Oh, Jazz Blogosphere, What Have You Done To Me?

by Jason on April 10, 2010 · 13 comments

in Thoughts

Are we thinking too much?

Are we thinking too much?

I started regularly reading about 50 jazz blogs a little over a year ago. Since that time I’ve been turned on to new music and new ways of thinking. I’ve talked with fascinating people and even threw my two cents in about some controversial subjects (here and here). I enjoy talking about music and jazz, which is why I started this blog in the first place. Recently, however, I’ve noticed a trend in my own thinking that I wanted to share here. I’m wondering if perhaps I’m not the only one feeling this way?

Let me start by saying that I’m glad there is such a thing as the “jazz blogosphere”. The fact that so many musicians, writers, critics, bloggers and fans are talking and sharing regularly can only be a good thing. The rise of sites like NPR’s A Blog Supreme, Nextbop and Elements of Jazz, to name just three, is helping spread jazz music to a wider audience.

Since my latest “big theory” post about Jazz and Cultural Relevance, and some very thoughtful responses from the likes of Peter Hum, Josh Rager and David Ryshpan, I’ve started to notice how reading all these blogs has effected my own thinking about things.

Before I was immersed in the jazz blogosphere, I would have conversations with my friends and colleagues here in Seattle about music. They would mostly focus on the act of making it, writing it and trying to make a living from it. Sure, every once in a while we would talk about “big picture” topics, mostly brought on by recent listening. Overall, though, there wasn’t much talk about “jazz is this” or “jazz should do that”.

Since the rise of the jazz blogosphere, and particularly since the Teachout Debacle, much of the internet talk of jazz has been about what it is, what it isn’t, can it be save, does it need saving, etc. Granted, this is not a new discussion. Jazz blogs have just amplified and perhaps over-emphasized it.

As I approach the one year anniversary of this blog I’ve been reading over my posts to see what I can learn from a year of my own blogging. What I have found is that as the year went on, I have posted more about “jazz” and less about making a living in music. Much of this has been because of, and in reaction to, topics from the jazz blogosphere.

Gerry Mulligan in Downbeat

Gerry Mulligan in Downbeat

It hit home when I read a reprint of an interview that Leonard Feather conducted with Gerry Mulligan in 1960 in the latest edition of Downbeat Magazine. It was shortly after Mulligan put his new big band together, and Feather asked him a question about whether this was a show band or a dance band. In a follow-up question, Feather elaborates, “The reason I asked is that John Hammond said recently he feels jazz is essentially a functional music and is coming back to that.” To this, Mulligan replies:

I’m really not too concerned about where jazz is going, what it’s doing. I’m concerned about the entity that I’ve tried to put together, which is really quite separate from the entire field of jazz. My answer to John is, there are jazz musicians who have never gotten away from that. Now if you’re talking about jazz in terms of what the avant garde has been doing, or what’s the most influential thing with the younger musicians now, that’s not what I’m basing my ideas on.

Mulligan’s focus on his music, his ideas impresses me. It also makes me wonder if I’ve become distracted by the jazz blogosphere’s self-reflection and constant search for the next big topic. Have I lost focus on the act of making music? Has my blog lost focus on it’s original intent, to talk about how to make a living as a working musician?

As you’ll notice, the three blogs I referenced above are all written by non-professional musicians. They are writers, critics, fans. That’s great. And while I do enjoy reading the thoughts of my fellow musicians, I wonder, as the ever-intriguing Peter Hum does here, whether we musicians should just worry about the act of making the music and leave it up to others to talk about it’s significance, relevance, worthiness, etc.? Has the rise of the musician-blogger given birth to a new animal called the blogger-musician? Has the focus indeed shifted? Should we care?

I don’t yet know the answers to these questions. Maybe you can help me sort it out? Maybe you’ve noticed a similar shift in your thinking? Has the blogosphere made academic discourse about jazz more prevalent, and is this good or bad, or neither?

Chime in with a comment and let me know what you think. For now, I’m going to go practice.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Katy Bourne April 10, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Good questions, Jason. Lots to think about here. I hope that jazz musicians who are so inclined will keep writing and blogging because it’s always good to hear how other people experience making their way in the world of jazz. As for thinking about the future of jazz or where it’s heading or what’s important, I think there’s room for that but not at the exclusion of actually making the music and as you’ve hit on, putting the focus on what discoveries you’re making in your own artistry. I think, ironically, we can lose moments in our effort at understanding them. Ultimately, time will tell. I think as long as we keep sharing our stories, honing our craft and keeping our communities connected, then jazz will indeed live on in one fashion or another.

That’s my two cents. Please keep it up, Jason!

