We should all stop calling it ‘Jazz’

Wait! I know you were about to do it. You were about to call yourself a ‘Jazz Musician’. But have you stopped to consider the implications of that? Just because you have a music degree doesn’t mean you know shit about the word ‘jazz’, and the abuse of its context in music making drove me to quoting someone who I musically don’t agree with.

Nicholas Payton – promoter of #BAM (Black American Music)

When I was 21-or-so, someone gave me a copy of Nicholas Payton’s Nick at Night album. I must have listened to that album around 100 times before I got sick of it. I was very much into composition at that stage and not much into how people got around changes, assessed musical challenges, or the immeasurable intensity that ensembles achieve. The opening track had a harpsichord and bass line that blew my mind, mainly because I had never heard that texture before and I was into it. Clever compositional devices that made me play that album on repeat through the mp3 to tape adapter in my red 1989 Ford Festiva that struggled to make it both up and down hills. Then I got Payton’s Place – which was a bit underwhelming. And then Into The Blue, which was the end of my interest in Nicholas Payton altogether, or so I thought.

More recently though, social media has made it incredibly easy to ‘like’ or ‘follow’ people who were once an inspiration. I got blocked from from Nicholas Payton’s Facebook page for pointing out the irony in quoting yourself for your own Facebook status (seriously). But Payton’s blog on Why Jazz Still Isn’t Cool (the follow-up to his blog Why Jazz Isn’t Cool) is riveting; an amazing article about recognition in music. Despite my reservations toward his mostly arrogant statuses, I have to agree with his words in this case.

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Nicholas Payton – promoter of #BAM (Black American Music)

Now, transcending genre is something that I truly believe in, and cultural appropriation of music is a frenetic horse to hitch your wagon to. Justin Timberlake was berated by Eric Owens for his contribution to the whitewashing of modern R&B music. This was a move that really baffled JayTee (or is it JT?), who responded “the more you realise that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation.” I’m no expert, but isn’t that a white dude trying to push ‘delete’ on an issue that doesn’t affect him?

Private institutions teach ‘Jazz’ as a degree without a necessary discussion about the possible stigmas attached to self-associating as a ‘Jazz Musician’. A few institutions have swept this complex issue under the rug by re-branding their courses as ‘Contemporary Music’ or ‘Improvised Music’ while offering no alternative to the ‘Jazz’ curriculum that it once taught under a different roof.

Some institutions are only making it worse – there are universities with an overwhelmingly white population playing ’40s and swing-style Big Band music. Big Band Swing is the music that played over American airwaves while the B-29 bomber ‘Enola Gay’ dropped ‘Little Boy’ on Hiroshima, which killed nearly 70,000 people instantly. Is that the music they want to be associated with?

Then there is the term itself, as Terry Teachout from Wall Street Journal explains;

“[I]t was widely assumed, apparently incorrectly, that the word “jazz” derived from a similar-sounding slang word that initially meant “energy” but started to be used around the turn of the century as a vulgar term for seminal fluid. Because Storyville, New Orleans’s notorious red-light district, was one of the very first places where jazz was played, both the word and the music itself came to be widely seen as socially disreputable, a sentiment that persisted for decades. And while many whites saw jazz as a black music and held it in contempt for that reason alone, the belief that it was a lower-class music was equally common among status-conscious middle-class blacks.”

The history of ‘Jazz’ is also littered with domestic abuse, sexism, drug overdose, and undiagnosed mental illnesses. At least the Top 40 has some race and gender diversity, and has outspoken allies of LGBTIAQ+ rights, Feminism, Black Lives Matter, and other important equality and other social justice movements. If Jazz died in 1959 as Payton suggests, then it had next to none of the diversity in numbers that music of the 21st-Century does. Be that as it may, the 21st-Century is off to a better start than previous centuries; but we all hope that this is the valley before the peak of equality.

If you think “Miles Davis has no style,” you probably haven’t seen this photo

All this sets up perfectly for the entry of Miles Davis into the conversation. My favourite ever Miles quote, from a 1982 television interview with Bryant Gumbel, is this; “I don’t like that word, jazz. I think it’s Social Music.” Social Music; this encompasses everyone and everything. It is free from discrimination. It is free from prior contexts. It is not bound to any idea, it IS the idea. And everything else is a cover act. I’m not saying don’t play Mingus charts, but acknowledge that his compositions were born from the frustrated ramblings of a multi-ethnic man born in 1920s America that refused to compromise his own musical integrity; a legacy which is so often forgotten when programming his music. Now, imagine booking that as ‘Jazz’ – that should be criminal.

None of the Jazz heroes ever professed a meaning behind the term. Louis Armstrong was heralded as defining what Jazz is, and even he said “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” Wynton Marsalis said that Jazz is “music that swings,” but that discounts the origins of the music and is even open to interpretation, especially if you’ve ever heard a brass band try to ‘swing’. Keith Jarrett said that “if classical music is a clear photograph of a stream, then jazz is that stream,” which is a cryptic metaphor, considering Keith just implied the photo comes before the event. Duke Ellington LOATHED the term. So did Mingus. And Nic Payton prefers Black American Music, and that’s fine too – though the title Wangaratta Black American Music Festival doesn’t have the same ring to it, doesn’t always swing, and is predominantly white Aussies.

All in all, I am an advocate for any and all music without labels. Labeling anything you do as an artist without acknowledging the implications that label may have is irresponsible, and I know so many people who I love and respect who still give themselves the title ‘Jazz Musician’. Aside from that, the ambiguity behind the term Social Music is much more appealing, even if it was conceived by a fairly well documented womaniser and serial domestic abuse miscreant… tortured genius is a can of worms I’ll think about for next time.



4 thoughts on “We should all stop calling it ‘Jazz’

  1. Yeah but at the end of the day, who really cares? Do you classify any music you hear? Ever? Industrial metal exists as a label because it is a great shorthand way to describe a particular sound. Metal is an umbrella term, it can refer to so many ‘sub genres’.

    Why should jazz be any different? Drums and bass music is drums and bass music, and jazz music is jazz music. Whether it’s 80s swing revival, Dixie or a teenager learning blue bossa, it doesn’t matter. The wider populace evidently doesn’t even care about jazz music as it is. Being pedantic won’t help.

    Ps. Don’t worry about Miles being a womaniser in a music article. That’s completely irrelevant to the music.


    1. Great point! I don’t see the need for “shorthanding” how music sounds for any reason. I think all labels for music are irrelevant, but some labels have sordid histories that highlight social problems. Calling any music anything won’t change how it sounds either.
      P.S: I wrote this article about labels, music, and politics.


      1. Thanks for the response. Yes, calling music by a name definitely won’t change how it sounds. But ‘shorthanding’ has its uses. When you see a dog, you wouldn’t typically comment “look at that mammal”. We constantly use more specific classifications to communicate more effectively what we are talking about, whether it is regarding dogs, eye color, drinks or music.

        Maybe the politics goes over my head but whether the label has a sordid history and associated social problems or not doesn’t really change the notion that when someone says “jazz”, it gives you an introductory and crude understanding of what the music might sound like, especially when it is coupled with more specific words. Such as “free”, or “60s Blue note”, for example.

        I’m not about to say “four strong beats on the synthetic bass drum per bar and a simulated off-beat hi hat in a harmonically limited landscape with various repetitive higher pitched blips” when I can say “EDM” and that same info is implied. The label does the job pretty well!


    2. Sorry, also Miles calling it “social music” implies the root of that term has undertones of patriarchy. So, in other words, don’t call it anything.


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