Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


An Off Ramp

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Jazz definitely has its problems. For one thing, most of the songs that jazz musicians perform were written many decades ago as popular tunes. The sounds of those times were trumpets, trombones, saxophones, clarinets and flutes, guitar, piano, bass, and drums. Today’s sounds are more likely guitar, keyboard synth, drums, bass, and voice.

Love songs from back then are also completely different from the love songs of today. Those songs were the soundtrack of our grandparents when they were young. The topic of sexuality is a much more fluid today.

The next challenge to jazz is the scatting. Improvised nonsensical sounds over the song form? It takes an awful good scat singer to be better than no scat singer at all. Because of that, the average person on a jazz listening safari may never actually hear live recordings of a great scat singer like Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald.

Then there is the challenge in jazz of the long string of instrumental solos. Our society is just not cultivating the type of attention span that can positively consume this. Our digital society is generating a world with less and less attention and more and more distractions.

Lastly there’s the drum trading. Some guy plays a riff then the drummer plays it back. This is usually followed by everyone playing the original melody in a triumphant and ebullient way, ending on a chord that implies that someone in the band is a sound prankster.

That’s the jazz world in a nutshell. Lots of layers, lots of ideas that frankly run counter to the popular culture of today.

In the broader world, the media is invested in playing music that connects with specific demographics. These are the songs and artists that say “I am a Baby Boomer” (Springsteen), “I am GenX” (Prince), “I am a Millennial” (Taylor Swift). I actually like all this music—I even use it in my own composing. But it’s clear to me that there are commercial forces at work here, and they’re a lot more dominant than the aesthetic forces. Each demographic is being targeted with a set of products, and there’s no real impetus to venture outside your boundaries.

It’s contemporary to be distracted. It’s rare to find people who are just doing one thing at any given time. Usually they are doing a thing and surfing their phone or electronic device. At the least they are habitually checking that device for incoming messages or time or weather. Everything is in small bites.

It can all be a bit much. Yet we in the jazz world still persist. We resist. Jazz gives music to those who don’t want to be corporate-programmed. It gives a voice to those who are normally not heard. It offers a way to express individuality in a world of social engineering. It reaches across demographics and creates new communities.

We are one of the off ramps. We are some of the sounds of the analog world. The music is natural and refreshing in that way. I’m grateful to be a part of that world. I hope to share that world with you someday at the Wednesday Night Hang or some other jazz gathering. I hope to meet you face to face! Until then, peace, clarity, and focus!

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