This one’s for all the jazzophobes

From The Ottawa Citizen:

A colleague of mine received a CD the other day. I saw it on her desk and figured I should let her know: “That’s a jazz disc,” I said, quite innocently.

“Thanks for the warning,” was the cool, cruel reply. Zing!

I should have expected it. I knew that music without singing doesn’t do anything for her. She describes instrumental solos as “noodling.”

It was a classic case of jazzophile meeting jazzophobe.

Usually I take in stride such barbs against the music I love so much — “Where’s the melody?” and “Where’s the beat?” and “I don’t like saxophones!”

But with the 2012 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival about to kick off, it’s time to address some stereotypes and misconceptions that, if you ask me, mire more than a few people who don’t know what they’re missing in jazzophobia.

It’s all the more important to advocate right now, when the cures for jazzophobia are in Ottawa en masse, as many brilliant jazz artists perform over the next week. And yet, as far as public attention and the festival’s own advertising go, many of them have, in a sense, been overshadowed at least a little bit by the likes of mass-appeal stars such as Steve Martin, Janelle Monae and Daryl Hall, who will give main stage shows in Confederation Park. (Check out, for example, the multitude of OIJF staff picks here, which skew toward choices such as Monae and the Barr Brothers, while somehow avoiding such jazz-of-the-highest-order selections as Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band and Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes. I’m not calling the OIJF staff jazz haters, but I would have expected a bit more jazz love.)

Over the years, I’ve seen jazz dissed from every direction. It’s been slammed as old music for old people, too safe and staid. And yet, for others it’s just too raw and raucous. Of course, the sheer eclectic embrace of jazz – a strength and a weakness — makes it easy to fasten on to some aspect and make it stand for the whole. Neither Kenny G nor avant-garde shriekers are representative.

It’s just been too easy for prejudices born of misunderstanding to have solidified. Here are few that ought to be jettisoned:

1. Jazz is not fusty museum music. Yes, jazz was a bigger deal and had a bigger market share in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. And yes, many of today’s jazz musicians still refer to the music of the past (just as today’s pop and rock artists refer to the Beatles or Bob Dylan or Led Zeppelin as touchstones).

But with improvising and spontaneous music-making at the heart of so much jazz, how can the music be old when so much of it is being generated in real time, for the first time? As the jazz singer Roberta Gambarini said to me a few years ago: “If it’s jazz, which means, if it’s done in the moment… if you follow this modus operandi, how can it be old-fashioned, if you don’t even know what’s going to happen the moment after?”

Philosophical arguments aside, jazz is in no way caught in a dated, stylistic rut. To name just two of many jazzfest exemplars, there’s singer Gretchen Parlato, who is as informed by hip-hop, Michael Jackson and bossa nova as she is by Ella Fitzgerald, and guitar whiz Bill Frisell, a master of sound and space who will interpret John Lennon’s songs as only he can.

2. Improvised instrumental solos are not “noodling” or “showing off.” Well, they can be, if the players are starting out or of an egotistical nature. But that’s not the norm. Instrumental music is simply artists using instruments to convey what they have to say, to tell their stories. The really good ones are eloquent, lucid and conversational, immediate and personal.

Improvising as a defining feature of jazz taps into a notion of musical freedom, which, at another level, is a trope for living freely. From modest personal experience, I can tell you that improvising is liberating and real — it’s the equivalent of having a new and stimulating conversation, as opposed to reading from a script over and over again.

Continue reading the rest of the story on The Ottawa Citizen