Friday, October 19, 2007

The same old song (and the dance?)

Why aren't (m)any young black folks playing jazz, asks Greg Tate.

Indie-rock is way too white, says SFJ. And the blogosphere blows up at him.

I thought of these posts earlier this week as I had a long conversation with an old musician friend. (call him Z) Z has toured and recorded a lot, in jazz, in R&B, in hip-hop. We were talking about the "state of jazz" today, and he opined that jazz is a music without a context- why exactly are we making this music today, and does it have anything to do with the traditions of the music. Jazz originated as music to dance to, from New Orleans to the Cotton Club to the chitlin circuit, which Bird played for a lot of his career. He feels that that element has largely been lost in the music today, and music that doesn't have it (which is most of it, especially made by anyone, white, black or green, under 40) doesn't interest him at all. He thinks it has to do with class, not just race- he talked about Johnny Cash's "Folsolm Prison" album, and how much it grooves, really grooves in the same kind of way that James Brown or P-Funk groove. I feel that way about some of the traditional Irish music I've studied. Musicians, he believes, are better served when they apprentice in a truly functional music, where people applauding politely, or even enthusiastically, isn't enough to make a player. You have to be able to make people move without telling them to. And not just a dorm of hippie college kids, a skeptical crowd, who want to move but who won't go for just anybody's boogie-woogie.

I fired back that you could say what he's saying about the function of jazz about a lot of music- over the last thirty years, the only places in American culture where the function of music hasn't changed is opera houses and strip clubs. And I'm not in any rush to apprentice at either of those, and wouldn't want my students to either. But his point about movement bears some serious thought.

I don't know enough about the indie scene to effectively contribute to the debate SFJ has started. But what resonates to me about his piece, based on what I hear of indie-rock, is that the bands he criticizes have lost touch on any level with the dance element of rock'n'roll ("you're old SadBastard music", Jack Black famously said in High Fidelity). The music lacks the kind of rhythmic drive- really any rhythmic drive- that made rock and roll so infectious since its birth, and so dangerous, especially in the eyes of moralists and classical critics.

(Intrestingly, now that I've listened to it a few times, the track on In Rainbows I keep returning to is "15-Step", to my ears the most rhythm driven track on the record.)

The fact is that rock bands, and jazz musicians for that matter, no longer have to play school dances or little chicken joints, replaced by DJs and the like. (wedding bands are not the same thing at all...) So does our music serve any function beyond self-expression or some sort of personal validation? I'm not saying those are bad or unimportant by any means, but given where the music comes from, given what so many of us say we're going for, are they enough? Is something crucial lost

Could that disconnect be why the young black musicians that were playing saxophones thirty years ago are now making beats with machines? Is that quality of dancing, which is not exclusively a black quality, really what Jones misses?

I don't know, I'm just asking... Z & I have had various discussions about the function of music for years now, often from this angle- it continues to perplex and fascinate both of us, and we'll certainly be returning to it again.


Robert Gable said...

Reckoner with its fast, percussive feel may be my new favorite on the Radiohead album.

There's a book, Escaping the Delta, where the author makes a point that the blues primary audience in the early 1900s was black women. And these days, the audience is mostly white "romantics." I don't know about jazz but for blues, the change in context is debilitating for the music.

We saw LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire recently and the former was particularly dance oriented (complete with giant disco ball), in a punk kind of way. So it runs counter to SFJ's premise.

pat said...

Interesting- in Boston, at least, I associate the blues/traditional R & B scenes with a couple of clubs in the South End, Slade's and Bob the Chef's, that are still predominantly black, though certainly getting older and buppier. (I have to admit, I don't go a whole lot) How specifically do you think it hurts the music?

As I said, I plead ignorance on most of the bands SFJ mentions, though I'm going to try to give Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem some eartime this week.