I am not a jazz musician.  I know, I know, this is earth-shattering news.  But there are some interesting implications to this statement.

Assume that I’m no different from most jazz musicians.  This is an easy assumption to make.  I’m white, middle-class, male and spent several years studying jazz-based improvisation.  That is, improvisation based on what other self-avowed jazz musicians have produced.  I’ve studied both outside of the academy (in my twenties) and in the academy (my late-twenties and early-thirties).  So I’ve seen both sides of that fence.  And oh yeah, I play saxophone.  Even used to own a black leather jacket till someone stole it.  Got earrings left over in my left ear from my teenage years.  So yes, according to the average person on the street in most parts of this planet, I fit the description of a “jazz” musician.

So what does that imply about me that I don’t consider myself a jazz musician?  Well, I must be dissatisfied, possibly disaffected and quite probably suffering from a case of sour grapes.  I won’t argue with any of these implications.  They’re all true to varying degrees.  But again, if I fit the description of an “average jazz musician,” then there must be other people feeling the same way as me.  And if there are other people feeling the same way as me, even a minority, what does this imply about the culture of jazz?

It implies that jazz culture is not what could be termed a nurturing culture.  Yeah, I know any musicians reading this are giggling uproariously right now, but that’s because it’s true.  More importantly, it implies that jazz culture is something that I don’t want to be a part of.  That as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing to be gained by being called a jazz musician.  At least in my case there’s nothing to be gained.  For a member of the Marsalis family, there’s a decent amount of money at stake.  So I understand it’s different for everyone.

And I’m not asking for this “something-that-is-nothing” to be a six-figure salary, or fame or an enormous house or even much of a living wage.  When I started in this racket I just wanted a chance to play.  And now I’ve been fortunate enough to have several chances to play and I’ve realized I really only want the playing to lead to one of three things.


1. emotional/spiritual compensation


2. another opportunity to play


3. financial compensation

And occasionally the playing has led to one of these three requisites being fulfilled.  But sparingly so.  Most importantly to me, numbers one and two, the more ephemeral demands, have of late never been fulfilled.  And of late has been when I’ve been the most committed to being a “jazz”* musician., the most committed to saying, “I’m a member of the jazz community” (such as it is).  So if I can’t count on any of these requirements being met, what’s the point of being part of this dysfunctional community?  If there are zero benefits presently, and zero benefits accruing, then it looks like a change of perspective is in order. These are the selfish reasons for not wanting to be a jazz musician.

But there are the practical and obvious reasons too.  The ones that for all the talk, rarely get addressed head-on in a common-sense way.  Reasons like: jazz isn’t cool, that is, it’s not popular with people under the age of forty.  Not really.  Now do I think the music is uncool?  Absolutely not.  Do I think the brand, the label, the name is uncool?  Absolutely.  Medeski, Martin & Wood.  Great band and guess what?  They’re just as often (if not more often) classifed as a jam band than a jazz trio.  And they’re certainly not called a piano jazz trio.  Colin Stetson, incredible saxophonist.  One of the few people playing the instrument that rock snobs don’t call “annoying.”  Guess what?  He doesn’t refer to himself as a jazz saxophonist.  Nor does he tour with self-proclaimed jazz bands.  But I wax anecdotal.  Typing words like “jazz” and “annoying,” “sucks,” “boring” or “stupid” isn’t going to accomplish anything new.  Jazz musicians know this and some revel in being unpopular.  I don’t.

Now I harbor few illusions about this.  I know I have several aesthetic strikes against me in this current time and place:  I don’t sing, I play an unpopular instrument, I like to make up some of this stuff as I go along and I like dissonance/noise/skronk.  So yes, Grammy material I am not.  But fuck it, I never liked much of what the U.S. considers popular.  I still think there are enough “weirdos” out there like me who like what I like that they can help support me in creating a modest life for me and my family.  I just don’t want to be aesthetically ghettoized any more than necessary.  And this is for me the real proof of “jazz’s” unpopularity:  the big U.S. music festivals like South by Southwest, CMJ, Bumbershoot, Coachella, shit, even the New Orleans Jazz Festival, all those festivals will always relegate self-proclaimed “jazz” to side stages.  To hard to find “alternate” venues, to “off” nights.  Now maybe I’ll never make it to the mainstage (ain’t holding my breath), but I at least want a fighting chance.  And being called a jazz musician just handicaps those chances.

