I do feel a little guilty asking the question. I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, having grown up in an area in which “jazz band” meant you played Booker-T and the MG’s or the Hawaii Five-O theme. I played one semester in the Duke Jazz Ensemble but clearly couldn’t keep up. Besides, we should all be celebrating jazz after Herbie Hancock’s stunning Grammy, right? (For an album of Joni Mitchell covers??!!)
But not all is well in the jazz world. “Smooth jazz” is dying. Some might not lament that — no one I know will ever admit to liking Kenny G, but I never minded hearing George Benson and Norah Jones when I was giving blood. (A few months ago, they switched to one of the local “urban” stations. You know, “urban”? I guess it’s shorter than “African American,” but it seems even less accurate.)
Then there’s the stuff they play at Panera. I suppose you might call it “postbop” or maybe “hard bop” (but not “Mmm-bop”). Or the name I call it, “music that featured in Manos, the Hands of Fate.”
Good jazz exists. We played some good stuff in jazz ensemble, even my fingers never quite caught up to the notes on the page. I have some albums by various Marsalis brothers, including the truly excellent Black Codes (from the Underground). That album has memorable hooks and a sense that the talented musicians in the group were connecting. The crap they play at Panera sounds like a bunch of guys went into the studio at different times, played erratic phrases on an unfamiliar instrument while stoned, then patched it all together. And yet someone deemed it worthy of recording for posterity and foisting on Panera diners as if it were listenable.
When I was growing up, Wynton and Branford had substantial followings. Musician magazine covered jazz almost as thoroughly as it covered rock.
In these days of fragmented media, you’re not likely to find a magazine that covers jazz and rock. With the decline of “smooth jazz,” you won’t hear much that falls under the “jazz” umbrella unless you seek it out on XM or the Web.
So perhaps the question isn’t whether jazz sucks. Maybe it’s just dying, despite Hancock’s Grammy?