Before there was hipster culture, there was hip culture. Dedicated to creative thinking and an insolent attitude towards the Establishment—The Man—hip culture came out of jazz and the music’s fans, especially once bebop hit the scene and pushed jazz fully into the aesthetics of art music.
Hip culture used to matter to The Establishment. Literate people used to have at least a few contemporary jazz LPs in their collection. It’s no fantasy that Don Draper is constantly chasing hip young ideas on Mad Men: Steve Allen used to host a TV show on NBC, Thelonious Monk appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, Miles Davis was a paragon of intellectual and sartorial fashion, and Whitney Balliett started writing about jazz for The New Yorker in 1954.
Now we have hipster culture, where money is the aesthetic and coolness is signified by what one buys and sells, and collecting objects has been aestheticized as curating. The Man has commodified and co-opted hipness, and in the 21st century there has been little more than a handful of critical pieces on jazz published in The New Yorker. But they do have regular articles on shopping!
The most recent bit of writing on jazz in the magazine (other than limited, unsurprising listings in the “Goings on About Town” section), was this smug, infantile boorishness on Sonny Rollins, from Django Gold.
It was harmless in and of itself; too many fans and critics allowed it to hurt their feelings. Like raised voices in a bar, their remonstrations brought forth the loud and meaningless opinions of Justin Moyer in The Washington Post. While Gold was trying to be funny (it needed explanation, never a good thing in comedy), Moyer, apparently sober, was full of explanations for what is wrong with jazz. It came off like backseat driving from a blind man.
Moyer’s piece is so breathtakingly wrong that many readers thought it was some kind of hoax. Amazingly, John Halle, who should know better, came to Moyer’s defense and added his own condemnation of jazz in Jacobin magazine.
How is it that ignorant, incompetent drivel like this gets published? Contrary to Halle’s sniffing, jazz is indeed an enduring counter-cultural art form, because it’s so deep underground that editors somehow imagine that these writers have something interesting and worthwhile to say about the music. They do not.
Editors in the cultural pages of general interest publications (or even specialty ones), are the gatekeepers, letting in what they feel is valuable and sharing it with the public. These editors are sharing nothing but their obtuseness.
The New Yorker is particularly puzzling, even shameful. With Alex Ross and Sasha Frere-Jones at the back of the book, they regularly seek what’s relevant in classical and pop music. Nothing for jazz. Yet the jazz scene is full of musicians working with the entire context of contemporary music and pushing jazz into new territory. This is vital in terms of contemporary classical music, the post-minimal fascination with groove-based forms and structures, but there’s no one at the magazine who is qualified to point out that those elements date back to jazz from the late 1960s.
At The New York Review of Books, there has been one blog post by Seth Colter Walls that comes anywhere near to the state of the music in the 21st century. (Its subject was the Sun Ra Arkestra’s debut at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2013.) There are occasional pieces, written by Christopher Carroll, retrospectives on Charles Mingus, Clifford Brown, and Rollins, that are symptoms of the disease.
Jazz fans are hip; editors and writers at these publications are revanchist, in love with a non-existent, prelapsarian golden age that is different for each. Moyer seems to think jazz stopped “evolving” in 1959, with Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come; Halle is tendentiously ego-centric, pegging the decline of jazz to when it stopped reflecting his political preferences, which, strangely, is when Joe Henderson released a series of albums in the late-’60s/early-’70s; for Carroll, jazz seemed to have stopped with hardbop; and at The New Yorker, it was when Balliett died in 2001.
Of course, jazz has continued to evolve from each of those arbitrary dates (and was never pure to begin with). There is archeological evidence for this, physical artifacts that satisfy every element of proof, things that we aficionados refer to, in our hip argot, as “recordings,” “video,” “ticket stubs.” This century alone has produced path-breaking jazz from Henry Threadgill, Steve Lehman, Darcy James Argue, Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer, Wadada Leo Smith, John Zorn, and so many more.
But few, if any, of these musicians teach and play recitals at colleges and universities, or appear at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Moyer and Halle are specifically revealing of how they think that is where all jazz is happening, which is a sad testament to how each of them has been co-opted by their own institutions, The Washington Post and Bard College respectively. Each is The Man, and each can only see what The Man does. Armchair guides to the jazz world haven’t even made it into the main tourist attractions themselves, much less the indigenous byways.
And The Man is unhip, and has always been. Hipsters blind to what’s hip, they, incredibly, believe that institutional and grant money has made jazz musicians fat and happy, insulated from the creative possibilities of failure—I don’t imagine they would be able to survive on what a jazz musician makes from playing their music.
Instead, it is The Man who preserves failed ideas—like Marxism, and “you kids get off my lawn” editorializing—in his institutions, his publications, colleges, and universities. Institutionalized jazz is safe, museum-piece jazz, but the music still happens in basements and lofts and living room performance spaces. These are the alternative venues and institutions for a music that, by definition, is outsider music, counter-culture music. In the current hegemonic commodification of culture, anything that doesn’t sell is outsider. And music that walks the fine and exceedingly difficult line between pop and art, as jazz has since before the bebop era, is counter-cultural.
This is epistemic closure as most commonly seen in politics, the absolute rightness of one’s views, impervious to facts and thinking. It takes a heroic level of ignorance to be a jazz fan unaware of Woody Shaw, Miles Davis from 1965 onward, Weather Report, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Joe Maneri, and The Tony Williams Lifetime. It takes an astounding level of patronizing self-regard to lecture the music for its political failings, as Halle does, while being so deaf to the music as it’s actually being made. His article is the perfect affirmation to Miles Davis’s explanation to why he didn’t talk about jazz anymore: “It’s a white folks’ word.”
One not need love the music, but the music exists regardless of how much, or little, one loves it or even knows it. The profound meaning of its continued existence comes with the closing of this circle: Rollins, at 84, is still playing and released the third volume of his live Road Shows records this year. His playing is as grand, charming, and witty as always. But jazz has moved on even from him, and there are a dozen or more other new records this year that, by pushing the music into the future, are more important.
George Grella Jr. is a composer, critic, and independent scholar. He is music editor at The Brooklyn Rail, publishes the Big City blog, and writes for the New York Classical Review, Jazziz, The American Record Guide, and Sequenza21.