#jazzBuzzFeed and the Jazz Internet

Jazz BuzzFeed Logo
Is this the future of jazz on the internet?
A professor once gave me an invaluable piece of advice about how to approach online writing. He said, "Just write as though you're writing an email to a friend." 

This email mentality reminded me that I didn't have to treat blogging and other online writing in any special way. Instead, all I had to do was adapt another register of writing I was already familiar with: the personal email, a.k.a., business email's chattier cousin and the distant, less pretentious relation of the academic essay. Simply being aware that someone else was reading at the other end of the screen—someone I was trying not to bore—made a huge difference. 

Looking back on my conversations with the professor, though, one comment now seems questionable: "In general, people like making lists more than they like reading them."

He must have at the time been referring to the old-fashioned list, a series of items separated by commas (serial/Oxford comma optional, depending on your style guide), which drags along across the page and in larger quantities tends to induce skimming. But he probably wasn't thinking of the "listicle"*.

For a while, jazz managed to steer relatively clear of listicle-mania and the entire millennial digital ethos surrounding it. This has been the case in a number of departments, not just in online criticism—which has tended to be questionable more often than not, anyway—but also web design (D______ Portals, anyone?) and graphic design in general (which would you prefer to hang on your wall: a '60s Blue Note album cover or a '90s-'00s SteepleChase album cover?).
"50 Living Sax Players You Need To Check Out. Right Now" Jazz Clickbait, ca. 2015
Right now.
In the past year, however, I've noticed that millennial-stamped clickbaiting is bubbling up all around the jazz interweb, with last month's "50 Living Sax Players You Need to Check Out. Right Now" as a recent example. Despite this particular article's inevitable omissions (Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Braxton, Tim Berne, and so on) and the shallow commentary ("Digging what Dayna has been throwing out recently," "a modern voice and a quiet storm," "...an interesting, angular take on modern jazz," etc.), I can't simply dismiss the parent genre it descends from out of hand, because it reminded me that the old saw is kind of true: 

All press is good press—and jazz ca. 2015 really needs it.

The amount of music out there today that's creative, passionate, inspired, and worthy of our precious time—yes, "worthy," as unfortunately practical as that sounds—is endless, but negotiably so. If listicles like these will get more people hip to pianist Nick Sanders's refreshingly not-afraid-to-fail trio music, or saxophonist Mario Castro's heart-on-sleeve d├ębut with stringsor Radhika Philip's modern-day Notes & Tonesor Mike Reed and Jason Adasiewicz's Sun Ra archival experiment in Chicago, how can I not be all for it?

You don't have to look far to find musicians opining the lack of casual listeners, e.g. after 20 seconds of scrolling through my Twitter feed the other day:
Listicles and clickbait are digital lingua franca for millennials and soon-to-be post-millennials.** Maybe their infiltration into the world of jazz is just a sign of the times—that jazz is adapting to a BuzzFed world, that jazz is becoming just as much young people territory as older generations' territory. 

But the dark side to this is that

Jazz isn't instant gratification: the music comes with centuries of trans-Atlantic history tied to racial oppression in America, and black improvised music in the 20th century was just one means of resisting against the constant crushing pressure from every direction of society.

I'd wager that there are far more jazz hobbyists in the world now than ever before thanks to the internet, but if the music can be adopted in any hobby-like capacity, then it's a hobby that's fundamentally inseparable from its history. As Dizzy delicately reminded the world in a 1972 New York Magazine story, "A lot of people have died for this music!" The question that's been keeping me up at night is: of the potentially infinite number of jazz clickbait headlines and listicles, how many of them will really make you deal with bone-deep discomfort, will make you squirm in the self-examination of privilege and race, that "other" stuff?
via Wikipedia (used for critical commentary)

Although jazz has been and should continue to be accessible beyond professional players, critics, and record collectors, it doesn't necessarily benefit from being dumbed down. Whiplash certainly deserves an essay of its own—like, what genre of abstruse logic led The New York Times to connect imaginary dots between the film and The Jazz Gallery?—but I invoke it to point out the obvious fact that making something across to the public often requires the jazz world to pay a price; in this case, that price is more misunderstanding about what it is that we do, why we do it, and what those who came before us sacrificed to make what we do possible in the first place.***

