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Monday, October 27, 2014

Jazz Musician: Entertainer or Artist?

Ask improvising musicians whether they would rather have an audience sitting and listening intently or up on their feet dancing and I'd bet the majority would choose the latter. Does this make the musicians in the first case "artists" and "entertainers" in the second? No. In each scenario, they are both, but current jazz dogma might have us think otherwise: For about half a century, most conversations about jazz (including "the death of jazz") have been informed by a tacit yet overwhelming identification with the ethos of personal expression over communication; i.e, artist over entertainer.

Common wisdom is that the shift from entertainment to art in jazz took hold with the boppers. Well, Dizzy Gillespie managed to wear both hats beautifully. And, both Diz and Bird said they loved playing in Detroit, because the people danced more there than in any other city.

 In fact, Jazz oral history-not critical history-shows that musicians identified themselves as entertainers, not artists. As to what words they use to describe each other, the question is moot: "Cat can really wail," or "He don't play shit."

Music has always been a tough racket and part of the deal was understanding what the audience wanted and delivering it: costumes, dancing, jokes, knockabout, occasional schmaltz and the right tempos for dancing. And there was little stigma attached to developing a successful solo and pretty much sticking with it. Certainly, a gentleman named Armstrong thought it was ok. 

I'm not saying that all the fancy talk is mere critical cant. It goes without saying that great jazz musicians are worthy of the same respect accorded the best in any musical genre. 

But listen up, jazz people-in an an economic climate where support for both classical and jazz is drying up, jazz can be freer to muster more creative responses than anything that is branded as "high art," and may be burdened by all the psychic trappings and expectations and affectations that go along with that.

But to do that, we need to be aware of the biases we bring to the table. Let's embrace the glorious history of jazz as entertainment, confident in the knowledge that the musical core is so strong that the art will always take care of itself (but that the audience may need some attention). 

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