The Jazz Problem- by Aaron Johnson

Here's an article written by Aaron Johnson, one of the most talented students I've had in the past few years. Aaron recently moved from Portland, Oregon to NYC to study as a Jazz performance major at the Manhattan School of Music.

Here I am, at a world-renowned conservatory in the greatest city in the world. I am sitting in a class with 15 or so other musicians, bright young artists from all over the world. I can't help but wonder, "Who here will actually end up with a career?” It doesn't seem very fair or indicative of the spirit of Jazz that musicians, depending on aesthetics, will starve or headline Birdland. Since I’ve been here in NYC, I've hung out with a lot of true WORKING musicians. The foot soldiers of the scene per se. The players that are out at smalls until the early morning, NYC swing and traditional jazz musicians and other students, trying to hustle a career out of thin air. None of these musicians are playing at the Village Vanguard or the Blue Note, yet they are in my opinion, the greatest that this city has to offer.

It seems like a cruel joke to me, that young, hip 20 year olds are getting GREAT gigs while jazz LEGENDS aren't even touching their horns. Why isn't Bob Mover playing the Vanguard this weekend? Why did Clarence "C" Sharpe (The Genius altoist on Lee Morgan's Indeed album) have to lead a sad life of obscurity? Why was Frank Hewitt living in the freezer at Smalls in his last years?

Because the public is too stupid to realize that Jazz is a cultural treasure.

Instead, young "lions" are sought out by the media to "push the barriers". It's funny, to me, because very few of these young lions will ever find their own voice. Even if they do it will either be excessively modern without any validation or sense of lineage or it will be a sad, lukewarm pastiche of the music of years past (lacking the true essence and spirit). If I don't sound the least bit jaded or bitter, wait until you read what I have up my sleeve next.

The Modern Jazz Scene in a Nutshell (ie. What is hip?)

1. Your website must claim all of your innovations without detailing any of it. *This is especially important if you are young and inexperienced. *

2. You must wear the hippest, most urban looking clothes possible. Skinny jeans, v-necks....anything slightly hipster-esque is adequate. Oversized Nike kicks are a *MUST*.

3. It's very beneficial to have dreds. This means that you have soul.

4. Abandon every American Songbook, standard tune you know. Replace this with rock and classically influenced, odd metered and through-composed numbers. This IS 2009, right?

5. Never, ever mention Louis Armstrong, Lester Young or Charlie Parker as your influences. They aren’t obscure or hip enough for you to land a career from. Mention Bjork, Schoenberg, Aaron Parks, Mark Turner and Ambrose Akinmusire. That way, you might win the Monk competition.

6. Go to a really hip jazz "school" and listen to everything your professors tell you. Do everything they tell you to do, never attend real sessions and let your peers at school influence you more than the masters. Dismiss any musicians that learned on "the street". Chet Baker? Schmuck! (He didn't have a degree to prove his genius.)

7. If your name isn't hip enough...change change change it! Joshua Redman wasn't always his name....

8. Watch the Spike Lee film "Mo’ Betta Blues". It will show you more about jazz than listening to it or playing it ever will.

9. Move to Brooklyn

10. Become a vegetarian and look emaciated. The moodier you look, the more albums you'll sell. Don't smoke cigarettes or use any substances; instead, do lots of yoga and investigate eastern religions (not for any true interest in it, rather, just to be able to say in your liner notes that Tibetan chanting and Buddhism changed your conception of "sound").

If you couldn't tell, that was a little tongue-in-cheek. I'd like to hear some responses from musicians and my peers. Maybe I'm not alone in my thinking? At least I know that I'll never have a career playing the music that truly touches me (Armstrong-Young-Parker continuum).

Aaron's MySpace page


Jesse said...

A+. Couldn't have said it better. I used to think jazz was for outsiders. I go to a school where I'm the only saxophone player who gives a fuck about the 1930s, while everyone else listens to only Chris Potter. Someone once called my playing "cliched". I'm no English major, but that's not the correct usage of the cliched!

