Just Make Us Look Cool

Those were the days...

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

"Show me the Bebop!"

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.

Dianne Reeves GNAGL

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?

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Published in: on September 24, 2009 at 1:24 am  Comments (37)  

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  1. Great post. I agree that the picture is grim, but I’m also optimistic that somehow the re-coolization of jazz is very, very possible. For starters, I wonder how the jazz attackers in the above clips would think of the music being profiled on the “Jazz Now” series at A Blog Supreme (http://www.npr.org/blogs/ablogsupreme/2009/09/jazz_now_introduction.html). Would non-jazz fans see that stuff as self-important egg-head music?

    Also, another hilarious pop culture reference to jazz, courtesy of the short-lived cult cartoon sitcom Home Movies: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39EDzneKJUI&feature=related

  2. Hmm… that Blog Supreme link seems not to be working. Try this instead: http://bit.ly/ucXH2

  3. “nothing is cooler than to be not afraid to look uncool” (or something like that) – Andy Warhol….

    my fave music geek is Buscemi in Ghost World…

    • I never saw Ghost World, I’ll have to check that out.

  4. Nice post. I’m typing with my thumbs, but one question that occurred to me while reading this was whether the problem is not a dearth of cool, but an excess. I.e.,the stereotype that jazz musicians are “hipper than thou,” an earnest, authentic stance that may be hard to maintain in a postmodern, irony-filled culture. I dunno…

    • That’s a definite possibility, and it raises the old school-yard question, “how do you act cool without looking like you’re trying to act cool?”

  5. I think you’ve got your own response built into this post – when popular media wants to convey an idea of cool sophistication, they actually do use jazz. When they want to convey some kind of buffoonery, they use jazz as well, but there’s an important distinction between the two takes. For example, Ricky Bobby and his friends are show as buffoons partly through their reaction to listening to jazz, the music is used to stereotype them, not the music itself. Good Night And Good Luck has people appreciating the music, not mocking it, to the advantage of the characters.

    I do think there is a problem, but from the opposite side. Jazz is too cool for most people, including pop culture producers who approach it nervously as something that is both beyond their intelligence and beyond their hipness. In the segment of pop culture that is excessive and obvious in its search for hipness, the Hipsters themselves, jazz is something that they are trying to grok but clearly feel they don’t quite have the cool for – just stroll around Williamsburg some evening! Jazz is the coolest, it’s the people who try and mock it who show themselves as insecure and deeply in need of cool themselves.

  6. I think that jazz musicians have there fair share of the blame. A good portion of the jazz community are stuck regurgitating (poorly i might add) sounds from different decades. You turn on KJAZ and hear some lame tenor player playing some tune that sounds like it was recorded in 1955 by a high school student and the DJ informs you that its the hot new track from so and so. Its like Miles said about Wynton “we already played that shit”. If Jazz Musicians want their image and art form to be viewed as cool they need to tap into the new sounds of culture like they used to ( show tunes anyone?) or better yet, shape the new sound and push the boundaries of what cool is. Oh and they (jazz Musicians) should stop being so dorky and more cool. Im a great example. JAZZ

  7. From my vantage point — that is to say the longtime jazz girlfriend that doesn’t really know or like jazz — I have to say that the reason jazz isn’t cool is because the jazz nerds have effectively shut the rest of us out of it. The way jazz fans fawn over and talk about jazz makes it unwelcome to any casual fan.

    There is no music quite dissected like jazz, and no topic quite as boring as dissected jazz. While all of you yammer on about changes and chords and time signatures and social issues related to jazz (bah!), the music has faded to the background… of both your chatter and my mind.

    Take for example, the Austin McBride “scandal.” While jazzicists debate his merits/demerits and whether or not it’s all a big joke, the rest of us are left with a video of him counting four over “Take Five.” Yes, I get the humor in it. But funny? No, not really.

    It’s is not unlike the magic trick. The magician who reveals his secrets no longer has magic, only tricks.

    When you guys decide to open up the jazz fraternity to the rest of us, maybe jazz will be the cool kid at school again, instead of the “too cool for school.”

