By January 28, 2013 8 Comments Read More →

Jazz is dead, man: another view (part one)

realbook

Just as we were getting started with the long, arduous defense of our position that jazz—and all other creative forms of American music—died sometime before 1980, we caught wind of an article from the November, 2012 issue of The Atlantic that agrees with us in principle, but takes a wildly divergent view of the mechanics and timing. The article (available here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/11/the-end-of-jazz/309112/?single_page=true), written by Benjamin Schwartz, The Atlantic’s literary editor, is ostensibly a review of “The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire” by musician/critic/jazz bon vivant Ted Gioia. Schwartz uses this platform to go off on a tangent of his own, which we’ll refute in glorious detail in later posts, but first we have a small bone to pick with Mr. Gioia.

Gioia’s book is a compilation and analysis of 250 of what the author contends are professional, if not artistic, essential songs for working jazz musicians. “I have picked the compositions that … a musician is most frequently asked to play,” Gioia writes, adding that “not learning these songs puts a jazz player on a quick path to unemployment.” It’s unique among jazz criticism that an author would present historical analysis while citing gainful, musical employment as a prerequisite for art, but we admire his pragmatism, if not much else about this idea. Our objections to his tack, along with Schwartz’s analysis of it, are legion, but let’s start with the obvious one here. To be fair, we have not read Gioia’s book, and we presume that this is not the main theme therein. The bulk of our criticism is of Schwartz’s review, which is less that, and more his own riff on what we presume to be Gioia’s ideas. The above quote from Gioia, however, was too soft a target to pass up.

Without having to rely on scholarly tomes like Gioia’s, working musicians have had this sort of information—however unranked and uncategorized—available in much lass ambitious form since at least the early 1970’s. The most obvious example is called “The Real Book”, a fake-book-to-end-all-fake-books (this author’s battered, 1978 copy is pictured above) featuring everything from well known ad lib head compositions to all of the usual suspects from what is now being called “The Great American Songbook” (a term we’ll contend with in some way later, trust us). In other words, it’s a book of “standards”, however nebulous a term that ends up being in most practical applications. A fake book, for the uninitiated, is a collection of “fake sheets”, musical sketches of single songs to be used as quick reference for musicians who play at least as much by ear as by eye. In other words, they allow musicians to “fake it” more convincingly.

A fake sheet is a song boiled down to its barest essentials. Fake book notation is utterly simplistic, consisting of a single note melody written in concert key, and chord symbols indicated at the appropriate beats above the staff. That’s it. There are typically no arrangements, and no indications of how to voice the chords indicated. A C minor seventh chord, for instance, is simply notated as “C-7”, rather than as notes on a staff indicating a three-, four- or more-part voicing of this chord. In other words, an ideal and perfectly adequate set of parameters for jazz or other improvising players wanting to play a particular piece of the existing repertoire. Jazz musicians, of course, love to voice chords in new, or at least surprising ways, occasionally even confounding academics who probably thought they had already figured out all of the possible six note permutations of a C minor seventh chord. So, traditional, full harmonic notation is not only unnecessary for able jazz players, it is mostly ignored. Until “The Real Book” was published, these “fake books” were typically file folders jammed with hand-notated manuscript paper and photocopied fake sheets. The first “Real Book” was something of an underground thing, operating under the radar of music publishers and royalties, until it finally went “legit”.

Jazz musicians, especially before World War II, were considered something less than “serious” participants in the greater craft, and at the very least, their ability to read and write complex notation was suspect. Later, when even the average jazz musician began to have some sort of conservatory-style training, it became sort of a running, inside joke to cast one’s jazz self as a “faker” and an “outsider” when it came to “legitimate” music. Doc Severinson, bandleader on NBC’s The Tonight Show during Johnny Carson’s storied tenure as host, practically made a living by pretending to be a hip-but-clueless musical illiterate, in contrast to his well-regarded arranging, conducting and orchestration skills. Ask any musician of a certain age to “give me an A”. He’ll know. He’ll most likely also have a copy of “The Real Book”, and be utterly disinterested in what some critic thinks he should play, or should have played before he had to get a day job. “Lists? We don’t need no stinkin’ lists!”

