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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

How Can a Listener Ignore the Influence of the Market on the Beautiful Art of Jazz?

Categories, definitions, labels, marketing, oh boy. When you are writing about jazz, to mention these things is somehow to ignore or taint the music. But how can a curious and responsible listener ignore the influence of the market on this beautiful art? It’s rare for jazz musicians to make a living from creative, improvised, instrumental music without some consideration of getting and keeping an audience.

There’s an inevitable relation between the extent to which a jazz musician chooses to “sweeten” his music and how we evaluate that music. To pretend that every musician makes every choice in making a record on purely artistic grounds is to ignore reality.

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The Critic’s Dilemma

As a jazz writer, I can’t escape my own point of view, a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t position. To ignore the larger picture of how a record was made or how it fits into the larger culture is irresponsible. But it’s also true that too many critics will tar a record with being “commercial” in the pejorative sense because they are tied to upholding some preset notions of what one might think an artist should be doing rather than listening for what he actually is doing.

Lately, there has been a slew of jazz that is both artistically ambitious and flatly commercialized, by which I mean not only that it incorporates some elements of US pop music (what doesn’t, these days?), but also that it was made with some genuine intention of selling itself to folks beyond “jazz purists”.

Recently I reviewed Robert Glasper’s Black Radio 2. In my mind, it wasn’t really a jazz record (it’s predecessor, Black Radio, won the Grammy for Best R&B Record), so at the start of my review I wrote: “[T]he honest question is not whether [this] is a strong work from a jazz artist working with pop music but whether it’s a great pop record, a pop record that is fresh, creative, compelling, beautiful… I don’t know if Black Radio 2 is “jazz” or not or whether that’s even a question worth debating.”

The review produced a series of email responses that said, in essence, “Thanks for not running this down as a too-poppy jazz record and just hearing it as music.” The praise wasn’t for my liking this recording, but rather, for not insisting on hearing it as “jazz” diluted by pop. As “jazz” it wasn’t much, maybe. Whatever that might have meant.

But this got me thinking. Maybe I should have thought more about Glasper, undoubtedly a jazz pianist when he wants to be, using pop music to sell records. Maybe Black Radio wasn’t jazz, but  there is a huge swath of music like Glasper’s that, mostly, is. What’s fair in writing about it? By what standards should we think about it?

Let’s start by acknowledging that this is an old problem, and commercialization isn’t always bad for the art. Though it can be.

Read all of the column here: How Can a Listener Ignore the Influence of the Market on the Beautiful Art of Jazz?

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