Trumpeter/bandleader/composer Nicholas Payton lit a cyber bonfire recently when he judged “jazz” to be a narrow, outdated, and even racist term. With so many artists, jazz journalists, “jazz” defenders, label haters and twit heads out there weighing in, I’m going to avoid discussing whether Payton is “Right” or “Wrong.” He has inspired plenty of thoughts and feelings though, and that’s vastly more important than any value judgments that will come out of this debate.
Most of the discussion hinges upon one very specific word (but given Payton’s commentary on race in America, it’s become just part of the argument). Payton insists that he is “…not dissing an art form. [He is] dissing the name [emphasis mine], Jazz.” Criticizing “jazz” (but not jazz) is a fascinating proposition since this blog spends so much time reconsidering a lot of music that is denied “jazz”/jazz’s street cred. Many historians and critics don’t know what to call the music of the early Fletcher Henderson band, Red Nichols’ various ensembles, forgotten twenties dance orchestras and musicians such as Buster Bailey, Don Murray and Adrian Rollini. Letting them all into the proud family tree of “jazz” has proven tricky.
Yet the people who enjoy and care about vintage jazz and early American pop have been eager to extend a branch to their heroes. For many people (excluding Payton, of course) “jazz” denotes something perennially hip, music requiring flawless technique and a unique voice. It has a rich history, yet it continuously evolves. It’s also a proudly American invention, fed from the blues, rhythmic nuances and vocal inflections that could only have appeared in this country with its complex, often troubling cultural and ethnic history (I’ll leave it up to Payton and his interlocutors to discuss where those elements came from and how they define the music).
Best of all, “jazz” gets played in swank nightclubs, fancy concert halls and prestigious college campuses. “Jazz” is a passionate, sincere and intelligent “art form,” a much more impressive name than “old pop,” “syncopated concert music” or other sobriquets given to piles of 78rpm explorations. “Jazz” is respectable, and it’s cool. It’s no wonder fans want their favorites to get on the tree, even on some obscure branch that never bore fruit.
Yet here’s Nicholas Payton, asserting that “jazz” itself is a rotten root! According to him, “jazz” died in 1959, and it’s way too limited and self-conscious to be considered “cool” anymore. Payton also describes the word as an external imposition on the actual music and its voices (who Payton has always expressed vast admiration for, in both words and discography). Based on Payton’s description, “jazz” doesn’t even seem like it’s worth the fight.
Maybe giving up that fight is what all that old music needs.
Payton’s politics and occasionally confrontational tone aside, what if all us trad fans, moldy figs and hep cats of latter day swing took his suggestion to heart? What if we simply stopped using the word “jazz?”
Aside from making it much harder to organize our record collections, it might excuse a lot of music we love from taking a stylistic blood test. Couldn’t we do without yet another debate on whether Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman are “jazz?” Wouldn’t Gunther Schuller’s verdicts about which bands are not “jazz” seem much less damning? And whatever it is that Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and so many original New Orleans musicians were doing before they “learned how to swing” might even be respected on its own musical terms, not just some stepping stone to the title of “jazz” bestowed by critics and scholars.
If I’m hijacking Nicholas Payton’s ideas for other ends than he assumed, it demonstrates how powerful those ideas are, but also how simple they turn out to be. Not to deflate the scope of Payton’s ideas, and the anger and attacks of his critics notwithstanding, all he is doing is criticizing a word; he’s protesting a label. He’s not even the first artist to do so. As he points out, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, not to mention Charlie Parker and Eddie Condon among many others, have expressed varying degrees of reticence about “jazz” and other labels. Judging from Payton’s commentators, he won’t be the last to get the word out about putting “jazz” out to pasture.
Speaking of which, maybe the pop of yester-century can stay just as exciting and intelligent without having the title “jazz.” Maybe “jazz” needs to be as open about its past as it does its future. Or maybe “jazz” is simply as limited as Payton describes. Words are as powerless or as powerful as we make them. Nicholas Payton merely points out how powerful we have made one word.
And if he’s reading this he may or may not appreciate my posting a ten year old clip, but good music has no expiration date here. Here’s Nicholas Payton scorching “Tiger Rag” with ample ‘postmodern’ swagger:
I guess we could start calling it Jass! It’s really a form of evolution, I don’t think biologists have really agreed on the point when you have a new species or really what IS a species as opposed to a subspecies. In the same way, jazz evolved but the name has stuck. Since jazz is the original term and the 1920’s were called the jazz age, I think there is a precedence. But as Eddie Condon famously wrote, “We Called it Music”.
Thanks John, I think that’s a great point, and the analogy to biology is telling: in the end, it’s helpful to remember this music is a LIVING thing, and given life’s myriad intricacies, our categories will only take us so far. Categories are helpful to organize things, but when we start letting those categories dictate how we look at the subject (or in this case, where the label comes from), discussion and contention are right around the corner.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
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“a narrow, outdated, and even racist term” presumably refers to a term that carries more truth than the speaker is comfortable with? It would in the NYT or The Guardian.