Even misfits will try to fit in.

Jesse said...

(Usage of the WORD cliched)

J.E. Mathews & Associates said...

New York is not a place you move if you don't like being "hip."

New York's "scene" doesn't have anything to do with Smalls ... or jazz, really, at least for a long time.

New York is for the latest, the newest, the freshest, coolest, sexiest, and most fashionable.

If you don't value these things in jazz practice, there is a place called "Portland" which has a less aggressive way of life.

AccuJazz said...

How sad! Mr. Johnson: please do yourself a favor and open your mind. Music that is of its time isn't insincere. Actually, it's more sincere than music that simply replicates an older style.

And I don't think there are ANY corners of the jazz world where masters like Lester Young and Charlie Parker are not revered. Show me one.

Perhaps as you grow older and enter the real world you will lose the bitterness. I used to espouse much the same attitude as you when I was in jazz school. A mere two years out, I've grown to appreciate, not resent, the act of intentional musical innovation.

jason-parker said...

Why does it need to be an either/or? I think the best music is that which is "of it's day" but also informed by the past. Isn't that how the best music (not just jazz) has progressed?

Case in point: Kurt Rosenwinkel playing standards at the Vanguard recently or Vijay Iyers's new disc.

Come on, people, can't we stop creating divides where there should be none????

AccuJazz said...

I totally agree with Jason. I guess I didn't quite convey that in my comment. We need to be accepting of any sincere form of music. I'm totally interested in Bebop played well in the year 2009. I play Bebop in the year 2009 myself, in fact. Definitely not an either/or for me.

P.S. Ridiculing a musician based on the hipness of their clothes is just wrong.

6p01156fa4e54d970c said...

As a recent grad of MSM, I can understand a bit of where Mr. Johnson is coming from. The focus of the students and faculty is on the newer music with less talk of the masters, which, for comparison was in constant discussion in my undergrad back in NC. But despite the love of new direction and players like Mark Turner, etc. I never sensed a disregard for the tradition. We were encouraged to write our own music while still learning a shitload of standards.

I would also agree that there is a certain kind of player that comes out of these conservatories- one that can often fit the Brooklyn living, skinny jean wearing, and non-meat eating variety. But hasn't jazz always been about overcoming stereotypes? And yes, there is often a divide between the tradition and the contemporary branches of jazz, but I have found that it is only discernible by those who want to see it.

The best music is honest music. Find your passion, be it 1930s or 2009 jazz, cultivate it, perfect it, and relish in it. This is not the city or scene where one can let others' jaded and bitter opinions and judgments matter. If you can't find a way to block that out now, you'll never survive here.

(I did however laugh out loud at point #5!)

Kris Tiner said...

Jason - I strongly agree with you. Can't we simultaneously appreciate today's music for being "of it's day" AND respect the music of previous eras for being "of it's day"?

Aaron - you're right that we can't disrespect the masters of the past simply because they don't meet today's standards of "hipness". Lester Young wasn't making music for 2009, he was making music for HIS time. The fact that it still sounds amazing is testament to his greatness.

But we also can't deny musicians of the present the right to adapt and evolve the tradition if that's what they want to do. Even if they don't eat meat and they dress funny. You have to learn to understand what moves you, what your creative goals are, and (like a few others here have already pointed out) do the most honest thing you can.

History will sort out the masters from the fakers...

Chodgesmusic said...

The JAZZ scene is completely separate from the NYC scene. NYC has long been drifting away from jazz. I know how you feel, though. A little pissed that the world has moved on and left behind an art form you have (seemingly) dedicated you life to. Believe me, I've been there. There is no need to put down all the new cats just because of it, though. They were in the same place as you until they decided to stop bitchin' and feeling sorry for themselves and make something happen. It's up to the musicians to keep jazz alive.

