Depressed by jazz

Jazz-NightI don’t grok jazz.

My local PBS station plays jazz at night, and I listen from time to time, hoping that my mother’s asparagus theory will win out.

(Certain disgusting vegetables, like asparagus, are an acquired taste, according to my mother. She claimed that if I kept choking them down, I’d eventually grow to love them. Sorry, Mom, but I still gag on asparagus.)

Jazz may be worse than asparagus.

As a musician, I have great respect for the virtuosity of jazz artists, most of whom are masters of their instruments. I can relate to the desire to do something novel and unconventional. But deep down in the musical recesses of my soul, jazz kills whatever is blooming there. And actually, I think that’s the point.

Jazz is the anti-music.

To be honest, there are a couple of jazz styles that I love — Dixieland and Big Band. They employ traditional ideas about melody, harmony and rhythm, all very much out of style today.

PBS prefers modern, improvisational jazz, which employs relentless, rambling and discordant solos strung together in an aimless marathon seemingly designed to trigger an epileptic seizure in the listener.

Which is the very thing that gives improvisational jazz its cool factor. It willfully violates every musical tradition handed down to us by the greats. I suspect even Mozart, whose music was ahead of his time and not always appreciated, might find improvisational jazz’s unconventionality distasteful. Every piece seems inevitably to play itself right up to the edge of chaos — then leaps off.

The argument on the other side is that there is room in music for a great many styles and tastes, which is true, as far as it goes. But for a long time now we’ve witnessed a dumbing down of musical forms, beginning with rock’s simplistic and formulaic melodies, to jazz’s rejection of musical conventions, and now with hip-hop’s angry obscenities blasted in the key of monotone.

If art has any weakness, it’s in the way it is ultimately a reflection of its culture and times. As our culture has become more narcissistic, art, too, has fallen in love with itself. It has become so unconventional and self-referential that only insiders can appreciate it. Art of all stripes — the fine arts, music, literature, architecture — has exchanged objective/traditional measures of beauty for the knowing winks and nods of the self-congratulating art community itself.

It’s hard to know where art might go next. Unconventionality itself has now become conventional — and boring. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (a urinal) has had a thousand imitators, each less interesting (and less provocative) than the last.

Likewise, jazz has become conventional in its desperate search for edginess. The earliest jazz virtuosos were looking for something new, something fresh. At first, what they were attempting seemed like the discovery of fire all over again. Now, decades later, every blaring trumpet and squealing saxophone sounds like the last. We’re stuck in a musical rut.

Where art used to be uplifting, it has now become depressing, reflecting the fact that we live in an increasingly unhappy, aimless and angry age.

When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he did so with an inward desire to bring glory to God through his talents, which he recognized as a gift from God. His work endures and continues to uplift us. Even in this secular age, the Michaelangelo’s gift on that ceiling continues to invite modern viewers into the presence of the infinite God.

Art has always been at its best when it humbly bows before the mysteries of the infinite God and acknowledges him as the creative source behind all that is good, true and beautiful.

But in an age that rejects God, there is precious little humility. Beauty and truth are mocked. Mystery has been banished from the artist’s canvas.

Maybe the reason I don’t understand jazz is that we speak different languages. Jazz speaks the modern language of secular relativism and Darwinian determinism; I speak the language of faith and divine purpose, of hope in a good and loving Creator.

In every dark corner, the Lord who redeems us is at work. I’m depressed by jazz, but I have hope that the day will come when art once again will catch sight of the Source of creativity.

Rise up, O LORD, in all Your power. With music and singing we celebrate Your mighty acts. — Psalm 21:13

Graphic credit: Jazz Night, Justbooks.org

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Comments

  1. I tried to learn to like salsa by forcing it down. It’s so good for you, I really wish it was a snack I enjoyed. But no. No amount of grimacing swallows has endeared it to me.

    I usually feel lost and confused when I enter the art world. I try to understand and appreciate, but… maybe you’re right. Maybe only those who are part of that world can understand what’s going on. And maybe that’s not how it should be. Opera, on the other hand, I’m successfully developing an appreciation for. (=

  2. Great post! Discordant “music” is just noise.

    I hadn’t made the connection until you mentioned it, but a culture that rejects God is a culture that celebrates ugliness and chaos.

  3. Wow, Charlie! I didn’t think I’d ever read a post on your blog that I disagreed with.

    I’m no jazz critic, but a statement like “Jazz speaks the modern language of secular relativism and Darwinian determinism” almost makes me fall out of my chair.

    Perhaps jazz CAN speak this language, but its improvisational aspect can also be a beautiful personal expression within a structure (much like a cadenza in a concerto, or an aleatory in modern choral music). If anything, I suppose jazz is the musical equivalent of poetry. It must speak in an intelligible language, but we expect that it will speak personally, almost like a personal recollection of a particular song. Perhaps I should write a review or two of my favorite jazz albums as a response some time. I suppose I understand your hesitations (though I’d also use the asparagus analogy). But believing jazz critics like H. R. Rookmaaker and those who followed him in that field would find much to disagree with here.

    All the same, thanks for a thought-provoking post!

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