The Misunderstood Music

by Benjy Steinberg

According to family lore, I became a jazz-head at age two. My parents had taken me to a bar and grill in L.A. that happened to have a jazz trio as its house band. I spent the entire meal fawning at the saxophon­ist. Maybe it was the music, or maybe just the shiny horn, but for whatever reason, I spent the whole time watching with my mouth agape and my eyes fixed on the player. My parents took it as a sign that play­ing the sax would be my destiny. Seventeen years later, that proph­esy has long since come true—I’ve been playing jazz saxophone for over half my life. In the process, I’ve assumed a role that’s become increasingly rare in contemporary music culture: I’ve become a jazz fan.

There is no question about it: jazz today is a niche. Once, however, the genre held mainstream rel­evance. Jazz originated in the late 19th and early 20th century from the “ragtime” march music of African American communities in New Orleans and St. Louis. Its popularity peaked during the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s and the “Swing Era” of 1935 to 1946, in which large jazz ensembles called “big bands” played for huge, raucous crowds in dance halls. For over two and a half decades, jazz was the uncontested mainstream music of America. However, in the late 1940s it began to fall out of mainstream American culture. By the 1950s, the genre had been relegated to the periphery.

I see two reasons for this. Firstly, be-bop, an intellectualized version of jazz that incorporated complex, Western classical harmonies and blazing fast tempos, became jazz’s dominant mode in the late ‘40s. Jazz had gained and maintained its popularity through its role as dance and party music, the equivalent of our day’s EDM. However, listeners could no longer sing and dance to be-bop, the new iteration of jazz.

Simultaneously, the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, which was facilitated by a burgeoning youth culture, enabled that genre to supplant jazz as the definitive popular mode. Rock ‘n’ roll trumped even the danceable “big band” jazz in the eyes of teens partially because of its embrace of new technology: rock musicians used electric instruments, while jazz remained acoustic. Additionally, rock ‘n’ roll’s grittier and edgier vibe, derived from the blues, made jazz seem less hip and daring in contrast.

From the late 1950s on, jazz became increas­ingly more cerebral and less popular as it moved in modal and avant-garde directions. Artists experi­mented, and listeners followed them. Jazz retained a cult-like audience that enabled the artists’ creative choices to steer the direction of the genre, rather than listeners’ tastes and demands. Many rock and hip-hop groups have appropriated jazz’s improvisational nature and some of its harmonic and rhythmic aspects into their music. However, the pure form of jazz, unmixed with other genres, has fallen to the wayside. Many people, especially contemporary youth, dismiss jazz as “elevator music,” “lounge music,” “smooth jazz,” or “old people’s music.” These remarks are ignorant, and this ignorance stems not from blindness but rather from a general lack of understanding—jazz, unfortu­nately, is widely misunderstood.

Though some aspects of jazz have been pre­served in the music that’s followed it, there’s one element that no other genre has captured completely in its popular form: the unadulterated creativity and expression of jazz improvisation. Improv lies at the genre’s core. It occurs not only in the extended solos of players, but also in the melodies of the songs them­selves. Jazz musicians constantly interact with one another during songs by responding to each other’s spontaneous musical creations. If the pianist decides to lay down a fat chord on an off-beat, the drummer might hear him and hit a rim shot, and the trumpet player will blow a lick in response. In jazz’s ideal form, nothing is really fixed.

Because of its open mindset, its spontaneity, and its social dynamism, jazz is more actively creative as a genre than other musical styles. I would argue that creativity is not only music’s essence, but also the end-goal of music, as well as the vector by which it should be judged. Sure, you can enjoy dancing to music; you can enjoy singing along. This enjoyment might be sincere, but it comes from considering music purely as entertainment, rather than as music itself. Since jazz fell out of the mainstream, music has by and large become more superficial and less musical in the sense that I’ve delineated. Whereas a jazz song is a living, breathing, adaptable organism, contemporary mainstream music tens to be sterile, inorganic, mindless, insensate. Jazz’s fall from the mainstream has dealt a damaging blow to music and to the world that listens to it.

So, in order to save music, we must find some way to reestablish jazz, or at least its improvisational spirit, as something popular. We must take the “zz” out of jazz. How do we do this? Perhaps the key lies in my experience at that bar and grill as a toddler.

