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.