Since it was introduced, damn-near every musician who has ever been required to play something too complex to quickly learn by ear has been saved by “The Real Book” or its equivalent. It was not an attempt to compile only “the best”, “most important” or “essential” jazz tunes. Rather, it was all about volume and utility. Nobody in that era would have pretended to decide what a working musician “should” play. Instead, “The Real Book” tried to err on the side of inclusion, with songs as diverse as Gershwin, Lennon-McCartney, Zappa, George Russell, Tadd Dameron and Steely Dan. Since Gioia seems to be giving out career advice, we’ll point out that no working musician in our memory ever needed a scholarly analysis, especially by one man, of what material was required to get work. In perfectly market-driven fashion, audiences, agents, club owners and mothers of brides all determine what should be played on a particular job. In contrast to Gioia’s contention, the most common repertorial approach to boosting one’s income has always been to “play less jazz”, which I’m sure isn’t what Gioia had in mind with his recommendations for keeping one’s gig. He seems to think that there’s a dearth of applicants at Jazzco International’s main office. “Send more tenor players! We have 300 openings!” If only. The ugly truth is that playing more than a couple of his 250 “essential” tunes on a job will be a much quicker route to a career outside of music than any pitfalls of ignoring his advice.

The audacity of deciding the 250 “best” songs for working musicians is not only disingenuous for a professional player such as Gioia, it’s antithetical to the sense of ad hoc anarchy that used to dictate tone and material for working jazz musicians. Would Sonny Rollins have covered a fairly lousy song like “How Are Things in Glocca Morra”, and elevated it to art, if it wasn’t on some list of “preferred” standards? Oh, wait. It wasn’t, and he did anyway. Thank God. No offense meant to Mr. Gioia’s jazz chops (and they’re fairly ample, actually), but we’ll trust Rollins’ taste ten times out of ten over Ted’s. On the other hand, we see that Rollins has provided a nice blurb for Mr. Gioia’s book over at  tedgioia.com. Go figure. Anyway, perhaps Gioia is confusing jazz players with wedding band musicians. Or high school band directors. All of this ignores, of course, that Gioia isn’t really preaching to working musicians at all. They can’t afford his books, and if they can, aren’t going to alter their repertoires based on his direction. He’s pandering to more comfy types who see jazz as a sort of ancillary manifestation of a Tin Pan Alley-Hollywood melting pot, and he and Schwartz expand on that at length, as will we. (continued in part 2)

Despite our criticisms here, Ted Gioia is capable of smart, incisive observations, and ultimately, he’s one of the good guys. Buy his book, if you’re so inclined, by clicking here: The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire. Those savvy listeners at Amazon have all given it a five stars out of five rating. We’re idiots, then? Oh, probably.

If you want a copy of The Real Book, you can have mine, for one million dollars. Alternatively, you can buy a new one (we presume that, unlike mine and other early editions, all royalties have been paid on these new versions) by clicking here: The Real Book: Sixth Edition.

Posted in: Jazz, Rants

8 Comments on "Jazz is dead, man: another view (part one)"

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  1. Ted Gioia says:

    I always enjoy reading reviews of my book from someone who admits he hasn’t read it. This must be why God invented blogs. And you accuse me of “audacity”?

    • jridetroit says:

      I freely admit the presumptive nature of my attack. I was mostly, as I mentioned, taking issue with Schwartz’s view of jazz, and with what I inferred to be your very general premise. Hell, since I end up saying nice things about you at the end pf “part 1”, and even encourage folks to buy your book, I thought perhaps you’d engage, rather than simply act all insulted. Yep, I simply decided your thesis was audacious. I think that’s worth a retort, ain’t it? 🙂

      • Ted Gioia says:

        How can you tell the thesis of my book is flawed if you haven’t read it? Don’t you feel the slightest twinge of embarrassment offering judgments on books you haven’t read?

        But let me explain the thesis of my book, so I can clear up your misconception. My book is NOT a book about the 250 best jazz songs. The book is a “guide to the jazz repertoire.” The repertoire is, by definition, the songs most frequently played in the art form. So for you to complain about my focus on the most frequently played songs shows that you don’t even understand the scope of the book, or the meaning of the term ‘repertoire’.

        I make these comments not to “insult.” Many of the things you write in your blog are smart and valuable. But you can’t develop your own skills as critic and commentator if you offer assessment of books you haven’t read or albums you haven’t heard. This is such a basic rule of criticism, that you should hardly get upset at me for pointing it out.

