Reclassifying Jazz

For many years, I’ve been a devotee of jazz music. It has kept me musically afloat all my life, since I was five. I was listening to David Benoit when I was five years old. My favorite musician has been Joe Sample since I was ten. My favorite episode of The West Wing is episode 6.16, “Drought Conditions,” solely because it ends at a reception in which Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” is played in its entirety. Jazz, the music and the mindset, makes up a lot of my persona. My walk, my writing, my speech, my mechanical nature of doing things all has that same angular, improvisational ideal to it.

As I’ve grown older and continued to learn more about jazz’s past and its future, I’ve expanded all my musical tastes as well (this hyperlink goes way back in my writing). For the most part, I’ve been able to keep my variety under control but as time has gone by, I’ve been less able to keep my tastes in check. It has become harder and harder for me to draw lines between genres. This is difficult for me because I so avidly love musicality. If a song is written well and the musicians can perform well, then a good song that does make. For my tastes, this happens best and most often in jazz but when genres intermingle so often, does it really make that big of a deal when R&B sounds jazzy or when a bluegrass musician plays a rock song.

While I (and many others for that matter) may debate this question for the rest of my life, the need for a more definitive answer is coming up fairly soon. In the next coming weeks, I’m going to helm a weekly radio show on my favorite radio station, KRTU. It’s a specialty show that will primarily play what the station’s operations manual and policy guide refers to as “New Jazz.” This isn’t a very clear category except for the fact that most of what I will play will have been released recently. I can navigate these waters. I know enough about The Bad Plus, Medeski, Martin, & Wood, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio, Soulive, Yesterday’s New Quintet, and others to hold my own.

But I want to continue to ask the question that has become more conceptual: What is Jazz? Patrick Jarenwattananon of the NPR jazz blog, A Blog Supreme (clever name, huh?), recently begged the question about Ethiopian Mulatu Astatke. Jarenwattananon states that the answer to the question is ultimately irrelevant, but if you were to hear the given selection (and you really should), it’s quite good. It’s jazzy. I’d like to play it on my show, but I’d may have to have a discussion with the station’s music director about it.

As I’ve said a few weeks ago, genres and cultures are being reclassified. With mass media and cultural intermingling, genre is not defined by attribute but by demeanor. So I must ask, is jazz improvisation? Is it collaboration with jazz musicians of old? Is it merely making instrumentals? Where do you start drawing the line between jazz and instrumental funk? Does Andre 3000’s cover of “My Favorite Things” count? Does Radiohead’s “Life in a Glasshouse” count because it’s has horn arrangements by Humphrey Lyttelton? Is Booker T’s cover of Tom Waits’s “Get Behind the Mule” jazzy, funky, or something else altogether? I enjoy all these things quite a bit, but while I can say all these things have jazz qualities, I am still in a position in which these things need to be categorized.

When I was in talks to get this show, I had a series of fascinating discussions with the former music director, the very talented Aaron Prado. He understood my quandary but also noted that not everything is jazz. There are lines and boundaries, boundaries I must discern when broadcasting what is generally perceived to be jazz music on a jazz station. He noted that the line is fine but more definite for some than others. While I consider Herbie Hancock’s 2005 album, Possibilities, a grand achievement in crossover jazz but jazz nonetheless, Prado disagreed with me and found it to be more of a pop album. But this didn’t mean his cover of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” (masterfully sung by Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan) didn’t see some airtime.

Essentially, I’m saying that while I can at times believe that everything is everything and culture is always striving for redefinition, there are times when I need to be more practical than theoretical. While I hope my show will continue to push the boundaries of what will be considered jazz, there is a box. The wall of that box are paper-thin, but they exist.

In the meantime, listen to KRTU on Friday nights at 9. It’s a good show already, but I’ll be around sooner than you think. (They stream online and have weekly archives, too.)

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