David
Twitter: dave6834
April 10, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Funnily enough, I am working on a “big picture” kind of piece this weekend. Even so, I agree that some bloggers (myself included) get a little too hung up on these questions. That is partly due to the fact that I think we tend to enjoy these discussions, which sometimes puts us in the minority. At the same time, the blog post that I enjoyed the most this week was Ethan Iverson’s post on Mal Waldron. It is most definitely not a big picture piece. So your point on blog content is well-taken.

However, I don’t think the blogger-musician is anything new. Rather, the blog has given the same platform to musicians that it gave to everyone else. When you read the memoirs of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, or Duke Ellington (just to name three), you see that these musicians were very concerned with big-picture stuff (especially what is and isn’t jazz). They developed their own ideas of what is and isn’t jazz, but the public could only infer what they thought, in most cases (until their memoirs were released, when they were well into old age). Then came the internet, the world changed, etc., and now musicians (like the rest of us) have found a way to tell everyone what they’ve been thinking. So if musicians were to “just worry about the act of making the music” and nothing else, they would be the first generation to be so circumscribed.

Kelly Fenton
Twitter: d0nnatr0y
April 11, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Jason- I totally get where you are coming from. I’ve recently neglected my blog and that is because it was taking way too much time to stay relevant in the blogosphere as we call it. In order to create discussion, big picture or not, on my own blog, I needed to participate in other discussions. Before long, I was spending all of my writing hours writing comments, not music. I then found myself bored by the constant complaints (valid as there are) about bad audiences, lack of funding, lack of attendance, the actual definition of jazz, etc. It was almost like being back in college again!

I do appreciate all of the people, yourself included, that I’ve met over the internet, and I do hope to continue meeting more people and participating. But I think a balance needs to be found, and that balance will vary from person to person. Perhaps when I need a break from working on my own compositions, I will fill that void with more blogging. But for now, the only computer program I’m using for my jazz output is Sibelius! 😉

Steve Provizer
Twitter: improviz
April 11, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Yes, “circumscribed” as I, ahem, recently wrote in Brilliant Corners that Bird was by his drug habit. I’m a musician blogger and, here in middle age, obsessing somewhat less about gigs or lack of same. I am certain that my ears and long musical life mean I have something to share about this music. It also happens that, off and on, I’ve been a writer (in all media), as have so many other musicians. As I’m sure you know, Louis wrote every day of his life (whether before or after he smoked, I don’t know). There’s no doubt in my mind he would have blogged.

Alex
Twitter: arodjazz
April 11, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Josh Rager and David Ryshpan aren’t professional musicians? I guess you must be referring to Nextbop, Elements of Jazz and A Blog Supreme.

Anyway, the beauty of the blog medium is that it’s your own personal space to talk about anything you want. And as far as it relates to jazz and cultural relevance, I’d love to get your two cents about Dr. Teeth over at Lubricity: http://wp.me/pwbPQ-bv

Linking back to my own blog is not simply an exercise in self-indulgence, though: I hope that you can see in that post in particular how a non-polemical and playful approach to the topic can yield worthwhile results. I’ve really learned a lot from the comments, tweets and e-mails that I’ve received since posting that last week.

Talking about music is important. That professional, semi-professional and non-musicians can all participate in the same conversation now, less bound by the awkward power dynamics inherent in the musician-critic-promoter relationships (an example of which you gave above with Mulligan) is an unequivocal step in the right direction.

Just please don’t blame the amorphous “Jazz Blogosphere” for YOUR choices of content focus at this blog! I will keep coming back here for your great insight and opinions about the realities facing the contemporary professional musician, so if you don’t feel like weighing in on the debates … well, don’t! Of course, if you do, I’ll keep reading, as you usually have interesting things to say.

David
Twitter: dave6834
April 11, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Apropos of nothing, Steve’s observation (that Louis Armstrong would have been a blogger) is the best thing I read all week.

Cameron Mizell
Twitter: cameronmizell
April 13, 2010 at 11:24 am

Jason,

I just read this while sitting on a couch listening to somebody mix my album.

The big question we’re trying to answer in this mix session is “Do you like how this sounds?” to which my first thought is, “How does the sound compare to [insert similar guitarist/organ trio here]?” But then I remember, WHO CARES whether or not this sounds like another jazz guitarist, the point it to make it sound like myself. The only real precedent we can follow is that there is no precedent.

That’s the problem with musicians in general, and especially jazz musicians who tend to be especially passionate about their specific niche. We’re informed by jazz, and the history of jazz, and the current state of jazz, in everything we do. Therefore we tend to obsess over ones sound or time feel or significance as if there were a measuring stick. In truth, I think we all know the only thing that matters is whether the music speaks to people. What does it communicate?