        • jridetroit says:

          Ted, I value your comments. This was what I meant by “engage”. It’s appreciated, and I thank you for your measured reply today. And no, I’m not “upset at (you) for pointing” anything out.

          I don’t harbor any embarrassment, however, for something I didn’t do. As I stated at some length in my article, and as I pointed out again the other day to you, I wasn’t reviewing your book. I thought I made that clear. Perhaps not. In a long tirade by me about Schwartz’s maddening review of your book, one in which he goes off on tangents of his own, I commented on what I presumed (and I use that word, more than once, in my article) to be your thesis. I state that I have “objections to (your) tack”, not that I think your book is lousy. I inferred a thesis when you were quoted by Schwartz as saying that “not learning (the 250 songs in your book) puts a jazz player on a quick path to unemployment”. That was what I held to be audacious, not your book. I still think that it’s dangerous to be giving career advice when jazz is hardly a viable source of employment, regardless of the repertoire one chooses. You may disagree, and that’s fine, but I reserve the right to comment when you state your opinion.

          Did I take that statement out of its original context? Since I’m not sure if it’s from the book or from some conversation you had with Benjamin Schwartz, I took it at face value. I don’t think that’s all that unreasonable, since you haven’t indicated that you were misquoted. Anyway, I’m not in the book review business. I write a blog, one that has clearly-stated ground rules defining it as a bunch of ranting opinion and nothing more. Your opinion of blogs in general, “this must be why God invented blogs”, is noted. As a blogger, I don’t feel bound, then, to double-check and cite every source, or read every book, when I’m simply reacting to a blanket statement like the one I’ve quoted from you. It seems—and I’m “presuming” again—that your preference would be that I read all possible sources for quotations, including your entire book, before commenting on them. That would be indeed make for a more scholarly, journalistic piece, but my relative flippancy, if the quote is accurate, is hardly cause for shame on my part. I’m not trying to shirk responsibility for what I write. If I state something untrue, or mean-spirited, I should be called out on it. Today, you indicate a thesis that’s somewhat different than the one implied in your quote from Schwartz’s review. I acknowledge the disconnect, but I don’t think that means I was bound to read your book, or even to swap these messages with you, to infer something different from that quote.

          I was less clear when I stated that “the audacity of deciding the 250 ‘best’ songs for working musicians is not only disingenuous for a professional player such as Gioia, it’s antithetical to the sense of ad hoc anarchy that used to dictate tone and material for working jazz musicians”. I certainly did use the word “best”, but my intended context was closer to your quote above, which is why I stated “deciding the ‘best’ songs for working musicians” rather than saying that you were “picking the best songs”. You interpreted it as the latter. My bad, I suppose, and not yours, if I was unclear. I don’t get paid for this, and I suppose my verbal skills are commensurate with that level of remuneration. I suppose if I harbor any embarrassment, it’s of these uncompensated writing talents of mine. I don’t propose to stop doing it, ‘though. God created this forum, after all. Yes, I’m laughing as I write that.

          Do I bring all sorts of bias to this argument? Yes, sir, I do. I am no fan of jazz as repertory music, and I make that clear whenever I can here. Is that my opinion? Yes, of course it is. I do feel, however, that concentrating on repertoire is part of what has “killed” jazz as an evolving art form. That was the emotional impetus for me posting an opinion of your statement in the first place. I know you disagree with my view, and I look froward to discussing, debating and arguing that point in the future. It’s a hot-button issue for me, and that makes for a less-than-objective view on my part, but it’s what I do here. You haven’t objected to me having that view, and I appreciate the leeway, even if it puts me at direct odds with your now-stated thesis.

          Having admitted my biases, I don’t feel as though I misread your statement, grossly misinterpreted your thesis, or even reviewed your book, so I’m not going to play the embarrassment card. On the other hand, I am sorry if you were offended, dismayed, confused, financially impacted, or otherwise pissed off by my article. I state therein that you are “capable of smart, incisive observations, and ultimately, (are) one of the good guys”. I didn’t put that in there to cover my ass, or soften any blow. Actually, I didn’t suppose you would actually show up here and comment, although I’m glad that you did. I have genuinely enjoyed your commentary over the years, especially at jazz.com, so that statement was meant to steer my readers to your work in general. I will continue to do so, and I hope you’ll understand my point of view, and my position of something less than utter surrender to your objections. Your views, however contrary, are always welcome here.

