Most musicians seem to hate the genres and having their music put into some sort of category. They feel that these genres/labels shape perceptions, encourage prejudice, and put their music into a restrictive box. I believe that these genres and their gazillion sub-genres are really problematic to jazz and other kinds of music, and not only that, are arguably obsolete.
If you haven’t yet read my other post entitled “Reproducing Financial Success in Jazz“, I suggest starting there, it will help put this post into context…
All Contemporary Jazz is Fusion
This is the main basis for my belief that the genres provide no useful purpose, but one can take this argument even further by saying that a sizable percentage of all contemporary music is fusion, that modern American culture itself is a fusion of numerous influences (e.g. what we eat), and that jazz itself was originally a fusion of elements from Africa, Europe, and New Orleans (i.e. you can also say “all jazz is fusion”).
The genres are perhaps best understood in their “pure” forms. That is, there are generally archetypes – musicians or periods of music that exemplify whatever people most commonly associate with that genre. For jazz, I would argue that this is probably either Louis Armstrong, 30s big band era music, perhaps 50s Brubeck or Miles Davis, or Frank Sinatra, but I think one would be hard pressed to make a case for much of anything beyond 1959 somehow representing what people associate with jazz. The significance of 1959 was explored in the fantastic documentary “1959: The Year that Changed Jazz“. The prolific and outspoken trumpet player Nicholas Payton claims that jazz died in 1959 (and makes a strong case that jazz stopped being cool beyond 1959). Beyond the 50s and perhaps 60s, jazz went in a number of different fragmented directions.
I’ve been studying jazz for a long time now, and I can honestly say that I can’t really define it, as every possible way of describing it can be complicated by exceptions that people still consider jazz (e.g. not all jazz includes improvisation). Many academics have been making the same argument for decades. However, the ramifications for what this means today go well beyond abstract academic debates.
Nowadays, because of this fusion, fragmentation, and the gazillion sub-genres that have been created, the word “jazz” has virtually no decipherable meaning in the context of contemporary music – if confuses more than it identifies. If you were to poll people as to what they would call Trombone Shorty’s music, for example, would their calling it jazz be a slam dunk?
One could virtually take a few words such as “neo”, “New Orleans”, “new”, “post”, “jazz”, “afro”, “fusion”, “American music”, etc., write them on pieces of paper, throw these pieces of paper into the air, and form some sort of new genre with whatever order these words landed in! Should music that sounds like 10% jazz to you, 90% something else be called jazz? What should that ratio be that dictates the appropriate classification for this music? What happens when we can’t agree upon this ratio? To be clear, this is not a new problem, but a problem that just seems to have snowballed over time. As much as jazz musicians generally feel disdain for these genres, I think some of them may overlook that they certainly aren’t alone. What is rock these days? What is pop called when it is no longer popular?
So What? These Are Just Words!
The problem is Jazz generally has a negative stigma of being uncool, complicated, inaccessible, and generally unappealing. It is nearly impossible to market effectively (hint: the cool blue cat playing the saxophone doesn’t work), and as stated, people naturally prejudge anything based on their prior experiences.
I believe that the marketing and coolness factor that was once associated with jazz was tethered to race and other factors specific to generations past, and that we simply aren’t going to get this back to matter what we try. Many jazz fans rallied behind jazz as an African American statement, it has always had an element of rebellion and defiance. After all, jazz historians believe that jazz was born in the brothels! Jazz has historically always had a very complicated racial component to it, so you can say that this “baggage”, if you will, makes it difficult to simply re-appropriate in a marketing sense while disregarding all of this history somehow. There are many musicians that feel that the history should be honored, not ignored.
What Can Be Done?
