Mike’s Manifesto; or Can’t We All Just Get Down?

Some time ago I read one of those back page editorials in That’s Shanghai. It proclaimed the superiority of blues to jazz because jazz is too intellectual when “all you need is three chords and the truth.” I come across this attitude–or its polite/self-deprecating cousin “I don’t understand jazz”—pretty frequently. There is also “I respect jazz,” which is most frequently found among practitioners and educated fans of more recent styles of music and means “apparently it was important at some point, but I’ll be damned if I’ll ever be caught listening to it.” I also have heard, when listening to jazz at a party, “can we put on something with a beat?” and, once, grooving to Charlie Parker while giving a ride home to a totally wasted philistine friend-of-a-friend back in Boston, “Is this Classical?” Now she was young, and she was spending her free time losing her mind at the filthy den of overzealous partiers where my then-girlfriend and my still-best-friend both lived, so we should forgive her. Why should she know jazz from anything else? Why should anybody? People have to work and they have some other hobbies, and we can’t expect everyone to be conversant in every style of every art form all over the world because there’s just too much. Certainly Americans, such as the girl mentioned above, who was lucky enough to experience both my superior driving ability and my wonderful taste in music, should receive some basic education about “America’s art form.” If they’re expected to read Huck Finn and The Scarlet Letter in High School they should be expected to listen to Charlie Parker.

But this is not America, and a Shanghai music website is not the place to rail about American education. A basic understanding of the tradition of jazz aids in its appreciation but is not necessary as long as the listener is open minded. I recently read an interview with a young cellist named Justin Leong at . He broke music into two categories: party music and listening music. Jazz began as party music and, at the height of its popularity, was the most overtly rhythmic and sexual music around. Even when the bebop revolution demanded to be taken “seriously” as listening music, it was coexisting with jazz as party music. Eventually, rock music replaced it as the most overt and most popular style of music—though, as to sexuality, I have a hard time imagining a rock musician advising a hopeful youngster to “eat more muffin,” as one of my teachers frequently did—and since then a host of styles have come along, the result being that the listening music side of jazz (along with the background music side, very unfortunately) has come to dominate in the US and in as far as I can tell in Europe.

What’s so great about Shanghai is that jazz here straddles that line. Especially with JZ and House of Blues and Jazz, people often go to hear jazz because they want to have a fun night, not because they are part of the nerdy cult of jazz music. People drink, chat, listen, and very occasionally dance. The energy of the crowd isn’t that museum/concert-hall politeness that is the norm in the States. Of course fans of the music are part of the crowd here too, though you never know what kind of a background in it they will have. Sometimes they will tell you that you should play reggae-jazz fusion, because that’s what’s really hip. It can be a bit of a drag, along with—especially for a bass player—quiet parts of a performance being talked over, but it all makes the memory of that one special night at the House of Blues and Jazz when not one person talked during my solo all the more dear.

Some, like the author of the editorial mentioned above, may find jazz too intellectual, (though what’s wrong with intellectual music I don’t know. Do we demand that our authors, filmmakers and visual artists stay away from intellectual exercise?) but what’s great about Shanghai is that the very lack of live music introduces people who probably wouldn’t be exposed to it in another city to the special blend of individual expression and communal feeling that we call jazz. I hope that the scene here expands, but I think we should all appreciate a scene where many of the same people who go to jazz clubs go to house clubs. I hope this website can be of interest to them, and the people who like Chinese instrumental music and opera, and hip-hop, and reggae, and indie rock, and funk, and maybe even metal.

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  1. mjs

    well said, sir!


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