The reason that I became a jazz listener was because, after drooling at that saxophone in the restau­rant, I became a jazz musician. And this is the case, it seems, for most young jazz listeners. Sure, eclectic and knowledgeable music junkies might own a copy of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue or ‘Round About Midnight, but the only kids I’ve met who are really into jazz, who have a large collection of albums and a formidable knowledge of the genre, are jazz musicians. It seems that playing jazz gets people into it.

This phenomenon occurs on two levels. Firstly, learning jazz history and respecting its tradition are important when it comes to learning the music. Jazz musicians feel obligated to listen to as much as they can of what came before them in order to perfect their own playing. Jazz instructors and older play­ers instill this value into younger ones. However, the more important reason that jazz players are especially inclined to listen to jazz is that the music gives them a unique pleasure that most non-players haven’t accessed. They get a thrill out of it because they’ve experienced playing the music. They’ve felt the rush of spontaneous and social musical creation, and thus when they hear it executed deftly, and oftentimes sub­limely, they revel in it. On the other end, to many peo­ple who haven’t experienced the genre as players, jazz sounds either like “elevator music” or a self-indulgent and unpleasant scattering of unrelated notes. I believe that most people’s dearth of experience in playing is central to why jazz is misunderstood.

Of course, we can’t expect to correct everyone’s listening tastes by having them become jazz musicians. Nevertheless, we can teach them how to think like jazz musicians, how to adopt the jazzer’s creative mindset as they listen to the music. In order to access the spiritual and emotional joyride of jazz improvisation, they must picture themselves at the keyboard, behind the drums, or with their mouth around the saxophone. They must imagine, and by way of imagining, feel the unstoppable beat reverberating through the very room they’re in. They must realize that the space is free, but that the stakes are high. The possibilities of what to play are endless: there are 88 keys on a piano, infinite variations of rhythm, and thus infinite combinations and permutations of what can be played. The challenge is how to make poetry out of it all.

So when they hear the pianist play a light­ning-fast run down the keys, when they hear that perfectly-timed hit from the drummer, they should imagine themselves attempting to do the same, and how difficult it would be. Hopefully, with repetition, this will inspire the same awe in a listener as that of a sports fan when his team’s running back breaks through the defense for an 80-yard touchdown. This not only produces an adrenaline rush, but also a sense of amazement—he stands with his mouth agape, in awe of the seemingly impossible spectacle before him. He gazes up at giants, gods. This is where new jazz listeners need to start. Progressing past the extreme of registering the shock value of musical flourishes, they gradually will begin to see more subtle wonders: inflections, references, idiomatic mastery, sensitivity in the music. To do this, it might help to not only adopt a creative and open mindset while listening to jazz, but also while going about one’s daily life. While writing, conversing, or even shopping for groceries, aspiring jazz listeners should take risks, become opportunists and adventurers.

An understanding of the jazz idiom, or the vocab­ulary of musical patterns that characterizes jazz, will neces­sarily accompany this process. Musical creativity does not rely on the jazz idiom—it should be able to fit into any musical language. However, listeners must first apply creative musicality whole-heartedly to the established idiom of jazz so that they can attach it to other genres and mediums later. In order hear and comprehend the basic units of the jazz vernacular, they should listen for recurring melodic, harmonic and rhythmic phrases in solos and melodies. By piecing these patterns together, the idiom will reveal itself. Everything will become more beautiful and coherent in its light.

All of this might seem challenging, but the gratification that comes with a true appreciation of jazz vastly outweighs the expended effort. The path to appreciating jazz does not have to be academic at all. In fact, it can be best communicated casually. There­fore, we need someone to preach jazz to the public and especially to the youth, to encourage the appreci­ation of it so that it can take on that viral quality of the mainstream. We need the equivalent of a Carl Sagan or a Neil deGrasse Tyson to translate the wonders of jazz from an unintelligible “rocket science” to jazz’s own Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. We need a vision­ary figure to hook the public on the unique creativity and spontaneity of jazz. Then, finally, after more than seventy years, jazz will be brought back into the public ear. Its essence of creativity, expression, spontaneity, and sociability will then hopefully spread into all other genres, and especially into their pop sub-genres. With jazz at the helm, the musical ship will be steered away from its over-structured, repetitive, and soulless cur­rent trajectory.

So let’s silence the cries of “Jazz is dead.” Let’s save humankind from becoming an army of robots dancing homogenously to the next formulaic pop song. Let’s save music.