          • Ted Gioia says:

            Only you know how serious are about writing about music. Based on what I’ve seen here, you have some knowledge and talent, and interesting things to say. So I offer my comments on the assumption that you want to present views that are more than just rants.

            I have no problem with people disagreeing with my views or criticizing my work. This goes with the territory. We are all grown-ups here, and should be able to deal with disagreements and criticism. But I would pass on one of the golden rules of criticism, which is REVIEW THE BOOK THAT WAS WRITTEN, NOT THE BOOK YOU WISH HAD BEEN WRITTEN.

            So perhaps, as you say, you don’t like the jazz repertoire. Maybe you wish it would go away. But even without reading my book, you may have noticed that the title contains the words “A Guide to the Jazz Repertoire.” If I wrote “A Guide to Hip-Hop Songs” I would be required to discuss hip-hop songs in the book. If I wrote “A Guide to the Polka Repertoire” I would be required to discuss polka songs in the book. And not just ANY polka songs – I would need to focus on the ones most frequently played by polka bands.

            In other words, if I write a guide to the jazz repertoire, I must focus on the core songs played, again and again, as part of that repertoire.

            This does not mean I like every song in the jazz repertoire. This doesn’t mean I don’t criticize the repertoire in my book. I do criticize the repertoire in my book. I do criticize many songs in the repertoire. But you wouldn’t know this because, as you admit, you haven’t read the book.

            Which leads me to my main point. You shouldn’t offer opinions on a concert you did not attend. You should dismiss a CD you haven’t heard. You should reject books you haven’t written. This is the starting point for any critic who wants to be taken seriously. Or even, I dare say, for any critic who merely wants to rant. And for you to continue to defend this practice is quite stunning.

          • jridetroit says:

            Thanks for the faint praise. I’ll take whatever kind I can get, even if I know that wasn’t the purpose of your last visit. As for that, we seem to have a fundamental disconnect, although I’m always impressed when I can get “quite stunning” written about anything I say, in any context.

            You state that you “have no problem with people disagreeing with (your) views or criticizing your work”, and then you advise me—again—to “review the book that was written, not the book you wish had been written”. I’m not sure I had a book on my wish list, Ted, and actually, you seem to have all sorts of problems with people disagreeing with your views. That’s what precipitated this whole thing, remember? I didn’t review your book, but instead wrote an article critical of Schwartz’s review of your book and his thoughts on jazz. I further criticized—quite pointedly—your statement therein advising professional jazz musicians regarding repertoire and prospects for employment. I did not review your book, Ted. Oh, wait. I guess I’d better emphasize that in all caps, as you have in your missive to me: I DID NOT REVIEW YOUR BOOK.

            Of course, you would know that if you actually read what I’ve written, but instead, you’ve skimmed it and come to some odd conclusions of your own. You quote me (!) as saying that I “don’t like the jazz repertoire”. What I did say—and you would know this if you’d read it even a bit more carefully—is that I’m not a fan of jazz as repertory music. Hardly the same thing as not being a fan of jazz repertoire, as I’m sure you would agree. Your statement implies that I hate Ellington, Gershwin and Tadd Dameron, which is just about 180 degrees from what I feel, and world’s apart from what I said. One can love Beethoven yet criticize one’s local symphony for programming his music over and over. That’s how I feel about the current state of jazz, and its EMPHASIS on repertoire. You muse that perhaps I wish it would go away. And you arrive at that conclusion how, Ted? Presumptively at best, methinks. And by misquoting me. Is this tit for tat?

            Since I in no way commented on your choice of the repertoire included in your book, or on your thoughts about this material, or my feelings about the existing jazz repertoire, then my decision to comment on your statement in Schwartz’s article, and the state of jazz as repertory music in general hardly constitute a negative review of your book. Or a review at all. When you make a statement ABOUT your book indicating that you “have picked the compositions that … a musician is most frequently asked to play” and that “not learning these songs puts a jazz player on a quick path to unemployment”, I am in no way bound to read your book to pass judgement on that statement. Or to pass judgement on Schwartz’s wrong-headed view of the music in general. I commented on what working musicians are faced with, and how it counters that statement. Simply and pointedly.