    • Excellent analysis, Nancy. As the boyfriend-with-a-girlfriend-who-doesn’t-listen-to-jazz, I see what you mean. I think you’re absolutely right that if we (jazz fans) can’t communicate our love and passion for the music in a way that is culturally relevant TODAY, then that is a failure on our part. Having been stygmatized as a “nerd” before I even got into jazz, I have always been very resentful of this cultural perception. However, I still haven’t figured out how to fight it very well.
      I do think the “jazz now” series cited by Lucas above is an encouraging step, and I was honored to be asked to participate. But until I hear from non-jazz fans what they think of the selections, I’ll withhold judgment as to the series’ effectiveness. As such, all of us in the jazz community would LOVE to hear your thoughtful feedback on some of the tunes that are up there at Blog Supreme.

  8. Clint Eastwood has always been a big fan of jazz. I remember a scene In the Line of Fire when he sits down to relax and he’s kicking back to Miles, if I remember right. No comment about why he likes jazz, in the movie he’s just a guy would likes it.

    @ Nancy, I do agree that the jazz world can be insular and off-putting, but I sometimes feel those same feelings with the alt/indy rock world not to mention the opera world, the Bill James statheads of baseball, and many other places where the same fetishizing of small and seemly unimportant, uninteresting insider details and history, seems completely not welcoming (a certain ‘good ol’ boys country club mentality). And certainly jazzers can do more to be less cliquey, but like many things, there is some responsibility from the listener to be open too. I think many of today’s younger (or young-ish) jazz musicians (as well as new music, cross-genre types) do attempt to make true connections with their audiences and meet them part way to help them understand the music beyond the how the music is made, to the why it is made or what it is trying to say or express. This, I think, can turn people on to the music, rather than running away from it.

  9. Oh yazz flute…I’m not prepared.

    1)Nancy I totally agree!!
    2) As long as jazz remains a niche interest you’ll continue to have this struggle between the subculture insiders and outsiders. And would you still think it was so cool if it was more mainstream? Isn’t that why we like to go to the small jazz club and get an intimate show?

    Yeah, I guess jazz is cool. But I would argue that’s different than saying the jazz musicians are cool. And maybe that’s what you’re hung up on, Matt.

    Let me start off by saying that I have had many a crush on a jazz musician.
    And I would like to tie this in to Vikram’s earlier post about Maria Schneider and her definition of “sexiness” as being someone who does something really well.

    When someone has the confidence to be on stage, and showcase their talent I think that is very sexy. And when I’ve actually worked up the nerve to meet these sexy/cool-looking musicians what do I find? Oh, they are just another person, and they are really good at what they do because they spend ALL their time doing it. As a person who is interested in the music, but not basing my life’s work on it, I find it can be difficult to find common ground with these people, and their “sexiness” and “coolness” factor fall off because they are usually just like all the other “geniuses” in a given field, like in science, math, etc, who LACK COMPETENT SOCIAL SKILLS because they spend all their time talking about music with other nerdy musicians.

    Maybe this is a product of where I went to school (MANY socially inept musicians, and awkward people in general), but I see the same qualities in the west coast musicians I know.

    So in Almost Famous, he has to ask William to make them look cool. Because they’re not. He just wants everyone to think they are.
    And isn’t that what we all want?

  10. Thought provoking post, Matt. My video response:

    I’ve always thought Joshua Redman is pretty cool.

    • Is this, THE Chad Brandt???

  11. […] Is For Loser Dorks: The blog Twenty Dollars examines a few recent unflattering pop-culture portrayals of jazz fans. And I think their take on it is pretty much right. First, if we can’t laugh at ourselves, […]

  12. come on, this is such a selective argument. surely you don’t need to look hard in the mainstream to find caricatures of classical musicians, country musicians, rappers, conceptual artists, mimes, etc.

    nor is there any shortage of dork love in indie rock. and certainly you have an abundance of jazz musicians backing up pop, r&b and rock stars, from beck to beyoncé, maxwell to the mars volta. checked in on mos def or bilal or d’angelo or q-tip or ms. n’degeocello lately? wow, those people are so uncool, they actually put jazz musicians on their records, and actually appear onstage right next to them.

    give me a break. if this is about anything at all, it’s about money, specifically the lack thereof. if anyone sees jazz as pathetic it’s because there doesn’t appear (to the average hypothetical ignorant person depicted in the average anecdote) to be any capital swirling around to support it.

    people who love jazz appear (to this same apocryphal joe the plumber/sixpack/etc) to be slumming. there appears to be no economic upward mobility in associating with it – unless you’re an imperious cultural arbiter schoolmarmishly nagging the world about the importance of jazz; evidently there will always be solid careers for such people.

    to hell with “looking cool” or “coolness p.r.” throw some money at us and suddenly we’ll be cool as shit. what if radiohead or jay-z had someone from this sphere as an opening act? what if some famous cool people (like oprah, but obviously not her, since she already said she wouldn’t; and preferably younger than clint eastwood, and less frivolous than perez hilton) were to support jazz artists (preferably someone besides winner-take-all wynton marsalis)?

    it’s not like everyone on the street loves the japanese artist takashi murakami. but kanye loves him, and museums love him. that’s a lot of cultural capital.

    could you imagine similar “niche” support for a creative musician? i’m not kidding.

