Confronting the Stereotypes Around Jazz

My original plan was to go in-depth on a Gerry Mulligan album this month. Two things have pushed this plan in to the other lane. The first, I did not own the vinyl album I wanted to discuss, but I know it is readily available in Grand Junction. The second reason for the change is something that was said to me, and something that was said to a friend of mine. The first topic, what was said to me, is relevant and timely because today is the eve of Black History Month. The second topic, what was said to another, is relevant because of my geographic location.

     For really no apparent reason other than this person knows I like jazz, they said to me, “Jazz is black people and should only be listened to by black people.” At an initial glance, this short statement appears to be a simple opinion. However, looking at this statement with a different lens, this is clearly something that is layered in ignorance and outright racism. One type of music belongs to one demographic and should only be listened to by that one demographic? This is a painful statement. It seems this person watched one, maybe two episodes of the Ken Burns documentary on jazz and decided the entire genre was just too dark. Literally. Without going too deep into the history of jazz, which I will address in the future, the early history of the genre is rooted in what this person likely thinks is “the other side of the tracks.” The history of the music quickly turns multicultural in both positive and negative ways. Positive, because the expansion of a genre requires that it move beyond its beginnings. Negative, because it was the black musicians who were so often poorly treated by white patrons. Musicians often played in establishments where they would not have been permitted had they not been the entertainment. Before traveling too far into that particular area, a list of white jazz musicians is needed to show that jazz is certainly not music by and for one race only.

    The course of jazz history would look much different had it not been for the big band leaders of the 1940’s: Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller to name just a few. Where would jazz piano be without Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck? How about trumpet players Chet Baker, Chuck Mangione, and Maynard Ferguson? Drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich? The point here is certainly not to defend white jazz musicians, but to simply show that not all well-known players in jazz have been black, as the person who made this statement seems to think. My response to this person at the time was a roll of the eyes and a simple statement of “hardly” before I needed to remove myself from the situation. What I wanted to ask them was this: is country music only for white people? I believe the response would have been interesting and telling.

     Moving on to what was said to a friend; the story is short and simple.  My friend was listening to jazz without headphones when someone interjected, “Listening to old people music again?” I’m sure they thought they were being incredibly clever and witty. While the person described above believed that jazz was just for and by black people, this person clearly thought jazz was what you heard at your grandma’s house on Saturday nights when “The Lawrence Welk Show” was on the television. Have they never been to a jazz club where there was room to dance and witnessed a thumping bass coming from the small stage with sweaty bodies grinding against each other on the dance floor? Have they experienced the tail end of a third set at 1:30 a.m. when the patrons are at the point where the combination of alcohol consumption and aural delights have turned each and every person into a quivering, curling mass of jazz induced goo? If your experience with jazz has only been Lawrence Welk, then I am sorry for you. The aesthetic of that show was definitely “old person.” With that said, the musicians employed by Welk were absolutely top notch, despite the gold polyester suits and Brylcreemed hair. Jazz is certainly not “old people” music on any level other than the Welk level.

     Both of these opinions on jazz are not unexpected given that both individuals who made the statements live in western Colorado. This area is not a haven for jazz music. It is a haven for country, cover bands, and Christian music. That is fine, but opinions about many things in the arts are a product of where you live and what you choose or are forced to listen to. Both of these individuals need a trip to Denver and an evening at Nocturne. A few drinks, some amazing food, and the experience of live jazz music would be a good start on their jazz education. It is truly needed.

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