In my opinion, as much as we hate all of these sub-genres, perhaps they can be used to the advantage of jazz musicians. So long as whomever or whatever is insistent on assigning music to genres, maybe we should just keep on coming up with new genres and sub-genres, and try to create as much confusion as we can justify creating? I’m not suggesting that we try to deceive the public by misrepresenting a musical product, because this will obviously backfire, but perhaps if a particular music is 85% jazz and 15% motown (for example) we should call it “jazz-motown” (or something else that sounds less silly), and even better, if that particular music has an even greater non-jazz influence, maybe we should drop the word “jazz” from the title altogether?
Nicholas Payton is already doing this with his genre he has created he calls “B.A.M.”, or Black American Music, but it appears that this effort has been polarizing since a number of people interpret this as claiming ownership and provoking race related emotions somehow, rather than simply being descriptive (as a descriptive label, I would go so far as to say that American music as a whole was created by American Americans). If for whatever reason you do not feel compelled to get behind Payton’s efforts, hopefully a movement can be created to abandon the title “jazz” as much as possible, which I believe is Payton’s general goal.
Again, The intent here is to intentionally cause confusion, not to somehow deceive the public as far as misrepresenting a product, but to hopefully cause people throw their hands up in the air and turn them on to the idea that maybe music should just be music. I’m sure we’ll always have musical categories of some form, as human beings we tend to want to classify things, but hopefully music will not be tethered to its genre the way it is today.
But What Good Will That Do if the Music Remains Complicated, and Otherwise Inaccessible?
Why does jazz (or whatever we want to call it) need to be complicated and inaccessible? A lot of jazz is, to be sure, but most musicians in my original list (the arguable exception being Wynton) have found ways to draw fans in either by performing accessible, danceable music, or slipping in complexities in some manner that doesn’t create an impossible barrier for listeners to find some sort of appealing latch. I’m not suggesting that musicians should be insincere with how they express themselves, not all music will be accessible, that is unavoidable, but I think that the music will be in a better place if it is seen as an eclectic grab bag of all sorts of stuff, which it is!
Phasing Out Musical Genres
What purpose do they serve these days? At one point they were useful for browsing music collections in libraries or at music stores, but these days new music is often discovered on platforms such as Spotify, iTunes, Pandora, etc. by typing in the name of an artist and receiving suggestions of artists that sound like them. Who goes searching through a listing of music indexed by genre anymore? The hopeful future of these genres is no longer particularly relevant, and I don’t think that this an impractical hope.
My theory of creating intentional complication is flawed, perhaps these genres will naturally become less relevant as they continue to no longer be an important part of the digital purchase/listening process, but I think right now this is the best we can do.
Marketing New Sub-genres
These sub-genres provide all sorts of interesting marketing opportunities, and material to draw from to create new and innovative images. A good friend of mine plays with a lot of blues and soul elements in his improvisations, in my opinion, and a number of people I have asked (albeit a limited sample) agree with this notion. I have encouraged him to start calling his music “Soul Fusion”, and he seems onboard with this idea – we’ll see what happens if he decides to go this route. Hypothetically speaking, if he were to go this route, he could draw from the whole super Afro, Samuel Jackson, Shaft, 70s, blaxploitation, etc. thing which would be infinitely more appealing than the stupid blue cat playing the saxophone! Esperanza Spalding is kind of doing this very thing, particularly with her very recognizable giant afro.
He would have to be careful to not create the impression that listeners would be paying to go hear a Motown or Soul band, but that “Fusion” in the title creates a little wiggle-room, and smart modern marketing does not lead the consumer to obvious conclusions anyway, it is far more subtle. In my experiences of building many musician websites, many jazz musicians (and musicians in general) go for obvious marketing imagery and fairly uncreative, non-unique themes such as general sophistication and classiness. Analyzing different modern corporate logos is a good way to acquire a taste of how subtle marketing can be if the subtlety I’m referring to here is unclear. If I were to market such a product I would market it is a new and fun experience rather than going for the usual clichés that provide a sense of accuracy. If the musical product is new to the listener (and I don’t necessarily mean new to the world, but just new to that listener), that individual will not have been deceived!
What Do You Think?
Please comment below, your critiques of my theories and exposure of their flaws are welcome!