    • Hi Mr. Iyer,

      Thanks for reading. I don’t deny that caricatures of other genres exist, but I have not noticed the same consistent mockery that I am sensitive to regarding jazz (well, I guess mimes don’t get much love). I’m just arguing for a more balanced picture of jazz, where more people recognize that the side-musicians for their favorite popular artists are actually jazz musicians who play an integral role in making that music, and who also create original music of their own.

      Your last few paragraphs are right on. It would be GREAT to see that kind of support for creative musicians. However, I think that there’s a chicken/egg relationship between money and exposure. If a band like Kneebody appeared on Letterman, I know they would kick ass, make new fans, and probably sell more records. Of course, they’re never going to be booked on Letterman, especially if they don’t sell more records. So I would love to see some support of jazz by high profile arbiters-of-cool, but I’m not sure how to get from here to there.

  13. esperanza spalding was on letterman, played at the white house, and models in banana republic ads. the bad plus, christian scott, mehldau, redman, queen latifah, a certain trumpet player from new orleans, benny golson in the climax to “the terminal,” etc. there’s lots of jazz with near-mainstream visibility. it’s not exactly at its highest peak right now – really, what is? the bush years were hard for everyone – but it’s not as bad as you make it out to be.

    and let me just say this: your exhibits A thru G of negative jokes about jazz involve white people exclusively (except of course the simpsons, which involves yellowish people exclusively).

    so you seem to be highlighting this phenomenon wherein white people wield the privilege and power to insult the disempowered, underfunded genre of jazz in all-white, multimillion-dollar hollywood films and tv shows (thereby empowering millions of mostly white viewers to do the same); to gleefully flaunt their own ignorance and hatred of this music; and to revel in the degradation of people who know or care about it.

    this suggests to me that maybe this “coolness” problem is really about the freedom of white americans to publicly loathe jazz. maybe the music is a reminder of black american achievement and therefore of white guilt, so it is just easier and more satisfying for white americans to categorically, if unconsciously, reject it.

    that’s just a hypothesis, and i’ll gladly be proven wrong (though you can’t prove me wrong by saying “jazz isn’t black music”). at any rate, thank you for bringing this revealing phenomenon to our attention.

  14. This is awfully tangential (and skirts many of the thorny and important issues Vijay rightly raised)… and furthermore, George already kind of pointed it out… but I think it bears repeating: in Exhibit C, it’s Ricky Bobby and his ignorant, Ugly-American friends who are the butt of the joke, not the jazz-loving, ultra-competent French driver Jean Girard. Which one of them ends the scene with his arm pinned behind his back and his face being shoved into the pool table?

  15. Sure it would be nice to get more cultural capital, but at what cost?

    Jazz is difficult, and people don’t want difficult. And it is easy to make fun of difficult..and I think the actual humor in those examples a bit more complex (i.e. that jukebox joke is funnier if you actually know who Charlie Parker is).

    So maybe difficult jazz gets lets cultural capital than it should..less than other art forms, but as much as we all hate to admit it, Marsalis et. al. had a point in seeking cultural capital that wasn’t necessarily attached to market value.

    The other side of it is that jazz is connected to all this pop music, historically and aesthetically. But as the genre has become increasingly narrow through its history, this prohibits people from imaginatively hearing the connections it has to the other difficult music they enjoy. We take genre for granted as a consumed product..and this goes for musicians as well as listeners. There is a lot of work to be done in destabilizing genres…something Radiohead and Mos Def and whoever else have done quite a bit of I think, and something “jazz” artists have not done so much. Then again, the latter are doing it for the money, aren’t they? Are we? Do we want to?