My last thought on this dumbing-down issue—which is mostly speculation, but important to put on the table nonetheless—is that this kind of listicle re-packaging of jazz might also be an insidious form of exploitation of artists' work. "Exploitation" might be too strong a word here, since all forms of journalistic coverage in some way benefit the author in addition to the subject, but essentially we have a situation arising from young musicians actively heeding the prevailing mainstream advice to become as entrepreneurial as possible today. Things have never not been tough for artists, but it's not hard to understand why young musicians today might see more opportunities making a career out of getting clicks than playing stimulating, creative music every night.****


Recently, I decided to try my hand at writing some imagined jazz clickbait; call it a morbid curiosity. Most were adapted straight from existing clickbait headlines and made intentionally nonsensical or obnoxiously specific, things that only musicians and history nerds might pick up on. E.g.,

Jazz satire has been much maligned lately, and I'm no skilled satirist myself, having had intended irony go completely undetected in previous pieces of writing, but I basically wanted to convey the following perspective: that the hyperbolic paradigm of clickbait cheapens everything, including your experience of music. That is, how many "These Are The 17 Most Killing Solo Breaks. Of All Time"-type listicles can one possibly read before feeling completely bled of any desire to listen to this music?

My brief imaginative clickbaiting experience also illustrated to me  how easy it is to churn them out. In fact, it's too easy; concocting the first batch of clickbait headlines left me feeling milky and unwell, like I'd eaten too many Costco chocolate covered blueberries or something. 

These clickbait headlines give you what you want: easily digestible and momentarily entertaining factoids—cocktail hour fodder, as I like to think of it. "Oh, you know about Miles Davis [subtext: how cultured you are!]," that sort of thing. A lot of other musicians and jazz Twitterites also joined the game:

And so on and so on (peruse at your peril).

Film Critic Hulk, in my eyes a direct cultural-critical descendant of DFW, has written some of my favorite recent exegeses on entertainment versus art in pop culture, which is at the core of this lengthy critical survey of every James Bond movie and also a common thread through a number of his essays, most notably this destabilizing essay on Batman. Central to his argument is that we, as an entertainment-consuming culture at large (presumably speaking to Americans who watch movies, go on the internet and read listicles, etc.), have a balance problem: we're indulging too much and not being challenged enough to reflect on our relationship to the world around us. That is, we're thinking about our own pleasure more than what responsibility we may have to anything outside our narrow selfness. 

#jazzBuzzFeed, to me, is what would happen if we let ourselves pig out on the most superficial, entertaining aspects of the music, all without ever really having to think about the human cost of this music, how it emerged from real people and real communities who dealt with and continue to deal with monolithically oppressive social and cultural forces. 

Basically, I think we've come to crossroads where we have to think about and decide what we want jazz/BAM/creative improvised music to become on the internet as it's already rapidly transforming into something it didn't at all resemble before. We have to ask ourselves:

Are we going to stand for this rising tide of jazz as conveniently packaged, single serving listicle?
And are we okay with jazz BuzzFeed?

Instead of listicles, heroes and better criticism

A few months ago, Joshua Redman called for more heroes in jazz:
This music, however you want to you call it, also really needs and certainly deserves better criticism and better contextualization that informs listeners of the less-than-pleasurable aspects of how it came to be. John Gennari's survey of the brief history of jazz criticism is invaluable and exceeds the scope of this essay, but in reading it, you'll get the sense that jazz criticism wasn't necessarily better in the past than now. 

Artists have been bemoaning the state of criticism on their music for the past century, as have others working in other parts of the jazz world: in the recent Times obituary for record producer Orrin Keepnews, his sentiment on jazz criticism even gets a brief mention:

In 1987 his collection “The View From Within: Jazz Writings, 1948-87” was published by Oxford University Press. It included jazz criticism as well as a memorably cantankerous takedown of the field. “After all these years,” he wrote, “I find myself unable to avoid an unhappy conclusion: Jazz criticism is a bad idea, poorly executed.”
A defense of criticism is also way outside of the scope of this essay, but I'll quote the Times film critic A.O. Scott's brief clarification about how he views the purpose of criticism from this recent interview, which rings true to my ear:

One of the things that I try to challenge a little is the idea of critical authority, that there used to be critics — whether it was Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris, the great theater critics like Brooks Atkinson or people like Edmund Wilson — who had a kind of authority in which they would hand down their judgments and the public and the culture would follow along. I think that’s always been a myth. I think there’s always been a misunderstanding of the function of critics, which is to initiate and guide a set of arguments and conversations about the value of particular works of art and the standards by which works of art in general should be judged, standards that are always changing, always evolving, always contested.
Criticism is about getting a conversation started or else keeping an existing one going, not about enacting Old Testament-esque pronouncements. And, like music, the basic impulse of criticism is social:
GAZETTE: What was it about criticism that you found appealing?  
SCOTT: It was a way of having imaginary conversations with people who had seen what you saw. For me, very often these things were solitary. I would go to the movies alone a lot. Reading books is a solitary experience. I would listen to records in my room. And, you know, you want to share this in a way. Sometimes you would share it with your friends, but you could also find people to share it with out in the world.

