A quick word on “Jazz Nerds International”

Now that he’s issued a truly interesting follow-up, I’ll take the bait and weigh in on Jason Marsalis’s recent rant against “Jazz Nerds International” — i.e., young musicians so obsessed with being cutting-edge and complex that they ignore the history of the music and, perhaps more important, the need to connect with an audience beyond their fellow JNI peers.

Like many others, I objected to the sweeping generalizations and straw men in Jason’s first argument, on video. Complexity per se is not the issue, nor is playing in odd meters — lots of people do it well and without sacrificing an ounce of soul or emotion or historical awareness.

But in his new statement, Jason hits on something important when he attacks “innovation propaganda” in jazz. Ben Ratliff, in his recent book Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, calls it “future-mongering.” I would describe it as an arm-folding mentality — particularly prevalent among some of my fellow jazz critics — that demands every new CD be some sort of shocking bolt from the blue, something that sounds utterly unlike the jazz we’ve come to expect. Or else, yawn.

Now, I love bold new sounds in music as much as the next person. But ultimately I think this is a bullshit, ahistorical criterion to impose on everyone who picks up a horn, not to mention an ungenerous way to approach listening. It’s the artist’s intentions that matter — and if the intention is clearly not to turn the jazz world on its ear, then it’s ignorant to write the music off for failing to do so.

What irks me the most about “innovation propaganda” is that it misrepresents the enormous struggle involved in learning to play jazz well. Years ago I knocked Stuart Nicholson for arguing that the embrace of neo-bop in the ’80s reflected that decade’s thirst for instant gratification. Learning bebop is instantly gratifying? Clearly, here is someone who never sweated it out on the bandstand or in the practice room, trying to crack the infinite riddles of a music all too often derided nowadays as “conservative.”

Oddly, though, I detect some of the same flippant disdain for hard-working young players in Jason Marsalis’s salvos. “I’m bored with the majority of the new music being played today,” Jason writes, and it’s a sentence that could have come straight from the arm-folding critics, the innovation propagandists he so detests. In any case, I couldn’t disagree more. I am anything but bored.

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2 Responses to “A quick word on “Jazz Nerds International””

  1. Michael J. West says:

    I should start by admitting that I’ve frequently fallen for the “innovation propaganda” — I’m a little embarrassed at the number of times I’ve pushed Play and been disappointed to hear classic bop stylings.

    Having said that, though, I still think Marsalis is attacking some straw men in his latest missive. Who are these jazz musicians who look down on the blues as “simple” and “boring”? I’ve never met them, and have a hard time believing that they could get together a group of cats willing to play with them. Furthermore, how anyone thinks that John Coltrane is being ignored in jazz is beyond me. It would be like ignoring Hemingway in American literature…in fact, my personal “innovation” bias is that I hear too MUCH Coltrane!

    I’m also a little bemused at Marsalis’ sticking Warne Marsh’s name in there. Yes, he’s ignored; yes, he deserves better. But frankly he was unfairly ignored when he was alive and in his peak. That a young player isn’t up on Marsh is hardly an indication that s/he is profoundly ignorant of jazz history.

  2. Josh says:

    “It’s the artist’s intentions that matter — and if the intention is clearly not to turn the jazz world on its ear, then it’s ignorant to write the music off for failing to do so.”

    Here here! I feel that specifically. Good point.

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