  16. Ted Malone in Cheers once remarked, “There are no bad boys. Just boys with bad haircuts”.
    Is Jazz as a musical form limited in its popularity by it’s complexity? Is the random logic or mathematics too high culture for appeal to the mediocre mass culture?
    With all other popular forms of music, (rock, hip-hop, dance, pop, even country), there is a definable visual element to it.
    One of my bands opened up for Ornette Coleman, and my drummer remarked to the man himself on his silk suit. Ornette replied, “It’s just show bizness man.”
    BTW Vijay- you are cooler than you know

  17. Jazz IZ hip as fuck ! the problem : people being fed the wrong information or the wrong sounds of Jazz and not living in the present , rather keeping it in the past like a museum . What is happening now is hip and the culture is great . We most def aren’t dorks *head nod* were intelligent artist that are willing to sacrifice are lives to create and develop new sounds using knowledge and intuition to create “Jazz” . That article is the “lamest shit ever”

  18. To categorize the rejection of “jazz” as an act of “white america” is silly, just as silly as the original post’s lamentations of the state of creative music vis a vis the pop cultural reflections on it ridiculously cites as “exhibits.” After all, “jazz” audiences are predominantly white. It is true that movie executives are perfectly happy (even obligated?) to play on stereotypes and jazz has plenty of them. No amount of money thrown at jazz musicians is going to change that and who cares anyway.

    Actually, in the end, the caricatures of jazz that are cited function at a secondary level, in that they are injected as representations of an inscrutable or exotic form that is “elevated”. So it’s not clear (to me at least) at what level precisely they are derisive or negative. I think these references are probably evidence of the creators’ own ironic stance with respect to the subject matter or characters in their films.

    That *mainstream* America continues to suffer from an unwillingness to engage real creative music on a mass-scale is regrettable, and, I think, bound to the lack of opportunities for music education and literacy in all but the most affluent school districts. If we didn’t teach people to read they wouldn’t read literature either. And yet what is refreshing about creative music today (and what gives me hope) is that it is more and more successfully resisting academic codifications of “jazz” (kudos) and more intertwined with creative elements with a broad stripe of origins, cultural and regional, and sampling from popular and less popular forms. So I reject the characterization of the situation as bleak, as much as I would like to see it be better funded!!

    • Hi Mr. Brock,

      I appreciate your comment. However, I’d like to point out that I made no claim about “the state of creative music.” I’m a musician, and I’m way into creative music. I was simply attempting (perhaps unsuccessfully) to bring attention to the “caricatures of jazz” that I feel are the most predominant; caricatures that I think do a disservice to the music and its fans, and ultimately hurt creative musicians’ chances of reaching a broader audience. This post was intended more as a plea for balance – for those “cool” tastemakers who actually have some interest in jazz to occasionally present jazz musicians as something OTHER than the caricature. That is, to “make us look cool” for a change.

      • I can appreciate that — and my response was in part to Vijay (who is a very good friend of mine). If I take your point correctly, perhaps I could restate it as saying something like: if this or that filmmaker or producer is actually a fan of jazz, why do they feel uncomfortable doing anything other than caricaturing it in their films? (I guess this is basically what you say in your last sentence). But I do think they give themselves away at some level…

        Thanks.

  19. […] post Just Make Us Look Cool at Twenty Dollars, or more specifically, Vijay Iyer’s responses in the comments […]

  20. now hang on, j.b. -:

    1) i never said “white america” – merely “white americans,” i.e., americans who are white; people who self-identify as both american and white.

    to me there’s a pretty big difference: saying “white america” is like saying “whitey.” glenn beck says “white america.”

    2) it is indeed true that most americans who like jazz are white people, and that most americans who hate jazz are white people; most americans who like or hate most things are white people, because most americans are white people.

    but, ALL of the chosen examples (whatever their merits) of jazz being hated involve white people EXCLUSIVELY.

    when there is something that ONLY white people seem to be doing, especially when it relates to a field originated by african americans, is it wrong or “silly” to consider the problem as possibly racialized (i.e., influenced by the perception of race)?

    i’ll answer that: no, it’s not silly to consider that.

    it’s also possible that the samples were biased, and that you could find people of color in racially homogeneous OR heterogeneous situations also speaking ill of jazz. as i said, i’d be happy to be proven wrong.

    3) when i wrote,

    “this suggests to me that maybe this “coolness” problem is really about the freedom of white americans to publicly loathe jazz”

    i was not talking about an actual jazz problem; i am referring to the blogger’s perceived problem, and trying to analyze what he is perceiving.

    i do not really know whether “this ‘coolness’ problem” actually exists, though i can see why the examples he cites might make him feel as though it’s true.

    to me these same examples depict some white americans’ (and white englishmen’s) rejection of jazz. i am not saying that all white americans are rejecting jazz. but some people are, and (from these examples) they are white, and evidently they are allowed (i.e. free) to do so, in extravagant settings influencing millions of viewers, such as feature films, sitcoms, and late-night tv shows.

    if this phenomenon really IS a trend, it’s because it is systemically enabled as a trend.

