Jazz Wars: Pt. IV – Let’s Do it Again

In a YouTube video that’s obviously at least partially tongue-in-cheek, Jason Marsalis warns against the crop of young jazz musicians that he dubs “Jazz Nerds International”:


Not surprisingly, he kicked the anthill with his comments. Peter Hum of the Ottawa Citizen asked that he name names:

Who are the jazz nerds that Marsalis so vehemently opposes? I don’t think it’s good enough for Marsalis to say — if he’s serious — that it’s simply the students in jazz schools who are woefully misguided. Surely these students are influenced by any number of established musicians who work (prominently, but not exclusively) in the odd-time, straight-eighths, chromatic nerd zone.

Hum goes on to name a few himself, wondering if they’re the people Marsalis is referring to. Chris Barton at the Los Angeles Times‘ “Pop & Hiss” adds New Orleans’ Christian Scott, the Bad Plus, Vijay Iyer and the Claudia Quintet to the “is he or isn’t he?” list.

I like Jason personally and professionally, and really admire the intelligence reflected in Music Update, but it’s hard to believe in 2010 – considering how many generational/new vs. old arguments have taken place in jazz – that he’s seriously asserting that the values embraced 50? 60? 70? years ago are immutable and remain primary, and that jazz practice must keep one foot in that era or face some sort of excommunication. Play swinging standards or die. Since Wynton and Ellis are similarly traditionalists (I expect Branford is as well, but I haven’t read or heard these values expressed by him, I don’t want to put words in his mouth), Jason’s thoughts aren’t a complete surprise, but they’re discouraging.

I also wonder if his charge that the Jazz Nerds are killing the audience for jazz might not be wrongheaded. Perhaps what keeps another generation from connecting to jazz is the tyranny of “Caravan,” and the notion that every jazz artist must at some point put on his or her grandparents’ clothes and walk in their shoes to be legitimate.

Canadian jazz organist Vanessa Rodrigues makes an interesting argument in support of Marsalis’ point of view:

Think about where the Marsalis family is from … New Orleans, the cradle of American musical culture and birthplace of what is almost certainly America’s greatest contribution to art on the world stage.  We look back through the history of jazz with rose coloured glasses, especially now that it’s no longer “the devil’s music”, and has now been institutionalized, systematized, accepted as an academic field of study, and dare I say it, somehow sanitized in the process as well.  Early jazz  was thought of by the white upper class as low-life brothel and gambling hall music that the undesirables (read “blacks”) partook in, and it ultimately took Europeans to recognize and nurture this incredible emerging art form.  (Germans Alfred Lion & Francis Wolff launched Blue Note Records). Wynton was around to see his fellow African Americans press on through unimaginable hardship and win their civil rights, only to have the image of his culture be reduced to the vapid glorification of black on black violence, to the benefit of Big Entertainment Corp.

Some of the most romanticized, revered figures in jazz history that we admire today were often victims of police brutality and racial profiling, debilitating drug addictions and a host of other problems affecting mostly the poor and down-trodden. (Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell come to mind). If we look farther back in history to the blues, the original roots of jazz and all African American music (and by extension rock & roll and pop music), we see that it is the mournful cry of an oppressed people who also had hope and a sense of humour to see them through; there is such a rich pallette of emotions in the blues, the songs tell incredible stories of suffering and despair, love & laughter … to call yourself a jazz musician and shrug off the blues as being old and tired is like calling yourself an Italian chef and deciding that tomatoes and olive oil are boring and passé and are going to cook with something newer and more exciting. You have removed a key element of the essence of what it IS, one of the main things that makes people fall in love with it, and it ceases to be what you say it is if you do that.

Rodrigues makes a good argument for maintaining a consciousness of the blues – what jazz musician would deny that? (There is a straw man problem in Marsalis’ argument) – but I suspect any self-identified Jazz Nerd would argue that Rodrigues’ logic leads to the conclusion that all Italian cooking should involve tomato and olive oil used in the same ways, and that there’s more than just the blues in a young jazz musician’s cultural background today.

I don’t want to lean too heavily on Marsalis’ off-the-cuff manifesto because he’s obviously performing, and if he were laying out his thoughts at length, they’d likely be more nuanced than a three-minute extemporaneous YouTube video shot in a club in Toronto. But it’s fair to think that he believes his central premise, and the idea that jazz should reflect the 1920s to the 1960s for as long as performers try to play it is a chilling one. And what would the Mouldy Figs have to say about this?

  • E

    Traditionalists copy innovators.

    • happysince0107

      I couldn't agree more!

  • “But it’s fair to think that he believes his central premise, and the idea that jazz should reflect the 1920s to the 1960s for as long as performers try to play it is a chilling one.”

    That's not fair, and it's not close to what he's saying. You got the tongue in cheek part right, and it was refreshing to hear you say that if he was taking his time, his points would be nuanced. You are correct, they would, and will be. Jason's writing an essay on the subject. It will NOT be what people expect. And Jason and Wynton share some core beliefs, but are VERY different when it comes to plenty of musical topics. Wynton does not figure into this discussion, really.

    He's talking about people who leave things out of the equation. Nowhere does he say people should ONLY play standards. He says that it's an integral part to learning how to play. That's backed up by history.

    Nowhere does he say that playing in odd meters or playing straight is bad. He's saying that folks are so caught up in that, they are forgetting the fundamentals, and aren't learning how to swing.

    Nowhere does he say to confine music to one era of material. In fact, he is upset by this young generation that hardly even halfheartedly examines music pre-1998.

    The trends of the JNI is leaving information out of the equation. Jason knows plenty about playing odd meters, straight feels, free jazz, music of different national origins, etc. How many of the new youngsters can say the same about studying the COMPLETE history of the music, and playing some swing? Or some blues? On a REAL level, not mere lip service.

    It's just not out there very much. I'm 26, and I went to 6 years of school, and got two degrees. Young musicians are ignoring information everywhere.

  • Dan

    Jason is saying that one must study the history of the music and must have the core elements of the music present in whatever they do. These elements include swing, being melodic, and rhythm that makes you want to dance. One can innovate and play something that has never been played before as long as they do everything I just said. Jazz nerds put on a soulless technical display.