If you want to think about the '50s and those eras, do you not think Dizzy, Parker, and all those cats were "hip?" They were trend setters of their time and while you and I may not dig the trends, they are still there. Life goes on and jazz is just our interpretation of it.

As far as living in a freezer (as a metaphor), there are a lot of choices in life that can keep you out of the freezer. You don’t have to give up on life OR music to do it, either. You have to make it work for you. You may not be known until your dead but you played. When it comes down to it, all the drama, drugs, alcohol, parties, and everything else doesn’t matter. For you and me, man, it’s music. Just make the music and be thankful for every note you live to hit. Keep your nose straight and be smart with your money and you can stay out of the freezer.

Tristan said...

Lets look to the past to find models of Jazz greats - Dizzy Gillespie

1 Dizzy gillespie wore hip clothes ( he pretty much started the beret goatie combo), later on he wore african clothes which had a slightly more limited appeal to hipsters.

2 Dizzy was not his real name

3 He was into eastern religion (a member of the Baha'i community since 68)

4 He played music that was based on popular tunes of the time in which he lived.

5 The vast majority of the music listening population at the time felt his music was avant-garde and without soul ( too much technique, too abstract, you couldn't dance to it etc)put simply it was hard to understand. Many musicians of the day did not like it.

6 Dizzy was a young lion who probably took quite a few gigs from the older generation, many of the older players resented this.

7 He experimented with non western musical forms ( latin jazz would be very different without Dizzy's influence)

8 He integrated lots of odd number beat groupings into his playing

9 Throughout his career he also was accused of 'selling out' by being an entertainer/ comedian.

10 While as far as I know he wasn't vegetarian Miles and Coltrane were at points.

The greatness of these artists was that they brought something new to the art form , in terms of technique and meaning(even fashion)

My understanding of the music that these artists made was that there was an impotance in finding your own voice, repeating the deeds of past musicians does not make a lot of economic or artistic sense.

The search for the new/unknown is what makes music exciting , if I wanted to listen to charlie parker style bebop all the time , I would buy some more parker CDs from the bargain bin at a music store (it is still exciting to listen to parker I agree) but I don't think I would want to buy a full price cd of parkers tunes recorded last year (sorry)
.......unless of course there was something really different and interesting about it.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Touche' Tristan!

jakdolesa said...

Interesting post indeed.

From my perspective of a guy from eastern Europe things look bit different. The cultural environment until 1989 didn´t really reflect trends from "the outside world" when they were actually happening. Therefore I still keep checking tradition and at the same time I listen to music happening now - I must say that I like both. No matter who was wearing what and what were the real names: When the music speaks to me fifty years after the recording date, that´s pretty good for me.

What is also important to mention: All the guys who are setting trends right now (Seamus Blake, Chris Potter, Aaron Goldberg etc...) studied the jazz tradition. They are making their own music and it´s their choice what the music should reflect. Once again - when the music speaks to me I don´t need to think about anything else.

Another interesting think: I was playing at the same festival as Roy Haynes with his band. What if some future historician would consider me and Mr. Haynes contemporaries? (That´s what happened to Haydn and Beethoven e.g.)

Don said...

Thank you for pointing out that people are stupid, I often forget that, you are right of course, the world would be a much better place If things were done your way.
Guess what, I don't even care about Jazz, how stupid does that make me?

jazzpianobabe said...

I enjoyed your comments Aaron. Ultimately there is room for everybody - traditional and modern players - players with classical and rock influences who are playing jazz - gospel players - everyone. I don't think you sound bitter at all as one commentator suggested - Everyone prefers the music they prefer - and there should be room for everyone because it's all music - I play with several fabulous jazz players who like country music - and these guys played with some jazz legends out there and are great jazz players - so who cares what style it is as long as it's from the heart - and its the best you can give on that day. Take care and good luck on your playing and studies

Dr. C said...

Lame post. Play and listen to the music and leave the rest alone.

If you're complaining that life isn't fair, we'll welcome to the adult world.