    4) (yes, it’s true, jeff brock is my friend!)

  21. […] Jazz, Jazz Now, Nerdiness, Nerds, Twenty Dollars, Wilson High School jazz | by arodjazz The recent post at Twenty Dollars (via A Blog Supreme) has REALLY struck a chord with me, so to speak.  This is […]

  22. Wow, Vijay — some serious stuff in there. This whole issue really struck a nerve for me, as somewhat of a “rehabilitated nerd.” I’ve taken some time to compose my thoughts on the matter, which can be read here:

    http://wp.me/pwbPQ-6N

    Bottom line: this stereotype is a problem for the jazz community. It sucks to be a nerd. And I think Vijay is onto something as far as the sources of the damaging misconception go.

  23. Excellent discussion. Thanks Matt for setting it in motion. I don’t have anything coherent to add immediately after reading, but I might after I lose some sleep over this.

    Some questions, though:

    1)I agree at a gut level with Vijay, my fellow person of colour, that if there’s a snubbing of jazz at large, race matters at some level. And yet, if jazz perhaps is snubbed because it’s “a reminder of black american achievement and therefore of white guilt, [and] it is just easier and more satisfying for white americans to categorically, if unconsciously, reject it,” then what about white take-up with respect to hip-hop, urban, etc? Or are jazz nerds a subset of wiggas?

    2) Let’s just say there is a mainstream dissing of jazz. Is it as prevalent outside America? North America? If not, why not?

    Thanks again, Matt.

    ps: Another famous jazz nerd in the movies: Daniel Stern’s character in Diner, if I recall correctly.

  24. People making fun of jazz is nothing new today,.just cue Jay Leno with his suggestion that all Jazz Musicians are vagrants or hopped up on drugs to Kevin Eubanks,.who goes along with that shit because,.He’s getting paid a crazy amount of money to? The truth is that many Jazz musicians ARE messed up,.Maybe Jay and Kevin can stop by the Jazz foundation in NYC and tell a few jokes,.(anybody seen Dewey Johnson recently?)
    People are always more comfortable making fun of what they do not or are not ready to understand.I recall the jokes about the people starving in Ethiopia,.or the jokes about people with no arms or legs being told to me in school in the 80’s.People by the millions have simply a great amount of work to do in order to even reach the basic potential of what a human being can be.
    You are what you listen to.If you listen to music that celebrates money or getting as many woman as possible,.then that’s who and what you are.
    The media has been largely effective in the dumbing down of American society,.The same forces behind the media have put millions of dollars into creating music that reinforces the mass idea that we are all really very simple and stupid.Ive seen people holding up diamond signs above their heads,.tranced out at a Jay-Z concert,.celebrating that money is power,.and that is some pretty sick shit,.a symbol of what American culture has become,.and a place where Jazz don’t fit,since with Jazz you actually have to think at times,.and it celebrates the individual.
    Having Wynton and his crew at the White House was the wrong way to go,.and to safe.Jimmy Carter had it right when he had Cecil and Ornette stop by!
    Maybe in Obama’s second term,.(that is if we all still exist after 2012)

  25. Nice post! I was just thinking about this the other day.

    I think pop-culture makes fun of these characters not because of jazz but because you are not supposed to force your taste on others if your taste is in the minority. But most people like what they like only because millions of dollars were invested into shoving the music/fashion/attitude down their throats anyway.

    I don’t think these portrayals of jazz music make it more or less desirable, or that it sucks to be a nerd. Press coverage and editorial content are commodities that can be bought. It just costs a lot of money. It’s silly to think that these jokes are the cause of the half-empty jazz clubs. Or the consequence of them. Or even related to them. There are a lot of struggling and half-empty bars, karaokes, dance clubs, hip-hop clubs, auditoriums, theaters, movie theaters, restaurants and sports arenas. And owners and managers of all these venues are always quick to blame the product instead of taking a hard look at their audience development efforts.