Those are the marketing reasons for not wanting to be a jazz musician.  But really when it comes down to it, I just don’t feel welcome here.  I don’t feel wanted, needed or necessary to jazz, its traditions or its current culture.  I’ve met some lovely people and played with some astounding musicians, but none of that stems from being called a “jazz” musician.  That’s just getting lucky.  So hopefully I’ll still find some luck in the future.

So call me a jazz musician if you want.  That’s fine, I can’t and won’t stop you.  Just know that I don’t consider myself a jazz musician.  But unless you’re over the age of 60, don’t call me “cat.”  Seriously, I hate that shit.  The 1950’s happened sixty years ago and even using the term then I suspect would leave one open to being labeled a “square.”

* — Yes, my constant use of quotation marks around the word ‘jazz’ is obnoxious.  But there’s a good reason for this.  I have no idea anymore what a jazz musician is.  I’ve heard lots of definitions, but none of them make rational sense to me.  At this point in my life, all I can figure is that a jazz musician is someone who spends most of their time around other musicians who call themselves jazz musicians.  I promise at this point to stop using quotations around the ‘j’ word.

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13 Responses to The “j” word or bye-bye jazz (W)

  1. peter says:

    Ellington didn’t use the term, if that is any solace. I read that he asked the DE Society to drop the word jazz from it’s name after they were founded, I guess you are in good company. Your use of quotation marks is problematic, so you are not out of the woods.

  2. that is exactly it! here in dublin we have loads of notjazz musicians, what to do with them all? sigh…

  3. Corey Mwamba says:

    Great. Henry Threadgill said something connected to this too: http://www.thewire.co.uk/articles/3251/?pageno=3

    so you are definitely not alone.

  4. mark says:

    Hey, very well written! I feel as though the meaning of the j word has been obscured: Jazz now refers most usually to swing, straight-ahead jazz.

    In reality, I think that jazz is an umbrella term for a lot of different genres. It’s funny that rock gets broken up into countless genres but people from outside the jazz idiom don’t bother separating it into different groups. John Zorn vs. Sun Ra. vs. Count Basie vs. Stan Getz are all so different.

    A Jazz musician is (I mean should refer to) someone that improvises, including improvisation in both organized or free environments…

    That’s my take on it, not any more specific than that.

    p.s. inspiration = http://necmusic.edu/contemporary-improvisation

    Notice that it is indeed a different program than their Jazz Studies program.

  5. mark says:

    ahh sorry I should have known that you came from that program, haha

  6. Pavolka says:

    Really well written, Josh, I hear you, we all struggle with this. Of late I’ve come out on the other side, however. If anyone asks I just say I’m a Jazz Musician, after years of saying something like “you know, I play many different styles, kind of experimental stuff, you know, creative…” screw it, I’m a Jazz Musician. Jazz is what I listened to growing up, both live and on record, it’s what made me want to play music. By it’s very nature it’s hard to define and the word itself is arbitrary, but so are descriptives like “Rock” and “Classical”. Jazz is subversive music. It’s the music that best expresses the civil rights movement, it has given voice to the oppressed and helped empower minorities and the marginalized and at it’s best it paints a portrait of the America that I’d like to live in. It’s idealistic and messy and hard to sell to anybody. In the right hands it entertains without pandering.

    I share your contempt for the clique-ish hipsters that use the word to justify their pointless academic ramblings or empty formulaic imitations but the problem is with them, not the music. Jazz is one of the few American traditions that I am proud to be a part of.

  7. Corey Mwamba says:

    But Pavolka: but if jazz now is so hard to define how can you know it’s American? It may have started there, but is jazz [as ill-defined as it is] actually American any more? And is it really a problem if it isn’t?

  8. […] with predictably hackneyed titles like “Jazz Musicians Sing the Blues” (and so on, and so forth), it might surprise that on any given night in the Bay, you can see amazing music performed by […]

  9. JC says:

    There is a dilemma but I think it is mostly that labels often do not serve the purposes of those who are labeled (with a few exceptions like those who also seem to be part of the label manufacturing machinery).

    I like (and listen to, and go see) all kinds of music. Most of what I see does not fit the label it goes under in many places, nor the standard programming of where I go to see it.

    I find very few other people are that adventurous and that most tend to move in what I’ve come to call “tribes” since I see it so clearly as exactly that. So I go to a more “straight-ahead” “jazz” show and run into one small group of people more or less often and at an “avant” “jazz” show I see another small group of regulars. Every once in a while the “avant-improv” and “avant-jazz” people will turn up at the same thing. None of them go to anything remotely resembling “rock” or “progressive” or “folk” or “singer-songwriter”.

