By Don Heckman
I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday and he said, “You know what’s happened to jazz? It’s become Muzak.” Before I had a chance to question that seemingly off-center assertion, he explained. “Go into an upscale men’s store, or even a Whole Foods, and notice how often you’ll hear something from ‘Kind of Blue,’ or maybe Sonny Rollins’ ‘St. Thomas’.”
True enough, I thought. Even though it was almost as likely that one might hear Crosby, Stills & Nash doing “Guinevere” or “Suite Judy Blue Eyes.” Or, to shift gears, the Beatles, Billy Joel or Stevie Wonder. The point being that atmosphere-setting music – which is what Muzak is really all about – has the very specific goal of creating a mood to motivate purchasing. Whether it’s the cool sophistication of Miles Davis as a little jog to buy a Ralph Lauren jacket, or the memory-filled invoking tunes of the Beatles and C, S & N to distract one from checking labels and sticking to a budget.
But there was a deeper subtext to what my friend had to say. And it has to do with the relevance (or irrelevance) of jazz as part of the soundtrack of 21st century life. When “Kind of Blue” was released, fifty(!) years ago, jazz was heard well beyond the packaging of Muzak. Think of it: Davis, Brubeck, Coltrane, Gillespie, Fitzgerald. They were all around us. Ain’t so today. The stars have dimmed, virtually disappeared. Even though there are probably more jazz albums being released – quantitatively – than were being issued in the fifties. And, more than that, I’d say that the median level of playing – qualitatively – is far better than it was at that time.
What’s missing with the departure of the pathfinders, however, is the sense of jazz as a significant, influential participant in America’s artistic culture. (It is, in fact, a far more significant participant in the artistic cultures of may other countries – from Poland to Japan, with all sorts of stops in between.) In part, the problem traces to a general dumbing-down of all of the arts over the past few decades. The MTV phenomenon, combined with the lowest-common-denominator programming mentality permeating television has played a major role. The internet has had its negative aspects, too. But at least here, the potential is not limited by the avariciousness of advertising or the narrow focus produced by Neilson ratings.
So my pal was right, I think, about the changes that have taken place over the past decade or two in the music we both love. But everything changes, doesn’t it?. And if jazz is now in the position of being a religion without a prophet, maybe it’s also in a period with great potential opportunities. We just don’t know as yet what that potential will produce, other than the fact that it will be different from what came before. That, after all, has always been one of the great appeals of jazz. And that, hopefully, will never change.