Evolution Through the Eyes of Jazz

The phrase “adapt or die” is probably most familiar to evolutionary biologists. But the phrase is true in other areas of life because it expresses a very fundamental truth: nothing in the universe is static. Nothing can possibly stand still forever. Even in the abstract realm of human creativity, no writer can be satisfied writing endless sequels to his first great novel, no painter will stick to the same scenes for more than a few tries. In music, this tends to express itself in one of two ways. Either, they invent an entirely new category of music, or the artist attempts to push an existing genre in new and unexpected ways. Unfortunately, those who innovate within a given genre are often seen as clinging to a dying breed. With a few exceptions, I suspect this happens because music which confined itself to a particular genre tends to get more complex over time.

My mind has been wandering over this topic for several days, in part because of an extraordinarily interesting conversation with a friend. I had recently attended a jazz concert, and I was struggling to explain to my coworker exactly what it was like. When I finally settled on the term “progressive jazz”, he shocked me by remarking that jazz had not changed in almost 50 years. Had I been the same age that I was when I actually started liking jazz music, this would have made my blood boil as surely as if he had insulted my mother. But the intervening decade must have softened my younger angst considerably, because what followed was not a shouting match, but a long discussion of what makes a musical genre. I had my computer handy at the time so we began working our way up my MP3 collection from the mid-1920s until the bebop era. Though I had a few post bebop recordings, the only one he would concede constituted anything new was an album called “Breathless” by Kenny G. I was momentarily stumped until I had an inspiration, went to YouTube, and showed him “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” by Brian Setzer. Score one for jazz lovers everywhere, the day was saved without even a rattled windowpane.

But my friend’s criticism continued to bother me. I had clearly demonstrated that jazz was neither dead nor stagnant, but the notion that it could be to the untrained eye seemed strangely plausible. The question was why.

Mainstream popularity of jazz reached its zenith in the mid-1940s, specifically in the form of big band and swing music. Though it was eventually dethroned by rock ‘n roll and later psychedelia, some attribute modern-day hip-hop as one of its descendants. I believe the first piece of this puzzle is to look at how the fortunes of jazz itself has fared. As popular music, swing began its life in clubs, and later moved its way into dance halls. Then, as now, complaints about “the kids these days” ran rampant among parents whose children were attracted to this new, fast moving music. It is difficult for a modern audience to understand what would’ve been so controversial about big band music. The lyrics are relatively tame. The dancing, when practiced a-tempo was fast, but not particularly evocative of any lewd sexual acts. But it’s also nearly forgotten nowadays that the big band lifestyle was closely associated with drugs and organized crime. Frank Sinatra began his career with very close ties to the organized mafia . Louis Armstrong depended on a very well-connected mafia man to get him gigs in the early years. References to drugs occasionally found their way into music long before the 60s made them famous. Ella Fitzgerald’s “Wacky Dust” was rumored to be a song about getting high on cocaine. Cole Porter went so far as to speak of cocaine directly in his hit song “I Get a Kick Out Of You”. Swing started out as the music that was bankrolled by criminal activities, with mafia associations going as far back as the 1920s temperance movement. Though swing music appears to have been principally opposed by religious conservatives of the day, it was seen more generally as an act of rebellion. But as the 40s turned into the 50s, and the 50s turned into the 60s, the World War II generation grew up and began establishing their foothold as wage earners. As time marched on, and swing and big band were no longer considered the music the kids listen to, jazz began slowly shedding its associations with its humble beginnings. Duke Ellington played at the White House, Louis Armstrong became one of the State Department’s goodwill ambassadors, and even rough, tough, Frank Sinatra struck up a friendship with John F. Kennedy (though it should be noted that Kennedy’s administration eventually cut ties with Sinatra due to his prior mafia associations). The hallmark musicians of jazz were moving up in the world, and with them the respectability of their music. Nowadays, jazz music is associated with suit and tie events. New research suggests that people are most likely to prefer the music they first started hearing at age 14. Big band era music is no exception to that rule. Safely ensconced in the wealth their generation has built, my grandparents are finally free to listen to the music of their choice without needing to bear the castigating remarks from their parents. Only jazz hasn’t stood still in the meantime.

