On Jazz, popularity

Sunday, March 21, 2010 :: Tagged under: pablolife culture essay. ⏰ 6 minutes.


Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄


Another not-very-hackery article on Hacker News caught my attention. Dyske Suematsu (in 2003) gives a few reasons to why we don't hear jazz on Top-40 radio stations, making claims like "our ears are getting lazier."

I'm taking a computer science class called Solving Hard Problems, but reading the article and the epic comment thread that ensued reminds me that our Hard Problems are really bollocks: our problems are at least solvable. Even if they aren't, they're well defined enough to know when we've solved them.

Try answering "Why isn't Jazz popular?" and all you can do is approximate. Social scientists have much more courage than I do.

To paraphrase Valentine Coverly from Arcadia, "We know better what's happening between two electrons or in the inside of a star than whether or not it'll rain on our picnic next Sunday." Valentine spoke of knowing about the really big and really small, but that chaos theory prevents us from knowing anything in between (things that, you know, matter).

(to break visual tedium, enjoy the pictures from my high school production of Arcadia, which I directed as a senior for our annual student-directed show. Hope that opportunity is still around for the students...)

I told you that to tell you this: I'll give some reasons why I believe we don't hear more jazz all around us, but I understand the limitations of my arguments, and that they're specific to me.

Chloe, Valentine, Hannah, Bernard, and Augustus


I'm invested in this because I love jazz. The Ken Burns Thelonious Monk CD was instrumental in my personal and musical maturation. I've since found other tunes with this connective property, but hearing Thelonious' dissonances and expressive solos when I was 16 made me realize the gap between acting and music was vanishingly small (recently I'm finding this in Tito Puente).

My brother is a jazz musician. Since I was about 12 he's practiced daily on his bass for 3-4 hours a day, demonstrating a devotion I've never been able to match. So I listen closely to music (but jazz in particular), to try to find those elements that inspire him to keep playing.

Especially now that he's a professional jazz musician in the Bay Area, I would love nothing more than for it to be popular. I'd love for other people feel what I've felt in listening to it.


So lets move on to the article: he is, in most of his points, blaming perceived ignorant masses for their ignorance. I don't love his phrasing: many of the arguments take the form "The problem is that most Americans aren't X" (implied: "aren't X like I am."). But this is nitpicking, I think he's on to a few points; I just don't think they're uniquely American.

One of those points is dealing with abstraction, and the point he doesn't spell out, nuance. He mentions that you don't learn to love good wine by mindlessly drinking it, you have to actively work to taste. You have to form bridges between this wine and every other wine you've had, and know what your taste buds are telling you beyond "Like!" or "Don't Like!".

He argues that an appreciation of jazz requires a similar purposeful listening, and I more or less agree with him. I'll add that it also requires patience, as you won't start loving jazz after only one song. Like trying anything for the first time, you also have to hide your private prejudices while you listen: listen for what you note is interesting about the music, not how it fulfills you're already-low expectations.

In a related point, I also agree that for many people, lyrics are a good way to get around this abstraction barrier. He says it best, so I won't paraphrase:

Aesthetically, the paintings of Mark Rothko and those of Monet are quite similar, but the former is utterly unacceptable for many people even though they consider the latter to be a master. The difference is that in Monet’s paintings, you can still see things represented in them: rivers, trees, mountains, houses, and so forth. The audience interprets these objects, and projects their own beautiful memories onto the paintings, which makes the whole process much easier. In Mark Rothko’s paintings, there is nothing they can mentally grab on to. What you see is what you get; there is nothing to interpret. So, the audience is left without a pen to hold on to.

The same happens to instrumental music. If there are no lyrics, that is, if there is nothing for the minds to interpret, projecting of any emotional values becomes rather difficult. As soon as the lyrics speak of love, sex, racism, evil corporations, loneliness, cops, etc., all sorts of emotions swell up. Jazz to most people is like a color on a wall; unless you hung something on it, they don’t even notice it.

Valentine, Thomasina

I'll agree with him on this too. So these are causes, but what causes the causes? Here we get into where I disagree with him:

These are all hitting a strawman I don't think he knows he's setting up. I don't believe our ears were ever such great workhorses, so this trend isn't 'irreversible,' since we were never there to begin with. And Rap is a symptom, yes, but not of what you're describing.

Like when Old People* make a statement beginning with "Kids these days..." or "We used to believe... but now we've lost our way", he's forgetting that in culture, things are the way they are because that's how we want them to be given what we know and what's available. Old People who complain kids play too many videogames neglect the possibility that they would have done the same thing if the world looked the way it does now, and if they had them when they were kids.

Rap music is popular for a number of reasons, but probably most because it's never had a chance to come out before. Recording technology wasn't accessible enough, scouts didn't look there, the world wasn't what it needed to be to enable it. I'm not well-versed in the origins of rap, but the perfect storm of inner-city life in the recessions of the 70's and 80's, about a generation after a civil rights movement to disillusioned youth with few options (and with lewdness/violence slowly being more acceptable in recorded media, which itself was becoming cheaper and cheaper to produce), are you surprised rap emerged?

The funny thing about him hating on rap is that it's followed a very similar progression to Jazz: first it was a dirty, lower-class music for Mean Minorities that Scary Drug Dealers and Felons produced, then it was associated with Cool, then increasingly played in clubs and social spots. And the sinful way kids danced to it! Then white people got into it. Now hip-hop (and prominent sampling of pop tunes) are spreading everywhere, kind of like the Benny Goodman swing era, where it's on the radio! It's acceptable!

Rap is a 20th-century mindful, technologically-enabled Jazz Jr.

All these lamentations that We've Lost the Sophistication To Listen to Jazz are misguided. People felt about Jazz the way he does about Rap (how long do you think before you can get your degree from a music school in Hip Hop Performance, I wonder?).

So how do you get people to care about Jazz today? The same way you get them to care about live theatre (dying), opera (dying), classical music (dying), modern dance (dying): you really can't. Few people I've ever met wonder what to do on a Friday night and think "Oh, I know! Let's go see Opera!"

For another number of reasons, even if people do know that these events are going on, and they're even the least bit curious, it's still a major ordeal to get them to go. That's the topic of a whole other post (this one ballooned in size and into topics I didn't expect), but most of my suggestions echo those of Brendan Kiley for theatre. Above all, make art fun again, for people.

Septimus, Jellaby


A bit of a sidenote, but the question itself is also flawed. What is Jazz, anyways? In my History of Jazz class, my professor opened it up by mentioning the first line in a definition of Jazz in a Music encyclopedia: "All attempts to accurately and thoroughly define jazz have failed."

Are we talking Louis Armstrong's Hot 5, Hot 7 of the 1920's? Ellington's Big Band and "Jungle Music"? Benny Goodman swing of the '30s? Bebop, Hard Bop? Fusion Jazz of the 70's? Fats Waller's Vaudevillian Swing?

Where do Bossa Nova and Afro-Cuban jazz fit into it? Medeski, Martin, and Wood? How can you argue as to why people love don't love it if 'it' is such a moving target? I would argue Benny Goodman (bleh) or even Fats Waller (yay) doesn't require much 'purposeful listening' as the Jazz I expect we're talking about, namely 20-minute Coltrane solos on hard bop.


Note: When I say Old People, I use it in the same way George Carlin does: not the number of years you've been alive, but your mentality towards the present and future. I'm at Brown and know Old People who are 20 years old.

Me, 10 pounds thinner during Tech Week

Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you 😄