I have to say I’ve been quite amazed by the response this essay’s gotten.  Amazed and thankful.  One of the many downsides to the internet (and the reason it will never completely take over my life) is its anonymity.  So all this notice has been reassuring to me.

But I feel I should elaborate, if only slightly, on my original topic.

When I stated, “I am not a jazz musician” this was a statement of societal non-identity.  That is, at the heart of it, I don’t care about marketing rubric (not painstakingly so) nor about the interesting, but academic, question of  “what is jazz?”  What I care about is having a group identity and being able to work.  The essay I wrote is the simplest way I could find to say that identifying as a jazz musician fulfills neither of those desires.*

The most important part of my essay (to me) was, “I just don’t feel welcome here.  I don’t feel wanted, needed or necessary to jazz, its traditions or its current culture.”  Certainly while this statement says more about me than jazz culture, it also points to the fact that I’m pursuing a fundamentally different path. While this path is exemplified by Ellington, Mingus, Threadgill or Braxton, it sounds nothing like their paths (never mind the fact that I don’t have a fraction of any of their abilities).  Many (not all) musicians who have abjured the title “jazz” have done so after being accepted or nominated into the community.  I can’t say I’ve felt either of those things.  Yes, I have played with jazz musicians, yes I’ve hired them, yes I’ve studied with them.  So yes, I have been knocking on the jazz door for going on 20 years now.  But no, I’ve never felt admitted to the room.  So at this point, I’m trying to get on with my life.  Call me slow to catch a hint, but I get it now.  Moving on.

And “being able to work?”  That’s why I brought up the whole marketing angle, but I apologize for not being clear enough or succinct enough.  Here’s my straight up opinion on this:  despite what some of my esteemed colleagues believe, I think the Marsalis family, Crouch, et al. won the jazz war.  Jazz is now busily being enshrined and canonized with lots of concomitant onstage demonstrations by some practicioners.  And honesetly?  I don’t care.  The gentlemen I have named have worked very, very hard to win these lexical rights and they care deeply about this word ‘jazz.’  Great.  They can have that word.  I don’t need it.  What I need is work.  I need to be able to quit my day job.  I need to be able to play music for a living. That’s what I care about.  And while your job title can impact your living wage, during these desperate times (and please, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s really quite bleak for many of us right now) clarity of purpose is demanded.  So when push comes to shove, I’m much more invested in actually working than in my job title.

The current version of jazz’s definition that gets any financial support is not

a.  a definition that includes me or many of my heroes.

b.  looks like any fun.

Because when it comes down to it, I still remember what it felt like the first time I came in contact with music that made me want to play, and that music filled me with immense amounts of joy, passion and life.  It was fun.  And frankly, the music of the recreationists, despite the skill and artistry of its practicioners, does not make me feel the same way.  And most of all, it doesn’t look or sound fun.  I always thought that ‘jazz’ could be a larger umbrella term.  I thought that the generation of people I went to school with could help expand it.  That we could build a bigger room that included the recreationists and …well, myself.  I don’t think that anymore.  So I leave it up to others to find a label for what I’m doing.  Again, if folks want to call it ‘jazz,’ so be it.  This is all to say that it doesn’t matter to me now.

As one final note, while I’ve been gratified by the response the original posting got, it’s troublesome and sad to me that so many of the musicians who responded essentially said the equivalent of “You tell ‘em!”  What does this say about jazz culture?  We’re so busy trying to bring in an “audience” and to “educate” people, but meanwhile, we seem to be neglecting and ignoring our literal own?  If I’m not the only one having these feelings, then that means there’s a worrisome number of artists who aesthetically feel homeless.  And while the fancy words make this seem like not such a big deal, having so much self-identity tied into aesthetics can lead to some truly self-destructive behavior under these circumstances.  I am both worried about and disappointed in my colleagues.

*[N.B. –  I fully recognize that both of these unfulfilled desires might be completely my fault.  If that’s how you feel, I completely understand.  But I am writing and publishing all these words on the off-hand chance that I don’t share 100% culpability.  Because if that’s the case, my issues are definitely indicative of systemic unhealthiness.]

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3 Responses to The ‘j’ word redux

  1. peter says:

    what a crisis

  2. Bill Plake says:

    I struggled with this whole “jazz” issue as it pertained to me and my music for a long time, but I no longer do. For a number of years, when I was in my early thirties until about my mid forties (I’m 54 currently) I refused to put myself under this banner for many of the same reasons you’re describing here. I was tired of the narrowing of the definition of the word, and the Marsalis/Crouch factor was gaining control of the word even back then (late eighties/early nineties).

    When I fell in love with jazz (as you’ve written, I, too, found a music that made me want to play all the time!), I fell in love with a broad spectrum of music and musicians. As a teenager I discovered Charlie Parker, Albert Ayler, Steve Lacy, Duke Ellington, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Art Tatum, Warne Marsh, Jelly Roll Morton, Ornette Coleman, et. al., all within the same month. I loved them all (and many others!)I couldn’t tell you exactly what made jazz, jazz, but like you (with your porn analogy) I could sure recognize it when I heard it.

    But I grew tired of the lexical war to gain control of the word “jazz”. So I instead started thinking of what I did within a broader context: “New music”, “improvised music”, “creative music”, etc. But I personally came to realize that these labels had their owners, too. The strange irony to me, would be when I would be touring to play my music. I can remember that, in some of the venues I’d play, there would always be an audience member or two (themselves often the local “creative music” authorities) who would pay me or somebody else in my group the backhanded complement of saying we were jazz musicians. This was always said with a certain amount of condescension. I remember being surprised by such responses, because I thought what my group was doing was quite different from what most people would call jazz. I certainly wasn’t trying to sound like a “jazz” musician.

    But as the years passed I came to realize that I was indeed a “jazz” musician. Emotionally and lexically, jazz was my mother tongue. And although I had studied and absorbed other musical traditions since discovering jazz (I spent a good deal of time studying Balkan music, as well as contemporary classical music), it didn’t change the fact that jazz was the music that made me want to learn to play in the first place.

    So nowadays when people ask what my music is, I say, “jazz”, without blinking an eye. If somebody hears my music and says it isn’t, I’m fine with that. To me, how a person creates context by labeling something in a particular way says much more about the person than the thing. I hear my own music as being part of the “jazz” idiom because my conception of the jazz idiom is broad enough to include it.

    Finally, I really enjoy your blog. I just discovered it, and now I have to hear your music! I can’t be certain until I hear it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I called it jazz, even if you don’t. And I mean no offense.

  3. Josh says:

    thanks for the compliments Bill.

    [btw, didn’t realize i was putting in a nod to the Reagan-era definition of porn. honestly, that really wasn’t intended.]

    just to be clear, i fully recognize that given my education, my appearance and the instruments i play, most of the planet is going to define me as a jazz musician. i have no truck with other folks assessment of me. BUT, i do perceive jazz to be a self-administered community wherever it pops up. and currently where i’m at, some folks might call me a member, but i certainly don’t FEEL like a member.

    yes, cultures change, feelings changed. but here and now, looking and listening i around, i do not personally feel an affinity for the jazz community. Artistic community? yes, absolutely. jazz community? not really.

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