“Remember when music was good?”
Jazz and classical listeners ask this question all the time. It inevitably arises in editorials, reviews, discussion boards and pretty much any forum where words are used to describe the music they know and love. Given the cultural clout that jazz and classical receive these days, it often hides their real question, namely “Why don’t more people like what we like and which we know is inherently superior?”
The labels “jazz” and “classical” cover a wide range of musical styles and eras, including four hundred years of musicians from across the globe, aesthetics ranging from Duke Ellington to Anthony Braxton and all manner of acoustic, electronic, improvised, composed, esoteric, popular, swinging and longhaired sounds. What the two terms share is cultural capital and historical street cred, an association with a time when musicians “knew how to play,” “knew what to sing” and most of all, created music that was “sincere” and “intellectual.” The definitions for those two terms are usually pretty clear to the voice asking the above question, but few others.
Of course the question is not always phrased exactly this way; sometimes it appears as an excoriation of contemporary pop’s violent or lascivious lyrics, other times as a narrative on the gradual dumbing down of subject matter, technical complexity or audience appreciation. It can even function as a call for returning to simpler, safer times, to music and art that was decent and pure, for example Cab Calloway’s wholesomely old-timey interpolations into “St. Louis Blues” (heard at 2:03 in this clip):
I’m going back to Chicago to have my ham bone boiled,
I’m going way back to Chicago to have my ham bone boiled,
Because these women in New York City let my good ham bone spoil…
Maybe all of us need our ham bones boiled: whatever it is, if it was good enough for the Americans who made it through the Great Depression and World War II, it’s good enough for everyone! As for whatever “good music” is, like it or not classical and jazz audiences get a lot of leeway to reply, “our music.” As someone who loves so much of the music covered under both labels, it’s helpful to remember a time when we didn’t get the same cultural hall pass.
The idea of “good old music” has a performance history so ancient and frequent it dwarfs the “Spring” concerto, “In the Mood” and even “Sweet Caroline.” For as long as musicians have made music, critics have lamented a prior golden age (usually while describing all subsequent music in terms befitting some sonic antichrist). Just ask Dr. Bartolo in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, who interrupts his ward’s music lesson with the erudite observation that “Composers knew how to write when I was young!” before warbling an aria he remembers the castrato “Caffariello” singing:
Rossini’s wit and insight into artistic polemics wears its age well. Nobody knows precisely when the “true art of singing” died, but Rossini understood that many of his contemporaries had it dead and buried by 1816, when the castrati were losing popularity and Barber premiered in Rome. As for the twenty-four year old composer, he was merely aiming to create a tuneful, funny work of musical theater in his own time, according to his own (impeccable) instincts. Rossini probably never expected his sensational little buffa to become a fan favorite among the tuxedo and pearls crowd, or to spawn any dissertations. Yet while he may never be taken as seriously as the big boys of “serious music” (read, Germans), any lowbrow connotations for his music are now thoroughly neutralized.
Fast-forwarding to the Kennedy Center in 2011 and the award presented to Sonny Rollins, we get to observe a seminal creative voice receiving a great honor, but also jazz’s transcendence and the country’s cultural amnesia. Less than a century ago, “jazz” (a term still murky in origin and sticky in connotation) was considered at best merely pop music, and at worst (and quite often) an illicit, degenerate entertainment. John Phillips Sousa famously remarked, “Jazz will endure just as long people hear it through their feet instead of their brains,” and during the Swing Era studies were actually conducted to time the correlation between teenagers hearing their favorite big bands and starting to “neck.” Swing music, like violin music before and rock and roll to come, was the devil’s music (and worst of all, the devil could DANCE). Rollins’ particular instrument and the music’s most emblematic horn make Vachel Lindsay’s poem “A Curse for the Saxophone” sound positively quaint today:
When John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln the good,
He hid himself in a deep Potomac wood,
But the Devil came and got him and dragged him down below,
And took him to the gate—and the rest you know,
Twenty thousand pigs on their hind legs playing
“The Beale Street Blues” and swaying and saying:
John Wilkes Booth, you are welcome to Hell,”
And they played it on the saxophone and played it well.
And he picked up a saxophone, grunting and rasping,
The red-hot horn in his hot hands clasping,
And he played a typical radio jazz;
He started an earthquake, he knew what for,
And at last he started the late World War.
Our nerves all razzed, and our thoughts all jazzed,
Booth and his saxophone started the war!
None but an assassin would enjoy this horn…
Of course no one honors assassins: we fear them, ostracize them, speak of them in hushed tones and when we’re alone perhaps confess to curiosity or excitement. Assassins are dangerous but they beg our attention. For most listeners, jazz and classical music will never seem like assassins. That’s not just historically inaccurate, it’s just plain sad.
Jazz and classical music have made it. “It” is not just entry into the academy and the concert hall, it’s a place on the car stereo when we want to unwind, or an invitation at parties when we want to impress. Jazz and classical music are “good” music. And let’s face it, “good music” is never as exciting as “a good tune,” a “kickass beat” or “awesome lyrics.” That classical and jazz contain all those things is not overshadowed by their smartness or sophistication, but by the critics, scholars and fans that play up their own brains and moral fiber against the music’s guts and history. Meanwhile, most potential listeners forget that it was all “pop” at one time or another, and are surprised to hear that Haydn did not in fact write music to help put people to sleep, or that their upright, pious, patriotic grandparents were getting down to lyrics like:
…He starts slow but when he starts to go he’s the last word.
Girls meet him in the open air,
They don’t know how he learned to care,
They should catch him in an easy chair,
He’s the last word!
For many fans, this music’s past as something that excited and exacerbated even while it inspired is an inconvenient truth, a shortsighted, wrongheaded perception those blessed with hindsight can now simply ignore. The sexual tension in Mozart’s operas is “elegant,” and the ballsy, ear-tripping harmonies of Bach and Ellington were conscious intellectual exercises, not creative experiments or courageous rejections of authority. Those delightfully smutty lyrics of yesteryear are more subtle and poetic than the today’s brash references (which of course evidence contemporary songwriter’s crassness rather than artistic choice). The true art of singing is a real thing, as was its death, which Rossini’s shortsighted critics never lived to see. And Lindsay’s anti-sax rhetoric is just an old-fashioned prejudice, not an insight into this music as something strange and even threatening.
Not “our” music.
Whatever “good music” is, it was “bad” at one point. And if we really care about this music as anything more than an excuse to tout our own refined tastes or a reason to condemn the modern world to hell, if we want this music to outlast its creators as well as us, we’ll start owning up to its past, in all its simple, seedy glory, because that’s what’s going to excite people. The difference between good medicine and an intoxicating drug is usually just dosage, and knowing your patient’s chemistry. Let’s start giving our kids some drugs and teaching them about assassins.
A happy and healthy New Year to all of the musicians, journalists and readers who have supported “Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic.” Thank you for everything!