Thursday, 28 July 2016

Is Jazz More Punk Than Punk Rock?

It (Jazz) is a feeble and silly art at best, and so its decay need not be lamented. It comes naturally to the young, whose excess of energy demands violent motion, but when it is practised by the mature it can never escape a kind of biological impropriety, verging upon the indecent. The real damage that the new mode has done is to music, the cleanest and noblest of all the arts. - H.L Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, 1934

'No Parker, Coltrane or Thelonious Monk - in 1977!' As you know, Joe Strummer never sang that. Had he done so, he would have changed the meaning of the song, 1977, completely, causing many Punks to scratch their spiky heads and set about finding out who the hell The Clash were rebelling against. It would also have signified another battle cry against Jazz as part of a tradition that began when the music itself began at the start of the century. 

Why am I even imagining that lyric? Well, it began with a Facebook friend's statement that he was 'allergic' to Jazz, which set me to thinking about the reaction Jazz evokes in many people. A few days later I could here Strummer railing against Jazz in 1977 after wondering what most of the Punk generation (musicians and listeners) thought about Jazz. As I recall, it was never discussed among the people I knew. It wasn't on my musical map. It wasn't until the dawn of the next decade and the revival that anyone under 50 mentioned the J-word.

The train (Trane?) of thought...

...hardly logical, but I found myself trying to place Jazz in the same time frame and social milieu as Punk Rock...what would the characters in Aylesbury's Green Man pub circa '77 have said if I'd told them I was into Charlie Parker? A shrug in response. Five years later, still in Aylesbury, I would start telling everyone that Jazz could save their lives, being the greatest music on earth...words to that effect. Yes, I was a Jazz bore, probably (though I like to think not). Anyone spouting Jazz as religion is a bore to non-believers.

Today, more imaginings: Jazz is more Punk than Punk Rock. Eh? I know, a ridiculous idea...and yet...look at the response Jazz receives from the average listener...bewilderment and even hostility. Yes, you could say the same about Classical music, minus the hostility, except if you played them Schoenberg. Jazz can be easy to listen to, of course, but it's the deeper stuff that's the issue. Not even deep, but let's say tracks of sufficient length to involve three or four solos, like a 60s Blue Note tune.

Jazz spans both Pop and the Avant Garde and therein lies some confusion in the minds of the uninitiated. They think Ella Fitzgerald is Jazz (she is), but then what the hell is Andrew Hill? I usually compare it to Rock when this question arises. Few question the diversity in that genre.

'It comes naturally to the young, whose excess of energy demands violent motion,' - Mencken's words resonate, surely. It's the same response Rock 'n' Roll provoked. Some would say Elvis and the birth of all that was 'Punk Rock' way before the actual thing, which it was, to a certain extent. But to simply say that is to disregard the socio-political commentary of Punk. As for Jazz, in it's early days, it didn't need voices of social unrest, merely had to be (black music) to stir hatred in the form of racism and reactionary criticism from lovers of formal music, 'the cleanest and noblest of all the arts'.

Jazz went on to disturb ordinary listeners and Jazz fans alike as Be-Bop developed. "To say that jazz was divided about the validity and desirability of bebop would be seriously understating the case. It would be like saying the Americans were a tiny bit cross with the Japanese after Pearl Harbour, or that Hitler was unkind to the Jews", as Johnny Dankworth put it. Humphrey Lyttelton faced protest in the form of a placard in the audience that read "Go home, dirty bopper". Laughable, these days.

It would be easy to annoy/shock someone by playing them Cecil Taylor, or any 'Free Jazz', but that's not really the kind of Jazz I had in mind. Despite seemingly being 'accepted' by most, if not welcomed, personally, Jazz remains outsider music. Whilst Classical music clearly inhabits a world far away from Pop and Rock, Jazz constantly creeps into all genres, from Pop to Techno, Drum 'n' Bass and Hip-Hop. Despite that and references made by young producers in interviews, it remains 'difficult' for most to appreciate.

If Punk was rebel music, the mark of outsiders and the discontented, it's now accepted as just another page in the musical history book. It might be lumped in with 'Dad music', that horrendous label attributed mainly to Rock made in the late-70s and 80s (I think that's right, but please don't comment to correct me). Jazz meanwhile resists the softening effect of retro-affection, the castration of it's original energy. The power of Charles Mingus band in full flow remains. Ditto 60s Coltrane, electric Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey at his most intense and so on. Proper Punk music, immune to time, market commodification and gradual acceptance over time by ageing generations. Jazz remains awkward, 'difficult', complex, bawdy, noisy, defiant. 

What else can explain the inability of so many people with supposedly eclectic and 'advanced' taste to embrace it? If there's a tune it's 'ruined' by solos. If there isn't one, it's beyond being 'music'. As for those disciples (fans), they're plain irritating - that's true. What's more, they think they're 'cool'. True again, in many cases. But there are poseurs amid fans of other genres. A word, finally, about Jazz and Cool. Yes, we know it's the coolest music ever made, right? But we also know it attracted social outsiders from it's early days. Before Punk, they were dressing outrageously, taking drugs and speaking their own language. Before Beat, these 'hipsters' had dropped out, shown a middle finger to the 'squares'. 

OK. I've almost convinced myself that Jazz is more Punk than Punk Rock. 

1 comment:

  1. Some of my friends don't like jazz and that's OK, knowing their general individual tastes, it doesn't surprise or disappoint me. There are a handful of others though, musicians amongst them, who have never embraced or even investigated any form of jazz, in spite of an otherwise encouraging musical restlessness. It baffles me.


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