Jazz has always been known for its expressive solo improvisations, but as it became less popular, the solo improvisational moments of jazz transformed from a quirky oddity into a center stage attraction. So naturally, musicians began experimenting with deemphasizing the melody of the song and having what amounted to a five-minute jam session. Duke Ellington is a good example of someone who can be observed at the forefront of this transition. Previously, he had been known for songs like “Take the a Train”, which came out in 1941, and proved so popular that it became Duke Ellington’s unofficial theme song. “Money Jungle” which came out slightly over 2 decades later, in 1962, could not be more different. “Take the a Train” is hummable, singable even – whereas the first time I heard the baseline from “Money Jungle”, I thought a bee had escaped into my bedroom. The melody lines of big band era music tended to be fairly straightforward, but this new form of jazz (now called bebop) barely has two bars of melody before launching into long complicated improvisational riffs. And if our great grandparents thought the melody lines from the big band era were too fast, they would have gone into cardiac arrest listening to bebop. In bebop, speed and complex dissonant harmony lines rule the day. John Coltrain elevated this into peak form. The speed and complexity of dissonant harmonies in songs like “Giant Steps” are so fast and complicated that it would not surprise me if that particular song was responsible for birthing the complaint that “jazz is just random noise”. But a key point here is that the improvisations one hears in music like bebop are decidedly not random. All music must follow harmonic and rhythmic rules. In the case of an improvisational session, the musician must know the rules as they apply to the given melody and be able to act on them instantaneously, generating something completely new. This is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. The aforementioned “giant steps” is so difficult to perform that it is “considered a right of passage amongst serious jazz musicians”. Unfortunately, music that is about skill will leave most people attempting to sing it choking on their own tongues. This is as true of improvisational jazz as it is of classical music. As an experiment, try humming Chopin’s minute waltz. Unfortunately, most people who can’t hum it won’t remember it. This, I suspect, is the real reason why jazz “died”. One can still learn to appreciate it, but in order to do so properly one must be familiar with the amount of skill it takes to produce such a work. It took me many years to appreciate most jazz music that came after the big band era as a result. Unfortunately, many of the people who do understand it aren’t particularly good at explaining why it “works”. Between the inaccessibility of the music itself, and the fact that many of the people listening to it have accumulated comfortable assets, jazz has acquired a reputation for elitism. There is a certain paradox to becoming acceptable in high-minded musical circles. In order to be noticed by such people at all, music must be popular. But in order to become a serious subject of study by them, it must alter in ways that make it no longer popular.

The process of popular music morphing into something more experimental can be observed across the musical world. Around the same time that the aforementioned argument with my friend was taking place, I was watching the final installment in a YouTube series called “The Story of Psychedelia”. The series is a captivating look at the social and political reasons why psychedelia became popular and then eventually succumbed to the same “death” that jazz had before it. The documentarian, who goes under the handle of Zarathustra’s Serpent, details the rise of psychedelia as a movement to free one’s mind. As best as I can understand the argument, they hoped that by attempting to re-create the experience of a psychedelic trip through music that they would achieve a new, more blissful state of being. The early part of the documentary series in particular focuses on music which is an uninhibited expression of joy and love of the world. As the psychedelic era progressed, Zarathustra’s serpent seemed to suggest that the views of the artists became more nuanced and jaded. Simple expressions of joy were not enough anymore, and the free uninhibited spirit of the earlier years of psychedelia wouldn’t do for more inward looking artists. At the same time, these artists began learning of other musical traditions. As this process accelerated, they began moving away from easily understandable music.

Thus far, I have focused on the technical side of how music is written to explain the changes that it undergoes. But as the above example with psychedelia demonstrates, there is another factor at play in why music changes: the musicians themselves change with it. Ultimately, Elton John said it best in a 60 minutes interview when he stated that “you have to deviate from the course a bit, or else you will go stark raving mad”. Artists and creative types are inherently restless people. To the extent that any creative person is plying their craft for anything other than money, they will eventually get bored with doing the same thing over and over again. The paradox of this process is that in order to get good at any one form of art, one has practice at it for a very, very long time. The more time a given set of artists spend with a particular set of musical constraints, the more they will push the boundaries of those constraints. And yet, because they have invested so much time in learning the particular rule set on which their music is based, many artists have a difficult time anticipating the next big wave of innovations. It is difficult to imagine for example that someone from the jazz era, like Frank Sinatra, could have felt entirely at home keeping up with what the kids were doing in psychedelia a couple of decades later. Mathematically, this would have been a possible maneuver, considering that Frank Sinatra gave his last musical performance in 1995, but practically speaking performers like Sinatra would have had to ingest a completely new musical culture and learn an entirely new set of rules to stay relevant with younger audiences. Psychedelia would have simply been too far beyond the musical tradition that Sinatra and the artists of his era had been steadily building on.

One caveat to this theory I should point out is that jazz music and rock have started to fuse together in a few places (such as the aforementioned work of Brian Setzer). But these fusions would have been totally alien to anyone responsible for either music tradition. It took a new generation, steeped in both musical traditions to make that leap. And while these hybrids are important, they don’t appear, broadly speaking, to have captured the popular imagination.

Maybe the final lesson in all of this is that art changes, but people don’t change fast enough individually to stay on top of the trends. Whatever the reason is for this process, we can be assured that popular music will always be vulnerable from below, as new people with different experiences enter the fray and can provide audiences with something new and fresh. That is not to say the older forms are any less beautiful or valid, just to suggest that in the end nothing can stay in the popular consciousness forever.

Works Cited