If you want proper respect for Armstrong, then watch your Ken Burns dvds. (I know I love mine)

Bitching about dreds, urban clothing and Spike Lee comes across as a bit racist. I'm sure it's not meant that way, but these sort of misinterpretations happen when you start complaining about things that don't really matter to the music.

We have more access to more music than at any other time in the history of mankind. That means that most people don't listen to or play your favorite music. Who cares? It's your music anyway, not theirs.

badkittymeowshh said...

i do love the sarcasm of your article. i think music should be about music and not have so much focus on presentation. i know MANY talented jazz performers who drastically do not fit the jazz steryotype.

Billy said...

It must be a real drag to be that bitter at such a young age.

M. said...

typical self absorbed young american, theres a whole universe out there, blast off or remain closed minded.
remember its easy to embrace the past.

Alexa Weber Morales said...

I'm always happy when someone other than me is complaining... makes me feel upbeat by comparison! The thing about the young lions is something I find annoying, but then you have to consider the fact that we are also constantly told we are trying to "revive" jazz from it's vegetative death-bed state, so that might explain the emphasis on youth. Also, I believe there are more educated jazz musicians from prestigious schools now than ever before. It would be interesting to see a census.

In vocals I get tired of hearing tribute albums and the same old standards trotted out. Seems like the opposite problem.

Thanks for sharing. Keep hope alive!

mattinthehat said...

isn't it cliche to make fun of cliches?

tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jazzguyal said...

I've been listening to and playing my interpretation of jazz for the last 30 years. What I've learned can be summed up as follows: Jazz is beautiful mistress, a mediocre wife and a lousy business partner. Jazz is America's classical music.

Max said...

Aaron, you have to ask yourself: Do I want to be a working musician, or a jazz musician? I chose to be a working musician---haven't had a day gig since 2000. I still do jazz gigs; oddly enough, my jazz gigs do outnumber my other gigs, but my other gigs pay more. Sad, but true.

Adam said...

Regarding clothes and music:
Musicians and performers of all kinds have always "dressed for the party." From tribal times onwards, this is nothing new. And its what audiences expect whether they're conscious of it or not. So, I say just go with it. Buy a nice suit, some cool ties, or an African Dashiki, whatever. It's all part of the ritual. Its like doctors. You go see a doctor and you want him/her to be wearing that white coat with the stethoscope hanging out of the pocket. It puts you in the proper head-space, etc. You go see some music or a comedian or whatever its kind of the same thing.

Tristan said...

Having studied jazz at an institution I can understand why Aaron Johnson and others might feel that way about jazz. It is very clear that the existance of jazz education has shaped the meaning of the music. In jazz education with it emphasis on passing jurys, exams canon, and linear history ...it certainly seems like there is a right way and a wrong way of making music.....The reason I feel Bebop music style and aesthetic is emphasized more than other styles is in that is far harder to assess a musician on music that he makes on his own terms with his own terms.

A composition like 'Sing a song of song" by kenny Garret if judged soley by bebop aesthetic and standards might be considered too slow and and its changes too simple ... perhaps too much like pop music or nursery rhymes etc
however I think the merit of music should go beyond whether it is assesible, I still have tunes which i got average marks for at school but I like them because the went outside the assignment brief

check this Kenny garret out


watch part 2 as well

I wish more "jazz" musicians were able to communicate and include the audience ....not play like him but be able to engage and create a similar sense community and purpose... just look at the crowds faces.

Music can potentially bring people together and bring joy to their lives, as long as I could do that it wouldn't matter if I couldnt play over basic 2 5s etc or not. Of course if you have technique it can be better but music has to have purpose and meaning for it to be 'good' music

Actually ignore everything I just said. Work out what you want to do for yourself and make your own meanings.

I just wanted to share the Kenny Garret video :)

Tristan said...

Im looking foward to seeing the jazz documentary series Icons among us ... which will be a refreshing counter point to the Burns series


Not that Burn's point of view is bad per se but I certainly beleive having only one point of view availible is unhealthy (partiularly politically).