    They see the full club across the street and think “Oh, that’s cause they have a ladies night, so I’ll have a ladies night!” Fail. They see the full broadway theater and think “Oh, it’s because they have musicals, so I should have one too!” Fail. They always fail to see the invisible club promoter bringing in the whole house of Delta Delta Whatever in for a birthday party, or the theater seat broker selling one hundred seats for a dollar each at the old folk’s home. They chalk it up to the neighbor’s better product, and console themselves about their half-house saying that media jokes are killing jazz, Wynton Marsalis killed jazz, George Bush killed jazz. If anything kills jazz is this idea that the audience will come because you practiced.

    I am more surprised that the jazz audience is as big as it is, considering that I never see any advertisements for it. I get hit with ads for all kinds of shit on google, facebook, myspace, magazines, the trains, cabs, TVs, public restrooms, billboards, radio, movies, junk mail, street flyering teams. I never see one piece of jazz-related advertisement unless it’s in Hot House, which you get because you already like jazz, or jazz radio, which you listen to because you already like jazz so it’s moot point.

  26. “The problem is,” you write, “not just that people don’t see jazz as something cool, it is that they are seeing it as explicitly not cool.” The solution? “A broader public relations battle must be waged – the re-coolization of jazz.” In your blog and the ensuing discussion, “cool” or some variant thereof appears 48 times, without anyone ever questioning the underlying premise that jazz ought to be perceived and promoted as such. In his forthcoming book The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, Ted Gioia argues that “cool is not a timeless concept. Cool as we know it today only appeared on the scene a short while ago. Its greatest period of cultural impact lasted but a few decades. The concept is now on the wane, and other more vigorous and robust ideas are on the rise that will marginalize and, increasingly, replace it.” Obviously, y’all devotees of la mort esthétique are woefully behind the cultural curve, clinging to an obsolescent concept. “Jazz,” you contend, “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.” That’s a prescription for further marginalization. Cool served us well during the 1920s (Bix Beiderbecke), 1930s (Lester Young), 1940s (Nat King Cole), and 1950s (Miles Davis). But, as you’ve noticed, this is a new millennium. Apart from their interest as historical artifacts, both cool and jazz have exhausted their appeal. Welcome to the postcool world.

  27. I’m surprised no one has yet included the following, since it clearly shows—and there’ve got to be more examples out there—that all is not lost when it comes to jazz portrayals in popular culture. Not only is it from a major motion picture (starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx!), but it unintentionally riffs on some of the issues raised above:

    As I recall, the scene opens with the guy-who-gets-shot up on the band stand playing trumpet with his band, and when they complete the set he comes and sits down with Cruise. I also seem to recall Cruise, as he listens and enjoys the music while they’re still playing, making some sort of now-that’s-real-jazz statement or two (which is what the Foxx character’s comment about “improvisation” refers to).

    This is only one clip, but let’s face it: what better relevance-and-coolness could jazz ask for than Tom Cruise as the most world-weary, glamorous, rough-hewn, jazz nerd hit man ever? I mean, sure, it’s a pretty lethal jazz trivia game, but at bottom, IT’S A JAZZ TRIVIA GAME—of the sort that Nancy’s boyfriend and his friends (and, yes, me and my friends) might engage in, except it’s Tom-freaking-Cruise here, did I mention that? (Certainly I’m not the only jazz fan who yelled, “Nooooooo!” as the bullets were being pumped into the trumpeter’s forehead, knowing full well he’d blown it?) And what true jazz geek could resist informing a dead corpse of the correct answer to the question he’d just missed?

    I really appreciate Matt’s original post, not only because it opened me up to thinking about the contemporary jazz image in ways that I hadn’t previously, and also because I remember watching, in the theater, each of the other films he cites above and, curiously, it never occurred to me to be offended by the jazz portrayals. Maybe, as Vjay suggests, my blackness caused me to see the characters as more “white” than as jazz representatives. Or maybe it says something about my own relationship to the music I love that I could be more amused than offended. I don’t know.

    One interesting thing about the Collateral clip, though, is that it brings an explicit blackness to the discussion rather than the implicit blackness in each of the scenes above. AND it does, in spite of—or because of—the violence, make jazz seem cool…

  28. […] as fairly young persons and musicians, and often bring up a number of interesting issues, like the coolness of jazz fandom. Speaking of which, pianist Vijay Iyer has once again said something intelligent about this in the […]

  29. […] “It seems like the only reason jazz is referenced in contemporary popular culture is to mock the music and its fans.” Read the full article by Matt. […]

  30. […] reading this blog,  I was inspired to ask ‘Why isn’t Jazz considered cool?’   I mean, […]


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