Although I think of myself as an artist first and foremost, I also feel I have a stake in the critical conversations about the music (as should all artists!). There does seem to be a bit of a chilling effect resulting from the smallness of the world of jazz, particularly in the way that systematic Conflict Of Interest has led to a dearth of passionate, honest criticism. For instance, it's notable how rarely you read thoughtful and thoroughly-argued negative reviews in jazz—the classic hatchet jobs that are de rigueur in film criticism or literary criticism.***** 

But those kinds of criticism are essential for a healthy art form because they fan the flames of meaningful discussion: what are the stakes, why is this so important, why should we care? 

So more serious criticism 

This might be a step toward bridging the gap between musician and audience. Considering this strange triangle of critic/writer/blogger, audience member, and musician, it's disappointing but somehow not surprising how some musicians have found ways to blame each leg of the triangle—namely, that musicians are playing "irrelevant" music that's "lost the essence of jazz" and has lost touch with the "human connection," that listeners are too distracted consuming viral YouTube videos and too lazy to listen to jazz, and that critics put down musicians and have nothing at all. 

I'm exaggerating these lamentations, but only sort of. It really seems like the only way out of this is for people to work together here: musicians have to make themselves (not necessarily their music!) accessible to audiences (e.g., by updating their gig calendars on their websites, making newsletters to remind listeners who care about them when and where aforesaid listeners can support them), listeners have to spread the word (and pay for music, whether live or digital—but at this point especially live), and critics have to do critical justice to their subjects.

At the very beginning, I may have unfairly lambasted jazz clickbait to an extent. 

Gimmicks and similarly shallow device are only shallow if they're shallow

Please allow me to explain: a few years ago, Film Critic Hulk wrote a post in response to a number of inquiries surrounding the status of his assumed persona, which essentially pushed him to drop it and become a "serious" critic. Hulk's defense of the persona, which precisely isolates how a gimmick can become a gateway to much, much more, is the following (be forewarned: FCH writes in all caps, always):

Everybody starts somewhere with listening to this music, but the key is that fewer and fewer people are growing up hearing the music at home and in public—getting that kind of informal introduction that meant more casually hip listeners of the kind that I alluded to earlier.****** What that also means is that introductions to the music are all the more crucial today: your first impression of the massive world(s) of jazz (and creative improvised music, Black American music, and the overlapping streams and superficial genre conventions and so forth) as you come across it online could change your listening life, or it could just be another click that you've forgotten by the time you've clicked on the next suggested video. 

I get the sense sometimes that we want things both ways: we want jazz to remain exclusive to the hip crowd, but we also want to be able to communicate with listeners who simply don't have the time to get through everything and have an informed, passionate opinion on, say, Shelly Manne's ride cymbal sound c. 1951 versus after the closing of the Manne Hole in '72. 

Don't get me wrong. I have no single solution to the fate of jazz on the internet, but it's clear that in determining how the music comes across and continues to connect with new listeners, we're going to have to deal with the millennial and post-millennial internet whether we like it or not. Thankfully, though, the internet makes it easier than ever for artists to speak their minds, but Facebook rants just aren't enough; I'd like to see more artists take to the blogs and other avenues, to reach outside of their immediate internet social circle to correct mainstream misconceptions and communicate with the world at large in their own words about what it is that they do.

Everybody is a critic, but artists are uniquely suited to be critics themselves; it's just a matter of taking to the digital streets and demanding their voices be heard.

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Notes (because I'm my own worst editor):

*[the "listicle"]. whose name evokes the undeferred refreshment of a popsicle in summertime, is, as you almost certainly already know if you've been on the internet at all the past few years, a collection of images and moving GIFs that give you exactly what you want, even if you didn't really know you wanted it. There's been plenty written about listicles and their now-compulsory bedfellow, the clickbait headline ("I Thought This Obnoxious Capitalization Policy Was Crazy, But I Couldn't Believe What Happened Next"), mostly along the lines of "Society is going down the tubes; the young generation won't learn to appreciate quality nonfiction; this is the demise of investigative journalism, etc."

