Thursday, December 30, 2010

You Must Be This Tall To Play Jazz: The Superficiality Of It All

Some of you might be aware that my 41st Birthday happened yesterday.(FYI: unlike Elaine on Seinfeld, I would never scoff at a birthday gift of CASH....) Now that I am securely in my 40's, I started to think about the fact that I am no longer even close to being a musical young lion anymore. And yet, I'm playing as well as I ever have in my life. Yet the conventional wisdom (correct me if I'm wrong) seems to be that once you pass a certain age, your usefulness in the music industry is arguably null and void. Why?

The great Lewis Black
I am constantly saying that music should always be judged by what it sounds like rather than what it looks like. (One of my favorite comedians, Lewis Black, has a brilliant routine along these lines regarding MTV, and how " music goes in your ear, and video goes in your eye! " He also astutely obseves," MTV is to music what KFC is to chicken!") While every other aspect of our culture has succumbed to the lure of making sure it celebrates the youthful and the sexual, I am more disappointed when this occurs in jazz music. And this is not just because jazz happens to be my life's pursuit.

Lady Gaga: I can see that she's  talented...
I think jazz music should be held to a higher standard. Why? Because it is no longer popular music in the way that Taylor Swift and Lada Gaga are the popular music. Therefore, it is already a niche market. And I believe that those in that market are more sophisticated already to make their musical listening choices in a mature way: by actually LISTENING to the music! Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift are marketed towards teenagers who are easily swayed by peer pressure and pubescent hormonal insanity. I believe that the majority of jazz listeners are adults and listeners, and wouldn't be swayed by external forces. Or shouldn't be.

Furthermore, there is also the trend of focusing on the super elderly in jazz. While this is in many ways quite noble, it's still not based on anything real. It's sort of like jumping on the bandwagon at the last minute.  For example, Joe Henderson was ignored for years, even when he was playing his butt off and making great music. Then, it seemed as though once he hit his 70's, all of a sudden the jazz business came out of the woodwork to give him some respect. (Let's not even talk about those who don't get noticed until they are, ahem, deceased....)

The Great Roy Haynes
Again, it seems like if your between 30 and 65, the jazz powers-that-be have very little interest. If you think I'm completely off base, ask a jazz musician you know and let me know what he says. In fact, ask Roy Haynes, who, as I was told by one of his former band members, was always mystified by the accolades he got as a senior citizen, while he had been playing his ass off for decades prior.

But whether it be age, looks, race, nationality, religious views, back story, shoe size, height, hairstyle, or number of parking tickets; none of these things interest me when it comes to music. Music is sound. Call me crazy, but I don't think it should be judged by anything else. Would you judge a Picasso by how it smells? Would you judge a novel by how it tastes?( On second thought, my one year old son is trying to EAT one of his books at the moment.....Liam, no......)

If you want to comment, do so respectfully and thoughtfully, please.
Happy New Year!


  1. Well, it does say "Lunch" on the cover...

  2. Agreed! Music for music's sake. Even if we have genetic programming deeply embedded in our DNA that dictates the function of music as being a sort of mating call, and therefore contributes to our survival and adaption as the human species, we can still strive to evolve into higher level beings capable of expanded states of understanding and artistic expression.

  3. Thank you for stating my thoughts exactly. I am coming into my own as a pianist in jazz, and as a teacher, at 39. I didn't even hear my first jazz until I was 19, and by 20, I had dedicated my life to it, although I knew I would take a while to sound like I wanted considering my circumstance. My life journey is to break through the commonplace assumptions we make as a culture, and this is the main one for us. Continue in peace,
    Gerald Stephens

  4. George-a great post. This is Paul Hanson (bassoon) writing this. I don't even know where to begin when describing reading this post given my current position as a Cirque Du Soleil electric bassoon 'whore'. I played a very enjoyable gig with you with Don Byron in 2005 at the SF Jazz Festival; I was just about ready to go on the road with Cirque for another show-now I'm in Tokyo performing with a new Cirque resident show making a great living-the kind of living not many instrumentalists get to have-basically a 'corporate entertainment' white-collar day job. There was a time when I was young and got all kinds of attention that wasn't fully deserved because I'm so much of a better player now. However-that's the way the world works; it works that way in all fields of entertainment; even actors have a hard time in their middle age-not saying it's right but it's the way it is. I fully respect anyone who can make a stand for true music today as there is so much visual crap that gets in the way that makes audiences 'hear with their eyes'. I remember the last time I could call myself a true 'jazz musician'-it was playing at IAJE in Toronto in 2008-a bunch of NYC jazz musicians-all great players-were trying to convince me to move to NYC. Well-I am in my late 40s with a family and kids-I had to take the $$$ and go away from what I would really like to be doing (playing great music all the time). What Chuck says is exactly true in my position-I want to work and make money and support my family-this is really hard to do as a jazz musician. Anyone who is doing that I bow to you; it is very hard to do. Because it's one thing to be successful and hip when you're in your 20s and 30s-it's totally different to do that when you need to support a family and you're almost 50.

  5. Not to be a nit-picking ninny, but Joe Henderson (April 24, 1937 - June 30, 2001) NEVER made it to age 70.

  6. Thanks for pointing that out. I meant to double check that, thinking that I was probably off, but I believe I was typing one handed whilst my one year old son was desperately trying to play with the computer.....

  7. I like jazz music it give harmony to me.

  8. True, although Pharoah Sanders, on the other hand was celebrated during his Impulse! period, and later in life, as I've heard, he was unable to even get gigs! But, so true--Coltrane made some of his most creative and passionate recordings well into his thirties...

  9. Thanks for pointing that out. I meant to double check that, thinking that I was probably off, but I believe I was typing one handed whilst my one year old son was desperately trying to play with the computer.....
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  10. Your infant is reading William S. Burroughs?


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