Anyway I think that this video is
particularly relevant to the discussion

Josh Rager said...

I really understand Aaron's frustration. I even feel it myself sometimes (now that I'm no longer a young hipster!) On the other hand Bird, Diz, Prez were all the very embodiments of modernism in their own time. I don't agree that being hip is necessarily being jive its just that we now live in a time where "...the idea of what you are is more important than you actually being that". (to quote Branford) What you're finding difficult to reconcile is the purity and beauty of art in the context of the imperfect and mundane world. Unfortunately school is sometimes our first experience of the hypocrisy of humanity. Schools themselves can sometimes be just so full of bull. But take it to heart Aaron that people are all in the spectrum of "jive" and that we all embody honesty and hypocrisy. Take that negative energy you feel and focus it so you can pump out even MORE honesty when you play music, hang with your friends, your girl, your family. If jazz is an art form that is supposed to reflect life then the life you live will come out of your instrument.

cody said...

I think the problem with jazz is people professing to know what it should and shouldn't be.

Dan said...

This post is juvenile and beside the point. Music is about music. The more time you spend thinking about clothes, the more you become the stereotype you so oppose.

Props to Jason Parker and AccuJazz for saying what they shouldn't have to.

Matana Roberts said...

Hey A

I'm totally late in the game here, but I just to let you know that as an african american identified working musician coming out the jazz tradition your list here really hurt my feelings.
I have nubian locs ( i dont use the word dread to describe myself), that i did myself when i decided that i no longer wanted to submit to an idea of a euro centric beauty that made me feel less about myself. i am a longtime vegetarian and lived in Brooklyn for quite some time. I have been a working musician for the last 10 years, have worked and continue to work in almost every possible music performance hustle available to someone with my skill level as well as dealing with my own music, and I am a Spike Lee fan, mo betta blues not being my favorite but still i am loyal. I don't look emaciated but I live just above the poverty line. And I went to a couple of some what might be considered some " hip jazz schools" and it didn't really do me much good by the way, as I see it may not be doing you?

I understand this was tongue and cheek and you are trying to vent your frustrations but the list is full of racist overtones and I don't think you wanted to send that type of message.

I can understand your being concerned about how your peers might or might not be carrying on the traditions of jazz in a way you deem fit. But its when you start to lock yourself in to the idea of tradition you can make yourself miserable-- trust me I've been there.

Anthony Braxton, the most untraditional musician you might come across at your school who speaks as incessantly about Stockhausen as he does Lester Young,Lee Konitz and Hank Jones once said to me that the only tradition of this music is being creative. The "tradition" of being creative, and I think you might want to open up your sphere a little bit in terms of what you think tradition is if you want to be happy contributing to this art form.

And you might want to look around you. the last time I checked Black musicians where outnumbered in most of these American jazz programs. It was at least that way when I attended, which was not that long ago. In order to progress anything we have to be open to change and expand. This is not 1945 42nd street sadly. And frankly though I romanticize about this music from time to time myself I'm pretty glad because it means I would have had to accept being treated like a person who would have been considered less than human in most American cities, and towns regardless of my artistic contributions.

This blog entry sounds bitter and I don't blame you. I personally feel "jazz education" in places like MSM or Julliard or even where I went is akin to a big business scam. There are ton of folks coming out of these places every year with a mountain of debt and no gigs that will really deal with that. And you might want to ask yourself why you are paying so much money to deal with a music that came out of a poverty of a peoples cultural conciousness really. I know I wish i would have really asked myself those questions more seriously before venturing into those worlds.

All the best to you,
Matana Roberts ( my birth given name btw)

chris said...

Isn't jazz about pushing the envelope? Finding your own voice; ... Though I love bebop and NY is probably the greatest place on earth to play/hear it; what good does rehashing the music of the 40's do?