**Most followers of this blog must be beyond sick and tired of reading about how jazz "needs to become relevant" again. Relevant to what? Jazz as a popular music was over by World War II, after the recording ban had all but ended the swing era (a big historical claim, but I'm sticking to it). Furthermore, most of the folks who are writing about how jazz needs to be relevant aren't in much of a position to make it happen; the people who are, I think, are the people who grew up with YouTube, Twitter, BuzzFeed, and these other digital marvel-monstrosities, who understand how other people who grew up with these things find out about what's going on in culture(s).

***Trane wasn't shedding to get first chair in the studio band; pass on Whiplash and get a copy of Ingrid Monson's Freedom Sounds. For a more recent musician's take, check out Ethan Iverson's essay on how different understandings of the role of the drums in jazz is central to critiquing Whiplash.

****I can't help but cynically think that a lot of us young writers are basically "dining out" on the work and sacrifices of the artists who came before us. In my case, I transcribe a lot and most of the readers of who come across my site stumble on it because of the transcriptions. Yet I didn't live the (challenging) lives of these artists, and I didn't play these solos, and they're not benefiting necessarily from my doing this. Jazz commodification short-changes the art itself, and in this music what's really valuable can't be measured by clicks and banner ad revenue.

*****That is, criticism that fundamentally reflects a sense of caring, as in, "You're a great artist, or trying to be, so I want to be as honest as possible about how this art communicates, to give you a perspective more distanced from your own to think about how you might work on your craft going forward." I mean, really: when was the last time you read a true jazz hatchet job that rang true and burrowed in your ear? For the most part, you either get cheap satire or reviews that totally miss the mark, e.g., any review of Vijay Iyer's music that describes it as basically "mathematical." For what it's worth, an example of jazz satire that I've seen that I've appreciated for being both true to life and expressing a perspective that gives the reader something to chew on is this comic, "How To Construct The Perfect Jazz Solo").

I should acknowledge, though, that the overall decline in jazz coverage in major publications may be another reason for the apparent lack of critical reviews, thus creating the appearance of an increase in plaudits across the board. James Wood, book critic at The New Yorker known for some major hatchet jobs in his time—e.g., this essential critique of "hysterical realism" from 2000—said recently that as he gets older, he sees less and less the point of writing negative reviews with limited time and energy. As in, "There are so many books that could be criticized negatively; why not use my time to highlight the few books that I really think deserve some attention?"

******I know that for myself, having found an introduction to jazz through Stan Getz of all people that was in turn an introduction through bossa nova, it's taken a decade to go from there to the AACM and beyond (although I consider myself a slow learner in general), but where are the introductions for others to this music? 

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Post-script on how this all got started:

Although I mention the "50 Living Saxophonists" listicle early on, it wasn't that particular story that got me thinking about all this; it was reading this blog post on trumpeter-arranger Don Sickler's website, "Blue Bossa: What You Don't Know About The Standard," with the tag: "A little-known story behind the standard 'Blue Bossa" reveals that most jazz musicians are missing something huge when they play it." Prototypical #jazzBuzzFeed?

I have to admit that I enjoyed reading it: Rachel Bronstein's 5-minute post on the often-forgotten original bass figure on Kenny Dorham's tune is refreshingly voicy and casually knowledgeable in that fluent, idiomatically 2014-internet way. The thing is, it's only when you get to the end that you realize that what you've been reading is really advertisement cloaked in history, a pitch to get you to shell out a few bucks for Sickler's "proper lead sheet with the real bass line," that one that contains "the soul of the standard" (i.e., the bass line), so that "Once you learn that bass line and experience first-hand how the melody locks in, you'll see the composition in a whole new light."

Okay, so articles that sell you things is nothing new, as this New York Magazine feature on BuzzFeed's trademark journalism-advertising strategy points out in great detail, but this was the first time I'd encountered such a thing on the jazz internet (at least, the first time I came across something that was so cleanly written that I was lulled into thinking that there weren't any strings attached). 

That same professor who gave me the advice I mentioned at the top of the essay also said the following, "Good writing is writing that you don't want to stop reading." It's that simple, but what's just as important is for what purpose an author publishes good writing; we don't read good writing to be sold soap.

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The past weekend marked the third anniversary of A Horizontal Searcha.k.a., The Kevin Sun, although the latter title really is more about SEO and all that. Not surprisingly, the most-read posts of the past year were all transcriptions. With unflinching hypocriticism, I've listed the most-read posts along with my personal favorites of the past year. As always, thanks for reading.

Miscellaneous Musings: