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Yet Popular

“[H]e remains one of jazz's most broadly popular figures, yet still holds on to an unshakeable degree of respectability." —BBC


The BBC was talking about Ramsey Lewis but what’s interesting here is not the subject or even the opinion but rather the inference lurking in that little word “yet”.

Broadly popular yet still respectable?  What that “yet” implies is that jazz players who achieve broad popularity do so at the expense of their authenticity and hence, the respect of their more properly unpopular peers.  To the layman, popular success may seem to be the obvious goal of any performer, but to the modern jazzer, it is a kind of embarrassment.

It was not always thus. The taste for obscurity was willfully acquired in the transition from swing to bebop, roughly speaking, before and after World War II.  Swing was popular; swing was danceable.  Swing was fun.  Bebop was serious.  Bebop was complicated.  Bebop was dissonant.  Bebop was cool.

Think of some jazz players in the latter 20th century who managed to become (or remain) popular enough, say, to appear on The Tonight Show.  Come now, there must have been a few: Louis Armstrong, Erroll Garner, Nat Cole, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson.  What they share (except maybe Brubeck) is a sensibility that’s more swing era than bebop, which is to say, they presented a happy face, not a brooding one.

Compare Google photos of trumpeter Armstrong against those of Miles Davis, or pianists Oscar Peterson, Nat Cole and Erroll Garner against, say, Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk. The latter are serious, aloof, introverted, with no apparent interest in ingratiating themselves to us the viewers.  The former group are warmly smiling, as though they felt some purpose to entertain.  

Alas, warm is not cool.  A too eager willingness to please brought the usual disdain.  The academy and the “serious” players thought Armstrong played the clown, thought Nat King Cole betrayed the jazz world altogether by becoming a pop singer, thought even someone of Peterson’s towering stature might be a little showy and predictably mainstream.

Of course, this tension between the hip and the middlebrow exists in all of the arts. As artists strive for originality, they become more experimental, usually more complex, consequently more arcane and less popular.   And so it is with painting and poetry and music, whose modern forms are widely ignored. Someone quipped that opera was a popular 17th century entertainment that deteriorated into an art form. This is certainly what happened to jazz.  But while the other arts have taken shelter in non-profits set up by sympathetic cognoscenti, jazz has generally contented itself with an ongoing and, in its own mind, noble penury.

To the extent though that jazz is an African American form, this willed obscurity represents more than the usual artistic conundrum of increasing sophistication and decreasing appeal.  If swing was just a style, modern jazz was a movement and its aura of proud detachment reflected the racial politics of its era.  Where the older school was obliging and not overtly hostile to the broader culture –indeed, sought its embrace -- the modern jazzers rejected it.  They did not seek popularity; rather they cultivated the outside.  Far out, man, the farther the better.  This exclusivity was by no means limited to blacks; anyone able to feign interest in ten minute bass solos or thirty seven choruses of Giant Steps would be welcome too.

It is unfortunate that this chilly postwar coolness still reigns and has come to define the form. Witness, in Ken Burns’ oddly selective documentary, the unfortunately popular and sacrilegiously joyful Erroll Garner is nowhere mentioned, while the aloof and enigmatic Thelonius Monk, who captured the political posturing perfectly, was elevated to sainthood.

Teachers and students tend to embrace this alienated ethos as a kind of Holy Orders (together with the concomitant vow of poverty), not only limiting themselves musically but also dooming jazz’s future.  One might have hoped that the Nat Cole model would have held sway, that jazz players would seek, or at any rate, not resent, the admiration of the wider culture and that, in the world of jazz, “popular” and “respectable” wouldn’t have to be separated by that little “yet”.

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