How will you be remembered? As Aaron Johnson ? Or another bird clone?.. The young "lions" who push the envelope of instrumental (and vocal) expression have found or are searching their own voice, something new, thats the spirit of jazz in my opinion!

this is the biggest contradiction in your article! I implore you to seek out yourself instead of a "standard" aesthetic.. you have the talent, motivation, resources - take it to the next level!

Talking about cliches; bird clones were sooo 1950's...

Becky Noble said...

There have already been a number of posts reflective of some of my own thoughts (Tristan especially), but I must chime in here anyway.

Urban trends, styles, etc - what do they have to do with making music? Enjoying music? Creating something meaningful? It all seems a little irrelevant to me.

As for the contemporary jazz student "problem"...well here are my two cents. When I was young, I was always told I needed to sound more like Cannonball (I'm an alto player). Over and over and over again. The problem was that I didn't WANT to sound like Cannonball. I didn't even particularly like his style quite frankly (artistic preference, NOT a judgment on his mastery or historical significance!). Why are young music students chastised for liking the "wrong" players. They should dig Lester Young (because he's the real shit!) not Chris Potter, or any number of today's young lions. My question is this. Why? We are told who we should and shouldn't listen to, should or shouldn't cite as an influence (must be Charlie Parker, NOT Bjork). Charlie Parker's favourite musician was Stravinsky for god's sake. You can't dictate what music touches you, or another person... the notion is absurd. I respect the jazz tradition, and I fully support the idea that one must study it. But beyond that, what direction you go....is up to you, as an artist to decide.

Your comment about musical peers influencing one (versus bonafide jazz masters) is painting the picture much too black and white. It's not one or the other - well it shouldn't be. Look at how the masters you yourself refer to influenced one other in the 40's, 50's, 60's. Look at how an artist like Ravi Shankar influenced Coltrane, and in turn, the entire art form. You dismiss influences such as Bjork or Aaron Parks (to whom I assume your point #10 is aimed at BTW) as being esoteric, or hip for the sake of being hip. If they touch people, who are you to question that?? Seriously.

Sorry, I think you are missing the point. And furthermore, you really do come across as elitist in this article...which appears to be the very thing you despise so much. Irony.

Anonymous said...

Very juvenile and childish rantings of a spoiled brat, from a spoiled generation.

You're LIVING in NYC, studying music, jazz to be precise, at a famous school...and its oh so mundane, right? You're so over it all, over the beboppers at Smalls & Smoke, the Hipsters at Barbes, et al.

Its like the snotty little brat that gets a brand new car from his daddy & yawns, "Not another BMW?"

There are serious "jazz students" that would give their left "something" to be in your place, but do not have the means, family situation, or just are unable to hook it up.

Some musicians, (and I know this may be novel to folks of your generation) had to play STUPID gigs for years & save money to make the move to Brooklyn, to pursue their dream.

Consider yourself a VERY fortunate young man.

And if you are this cynical NOW, just wait a couple years, after you are out of school and NOBODY will care about you or your playing, and there are no PAYING gigs for you and mummy & daddy are starting to get a bit tired of paying the freight on their "little genius"

You're in school. Youre there to play & practice & learn. Stop wasting your time

Anonymous said...

a few points:
The bitterness goes with the territory. You get an immersion in NYC and that includes seeing careers take off in the place where the launch is initiated. That initiation looks engineered by synchophants and phonies.
You learn how lives fall apart in a place where suffering and deprivation are uncomfortably close to the surface. Brooklyn? Close to surface here too. Most of our heroes felt bitter at one time or another. Was there ever a more earned feeling than Lester Young's bitterness?

Of course, it's that earning that you'll be working on once you finish school...

The hair, clothes and attitudes don't really mean much in long run. When we make associations between those externals and the inner life we miss out on growth in both areas.That said, Ms Roberts made her choice about hair and her place in society and her rationale makes sense.

Your social scene is what will determine most of your work and development as a musician. Find the folks that are compatible with you (bitterness optional) and you'll have a life as a musician. Oh yeah and the practicing...