    For me (at least) your Requisite 1 above is really all that matters (since I’m not a musician and don’t have to try to survive being one). I find Requisite 1 in a few practitioners of many (or even most) forms (as labeled) of music. Sometimes I think all these people with tunnel vision need to expand their minds a bit. Some of those MMW “jam-band” kids need to get out and see some post-AACM players and try to wrap their minds around what’s going on with that… but they don’t. And the “jazz” clubs won’t touch most of that sort of thing either…

    My big concern with what you wrote is the part about Requisite 1 not working for you. I go to quite a few shows where it is very clear the musicians are fully in that zone. I think if that Requisite is taken care of the rest happens. People will find out. Good things will happen. So work for that. Do what you feel. Easy for me to say I suppose, but I mean it.

    Thanks for sharing.

  10. Josh says:

    thanks for the responses everyone. apologies for my delayed responses:

    JC: you misunderstand: it’s not the case that Requisite 1 is “not working” for me. It’s that it’s not being fulfilled. this is a very different thing. I perpetually search for its fulfillment, but i find too often in the situations labelled as ‘jazz’ it’s not fulfilled. but then again, this might be a produce of my own self-imposed pressures.

    who’s what now: why are you here?

    Corey: excellent point, who’s to say what the geographic locus of jazz is? but i don’t think that was Matt (Pavolka)’s point. He’s a friend (and terrific bass player & composer) and colleague here in Brooklyn, NY, so i believe he was talking a bit more locally to our (his and mine) perspective. but yes, i would say you’re very right that being geographically blinkered is a real problem right now.

    Matt (Pavolka): well said. but again, i just don’t feel a part of this tradition (and again, given that i used the ‘f(eel)’ word, this might be uselessly subjective). and i don’t perceive jazz as being subversive. if it were, i’d hear more questioning of tacit assumptions. now jazz is underfunded, misunderstood, undervalued and mistreated. absolutely. but subversive? i think we differ on that. and i’m talking about ‘jazz’ as a word defined by its self-described practicioners. not non-players, non-critics & non-listeners. i’m talking about the people involved in jazz on a daily basis. i just don’t think i’m a part of this club. or if i am, it’s in such a periphereal way that it’s negligible.

    Mark: did 2 years in the CI program. great faculty, but the fact that i left that program for my next 2 years at the same institution should tell you something about my feelings regarding that community. and maybe jazz is an ‘umbrella.’ until recently i thought it was a large one, but now i hear it as a fairly small and isolationist umbrella. again, that’s just my subjective opinion, so it and the facts are subject to change, but that’s what i hear now.

    Corey and Peter: wish I could say i feel the same exact way as Ellington and Threadgill (goddamn do i wish i could!), but they and i come froms such radically different backgrounds and grew up in such radically different times. their personal definitions of jazz didn’t jibe with their creative outputs, so maybe in that way (i hope) we have some common ground.

    Daniel: what indeed? this is what most perplexes/disturbs/worries me. so many potential voices feeling preternaturally silenced. it’s not right.

  11. jeff foiles says:

    No, jazz isn’t popular with people under forty. For that matter, it’s not all that popular with people over forty. It hasn’t been mainstream since it was considered dance music, and the best musicians playing it couldn’t walk in the front door of the venues they were playing. Very few of the people playing jazz are making a lot of money. But you knew that going in. I’m guessing you started playing jazz because you had to. Because it was in you and you had to get it out. Because you knew that jazz is the definition of cool, whether or not those caught up in the mainstream recognize it as such. Because you knew even before Steve Lacy told you, consciously or subconsciously, that good jazz conducts “spiritual transmission.” Music is a marriage of the spiritual and the physical, and jazz is among the highest and most sophisticated forms of music. To be described as a jazz musician is an honor. And while this may carry very little weight, there are those of us who respect the hell out of jazz musicians.

  12. Mark Goldstein says:

    Hey Josh,

    I just remembered about responding to your essay a few months ago,
    thanks for the reply. It’s interesting actually, I’ve heard that the CI program I am in is really different than what it was with Allen Chase, because Hankus Netsky runs it now. I bet it was very different under Ran Blake. It’s interesting how Ran is the teacher people don’t know as well personally recently.

    – Mark

  13. Paul says:

    May I capitalize?

    I agree about jazz and other musics being tribal. In music, especially, without a tribe you are nothing.

    Jazz’s tribe is fundamentally New York wherever you are – it dictates certain assumptions that really fit in better in NY than elsewhere.

    It needs to be your psychic home, which is difficult for those of us who used to be there but no longer want to.

    Could you even take the step back and perspective you did if you were outside Brooklyn?

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