            You just can’t seem to fathom that something you said to promote your book, and were quoted on, is fair game and could be commented on without first reading the book. Here’s a (probably lousy) analogy. Let’s say I write a book about boutique cheese making. Its history, its current status and its techniques. In promoting the book, I indicate that “my book is about the 250 most profitable ways to make cheese. If you don’t learn all the methods mentioned in my book, you’ll never make a living as a cheese maker”. A potential reader might well consider that statement to be self-serving at best, and arrogant and audacious at worst, regardless of how much of a cheese expert I am, and how well researched and written my book might be. There are limitless potentially profitable ways to make cheese, both established and yet-to-be-invented, that aren’t mentioned in any lists of cheese making methods. Furthermore, it’s well established that traditional cheese making is usually a lousy way to make a profit regardless of method, and one would not be bound to read my book to come to these conclusions. If a book reviewer, a la Schwartz, subsequently comes along and makes additional statements while reviewing my book that anyone who knows even a little bit about cheese would find ridiculous, that too would be fair game to comment upon without first reading my book. Thus it is with your book and your statements about it, Ted.

            I will offer the following promise to you, Ted: if I ever do review your book, its contents or its place in the jazz diaspora, I will indeed read it first. Conversely, if Schwartz ever comments on jazz again within my eyesight, I’ll attack him with a sharpened keyboard. Until then, I’ll do what I do, and I’ll continue to agree to disagree with you on this matter. I’m afraid, however, that my attempts at characterizing this a difference of opinion have been a little one-sided. So far, you’re stunned that I defend my practices, that I don’t understand the meaning of the word “repertoire”, that I should be embarrassed, and that I generally conduct myself here in ways that don’t befit someone who wants to be taken seriously. As for me, I called you out for saying that learning all the songs in your book was a read-it-or-else matter for working musicians. I’ve told you that you’re not getting an apology, an admission of wrong-doing or a retraction, but you persist. What else do you want from me, Ted? Money? A cease and desist compliance? More love? Please advise.

          • jridetroit says:

            Mr. Gioia, who at least played ball in our little stadium for a bit, has apparently decided the likes of us are small enough potatoes to pass up for future contact. As the last comment indicated, we had grown just a little impatient with his lack of attention to what we were actually writing about, and his fairly demeaning tone, especially given our willingness to engage him on his concerns. Oh, and then there was that issue of “the truth”. It was all for naught, as it turned out, since he has apparently decided to not grace us with his commentary any more. Gioia—if anyone passing through here doesn’t know—is probably the most-quoted jazz critic and historian in the world, currently. Gary Giddins, Francis Davis and a few other able competitors might have claimed that honor at some point in the 1990’s or into the early 21st century, but it’s Gioia’s genre, now. That speaks partly to the respect he engenders among his peers—which is a hard-won and admirable thing—but it also speaks to his savvy move to digital media before his older, and typically less-digitally-inclined, peers. We are fairly frequent readers of his online writings, and we more often than not find it accurate and incisive. Unfortunately, like anybody who has steamrolled his way into the forefront of his profession, regardless of whether it’s through talent or manipulation, Gioia needs to be approached with at least a little mistrust. Let’s call it the Pauline Kael rule. Kael—for those of you who are too young to remember the glory days of film criticism in the 1980’s—was the film critic for the New Yorker, starting in the 1970’s. She was an outsider, an unconventional writer, and mostly brilliant at ignoring the artifice that obfuscated film criticism for most of its history. Ultimately, after establishing herself as the most literate purveyor of the form, she became essentially the only trusted source for film criticism. By the 1990’s, many film mavens began to distrust Kael, often simply because she seemed to wield so much power. Power initially earned through respect, but power, nonetheless. We sort of hold Gioia in this same regard. He has—almost certainly through no plotting or planning on his part—risen to “go-to” status when any journalist, public relations flack or anyone else curious about jazz needs a quote. This prominence doesn’t color his commentary in any discernible way, but it creates an aura of superiority—however unintentional—that colors our view of him and his writings. As relatively minor competitors for readers of jazz commentary, we work deeply in his shadow. What still disturbs us, we suppose, is the fact such a prominent writer would show up here to take issue with us, and keep punching away at us, for what we deemed to be a fairly peripheral jab at his writing. Plus, we’ll reserve comment on his mustache if he re-engages with us.

    • jridetroit says:

      By the way, I presume (again) that Schwartz quoted you correctly. Yes? If so, and if you actually read my post and its caveats, you would know that I was taking issue with your advice to working musicians stated therein. If Schwartz misquoted you, perhaps your issue should be with him. If not, then it’s fair game, don’t you think?

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