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.]