Our challenge as jazz musicians is to learn how to emulate the greats, and then at some point adopt their mentality to not emulate anybody and just be ourselves.

First we have to be aware of what we actually know, and of what others actually know. Sounds like you’ve done a lot of growing in this area thanks to the blog. Keep it up, I enjoy reading and listening.

– Cameron

Chris
Twitter: Chodgesmusic
April 13, 2010 at 1:01 pm

I think we have collectively lost track of what we started doing. Perhaps we (by we, I mean jazz musicians) have become so philosophical that we not only neglect the music but the audience, as well. It’s like we try to compensate for the decline in jazz’s popularity by trying to convince people it’s important. That’s all fine and dandy but for someone to love it, they have to relate. I think that is where we lose our audience. When we write about it, we tend to over analyze it and end up talking people out of going and hear or buying it. And, instead of trying to convince people what it great or important, maybe we should just support each other and play our music. Let everyone else talk about it.

Jason
Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
April 14, 2010 at 11:27 am

Thanks for the comments all! I was really just thinking out loud with this post…I don’t mean to imply that I’ll stop reading and writing about topics big and small. It was just an observation I made and wondered if others had observed similar.

I actually really enjoy reading musicians’ thoughts on all kinds of subjects. Makes me feel closer to them in some way. So I’m sure I’ll keep writing too. As mentioned by a couple of you, I think it’s all about finding the right balance.

Now, off to NYC to soak up some Springtime, great food, music and family!

Barry Dallman
Twitter: playjazzblog
April 15, 2010 at 5:32 am

Interesting Jason. Admittedly, discussions of the ‘where jazz is going’ kind are not always particularly helpful or useful. Nevertheless, I think it IS crucial for musicians to have some kind of big-picture view in order to make a living in jazz – so the two subjects aren’t perhaps as disparate as you initially outline.

As you know, my own blog has recently been concentrating on ways that jazz musicians can build careers and achieve their goals in music. One of my main contentions is that it’s not enough today to try and build a career by relying on scratch gigs playing standards in the usual way.

These kind gigs were bread-and-butter for previous generations of jazzers, but there’s not enough of that work to make a living from it and more.

This means it’s no longer enough to worry only about making music. If you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to think about marketing, promotion, building a following, selling yourself to venues, writing press-releases and a million other things that the Old Guard never had to do.

The JPQ tour is the perfect example of the amount of hard work and hustle that has to be a part of a modern musician’s working life. If we’re not prepared to recognise that change and accept it then we’re going to struggle, it’s that simple.

This is where the blogosphere comes in. Most of us know that the game is changing – but changing to what. Discussions, for example, about the importance of cultural relevance in music can help musicians get their head around what they need to be doing to sell their music.

I’m not implying that anybody’s music should be dictated by what they think will sell (we’re not Madonna after all!) but these kind of discussions help us to figure out how and who to try and promote our music towards.

I’m not interested in a discussion about the future of the music for its own sake, but I am into hearing and sharing ideas about how to play and promote jazz in an ever-changing world.

I’m definitely a musician first and a blogger second (well about a hundredth actually as I don’t make a penny from it!) but I blog because I am well aware that we can focus entirely on music as much as want, but if we can’t persuade people of that music’s ‘relevance and worthiness’ (to borrow your terms) we’re never going to get a gig or make a dime from it.

When people share their ideas on topics like this in the blogosphere, it serves us all and is a powerful and useful tool to help us when figuring out a way to live and make music that doesn’t involve selling our soul to a ‘proper job’ or living like a peasant for the rest of our lives!

Josh Rager April 15, 2010 at 8:26 am

Yes the internet can become a distraction (oh can it ever). But in a way we can use the blogosphere as a way of having that discourse with other musicians in other parts of the world that we would never have had. THink about the rap sessions that Miles, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Gill Evans etc… had in NYC in the late 40’s and the subsequent impact that had on all their composing culminating in the “Birth of the Cool” session. I personally take a great deal of this energy I feel from my peers (especially from those with differing view points) and use it to distill for myself my own musical direction. In a way I feel that this experience is serving to push me a little more to get at the heart of what I’m trying to do in my own practice as an improvising musician, sometime if for no other reason than I just want to feel that I’m walking the walk and not just talking the talk. The music community is very important (if not always pleasant) for this inspiration. I’m very grateful for the energy that we’re all giving each other.

Federico Antin
Twitter: euskirmusic
April 22, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Hello Jason:
For me jazz, and many times music, must be an open space, freedom, a playground, so you can make questions, think about music, and there’s no reason to believe that you must keep yourself in a kind of high hill, just playing, avoiding any second thoughts about why and what you play.
Best wishes, as always,

Federico (aka euskir)

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