of Banff, Vijay Iyer mentioned a documentary about Cecil Taylor, "Imagine the Sound," in which Taylor stresses the point that music should reflect everything you do. In particular, Taylor mentions a "fuschia-colored awning" that he sees at some point—even these minute details of the banal everyday relate to music. In the most extreme sense, the opposite of the formalist approach to music is that everything is music. Everything is music.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about an alien that I encountered on the L train returning from Brooklyn late one night. There has been a reported second sighting of said alien! Yes, my pal and drummer extraordinaire Francesco Alessi texted me a few nights ago to let me know that he believed he had evidence of extraterrestrial life in the subway.