Jazz is a niche interest. The days when a jazz musician might appear on the cover of Time magazine are long gone; we are rarely featured in films or TV, and we have a private language all our own (Cats, Jive, Killing…) The jazz universe resembles that of railroad enthusiasts or Magic: The Gathering players. It is a subculture: cared for passionately by a small group of insiders, but thought of as a mere curiosity by the wider population, if they think of it at all.
As such, I’m always surprised when jazz bubbles up into mainstream entertainment. A few such instances were linked to by prominent jazz bloggers recently: DJA posted Spinal Tap’s thoughtful comments on jazz a couple weeks ago, and Peter Hum found this clip from the new Mike Judge movie Extract. Both of these clips are pretty funny, but I am starting to pick up a disturbing trend. It seems like the only reason jazz is referenced in contemporary popular culture is to mock the music and its fans. Let’s review the evidence:
Exhibit A: Jerry Maguire
I can’t find the video, but this film contains what is probably one of the best known “jazz nerd” portraits in modern cinema. Dorothy, played by Renee Zellweger, has a nanny (he prefers “child technician”) named Chad. Played brilliantly by Todd Louiso, Chad is a music snob who extolls the virtues of jazz at every opportunity. When Dorothy and Jerry are getting ready to go out on their first date, Chad grandly tells her, “Tonight I’m gonna teach Ray about jazz!” to which she replies, “Good, that’ll put him to sleep early.”
After the date, Jerry and Chad have an uncomfortable encounter at Dorothy’s front door. Chad rummages through his bag to give something to Jerry. A condom? No, a cassette tape:
“This… is Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Stockholm. 1963… two masters of freedom, playing in a
time before their art was corrupted by a zillion cocktail lounge performers who destroyed the legacy of the only American artform — JAZZ.”
Later, as Jerry and Dorothy begin to make love to the raucous introduction of Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song,” they fall apart laughing and ask, “What IS this music!?!”
Cameron Crowe, the writer and director of Jerry Maguire, is a music afficianado and former writer for Rolling Stone. Some have accused him of hating jazz, but I wouldn’t go that far on the basis of this one film. I know that Vanilla Sky features a hologram of John Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things,” with nary a negative comment. Crowe’s mentor was critic Lester Bangs, who certainly had an interest in jazz. And Crowe seems to have legitimate respect for Charles Mingus in this interview with Joni Mitchell. So I’m not sure what to make of this Chad character, except that he is an easy source of comedy. Perhaps he is simply Crowe’s way of taking the hot air out of the many jazz lovers who go on and on about “America’s Classical Music,” “America’s Most Valuable Contribution to the Arts” — claims that must get quite annoying to American artists working in other fields.
Exhibit B: Stephen Colbert’s Hiphopketball: A Jazzebration
Vodpod videos no longer available.
He came back for a second shot two years later:
Vodpod videos no longer available.
Now, I recognize that A.) Colbert’s character is a buffoon, and B.) He must actually know a certain amount about the music to mock it so effectively. But it sure feels like the audience is laughing with him, rather than at him. They’re not laughing at the ridiculousness of Colbert’s arguments; they’re laughing at the music.
Exhibit C: Will Ferrell
The music in that clip was Charlie Parker’s “Segment,” played by the Ben Perowsky Trio. Of course, this is not the first time that Ferrell used jazz to comedic effect — consider this classic “yazz flute” scene from Anchorman.
Exhibit D: The Might Boosh
This one is less mainstream than the others, but The Might Boosh is a very popular comedy duo in Britain.
I had to include that clip just for the line “Science teachers and the mentally ill.”
Exhibits E, F, G…
Some other references to jazz I wanted to mention: Carrie dates a jazz bass player with Attention Deficit Disorder in Sex and the City; there’s an episode of the show Yes, Dear in which the main character Greg has two tickets to a jazz festival but cannot find anyone interested in going with him; there is a Simpsons episode in which Bart becomes a professional jazz drummer. I could go on, but you get the point.
Now, I will be the first to admit that the clips above are hilarious. But taken together, this picture of jazz in popular culture is pretty grim. Jazz is the province of egg-heads and snobs; it is unpleasant cacophony that is perpetuated by bizarrely self-important weirdos. The problem is not just that people don’t see jazz as something cool, it is that they are seeing it as explicitly not cool. This has not always been the case — Bill Cosby used to have jazz musicians guest on his show quite often, and they were always cool “Uncle Dizzy,” or something along those lines. But the older jazz icons are leaving us, and the newer breed of university-trained musicians have not figured out a way to maintain the same aura of cool.
As we struggle with declining audiences, jazz venue closures, and a general music industry upheaval, we must not forget that there is a broader public relations battle that must be waged – the re-coolization of jazz. I don’t mean to suggest that we have to cater to preteen Jonas Brothers fans, but if jazz is not looked upon as a worthy adult interest, than the battle for audience share is lost before a note has been played. Jazz is often used in films to add a dash of vintage cool or sexiness to stories set in the first half of the 20th century, and we could try to carry that tradition into the 21st century with contemporary jazz music.
Getting some more positive references to jazz into popular culture is a step in the right direction. For example, George Clooney used footage of Dianne Reeves performing in his film Good Night, and Good Luck. While she was mainly used to provide period ambience, she does have significant screen time, and anything associated with Clooney gets bonus cool points. Ditto with the super-cool Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, a film which features the most ridiculously lavish and well-attended jazz club ever.
I’m reminded of Russell Hammond, the guitarist from another Cameron Crowe movie, Almost Famous. He tells William, the young reporter assigned to write about his band, “Just make us look cool.” Is that too much for a jazz musician to ask?