“Is Jazz Boring?”
by Todd Stoll
Is jazz boring? I don’t mean that it IS…but, I find myself many times puzzled by my own reaction to some of the incredible music I hear on a regular basis. Of course, I may be accused of being a “you kids get off my lawn…” jazz critic. I find myself in clubs and concerts being bored and distracted by musicians I admire and respect; old, young, male, female, all races and styles. Part of this is the homogeny I hear in our music. If I feel this and I love this music, what chance does a larger portion of the listening audience have? Imagine the following scenario (names have been changed to protect the guilty)…
You enter a jazz club with friends pay a cover charge (here in NYC, generally upwards of $35), and are seated. A menu is placed before you and the prices are, well, high. However, you are OUT for an evening of dinner and jazz! So, at 8:00 PM, the lights dim, and the band is announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the George Picklseymer Quintet,” a band you know from downloading their album. It’s a bit of a “superband” with serious heavies on every instrument — legit jazz stars in the making — and the record was nominated for a Grammy! The band starts. By 8:35 pm, the band begins their third tune. Interesting enough, though you don’t know any of the tunes, as it appears the band is working on some new music. No worries, it’s a killin’ group. Nearly 45 minutes into your $300 evening, the band leader announces tune number four. The music goes something like this:
Head. Solo. Solo. Solo. Solo. Solo. Head.
For a variation you have this:
Head. Solo. Solo. Solo. Solo. 4’s with drummer. Head.
And, if you’re really lucky:
Solo. Head. Solo. Solo. Solo. Solo. Head
Ok, so I’m being a little facetious, but you get the idea. I call this the “jam session” style of jazz performance. Unfortunately, somewhere between the end of the big band era and Miles Davis’ second great quintet, this became common practice for small-group jazz. The idea that everybody solos on every tune is viewed by jazz musicians as practically a constitutional right. (And I’m not going to talk about the length of said solos…)
So what is our overall objective for jazz broadly? Do we want to be a niche genre for well-educated and experienced listeners, or do we want a larger audience that can enjoy our music on a more casual level? Ahhh, the age-old question: how does one maintain artistic integrity while offering less-experienced listeners a way “in”? An “on ramp” if you will for the less sophisticated? (Place ‘Kenny G. argument’ here…)
A close friend of mine, an award-winning and experienced jazz artist, once shared with me feedback he received backstage after a gig from a casual listener with very little musical experience. It is direct and to the point:
- You all play in nearly the same order on every tune. It gets boring.
- All five of you play together for a very short time, then just one solos for a long, long time, then all five play together again for a very short time.
- The drummer plays loud all the time, so we can never hear everyone.
- The slow piece was nice, but then it got fast again for a long time, then slow again.
- No matter what the tune or character of the tune, it all kind of sounded the same.
- You’re personable back here, but on stage you don’t say much and come across cold and arrogant.
This is pretty telling, and from an outsider’s view, probably right on target. Perhaps there is a way we can change just a few things and still be artistically satisfied. What if we considered the following when programming our small group jazz performances?
- Limit the number of soloists per tune
- Change the solo order on each tune
- Change keys for solos
- Write more ensemble music in general
- Add interludes or ensemble choruses between soloists
- Write riffs and backgrounds behind soloists
- Write short choruses
- Play ballads as ballads, and think about the length
- Change up textures
- Change up grooves
- Play in balance and create a greater dynamic range
- Talk to the audience. Give them some context for the music — a story, something to be connected to.
My good friend and immediate past president of JEN, Caleb Chapman, would most likely add to this (if any of you have seen his bands…) HAVE FUN! Now, not everyone is as comfortable expressing themselves on stage as Mr. Chapman’s ensembles…but, a smile goes a loooong way. Again, your mileage may vary, but I believe that incremental changes musically, while taking the listener into consideration, can have a broader appeal while maintaining artistic integrity. And, in our high schools, colleges, and universities, perhaps we can start teaching this way, making varied and interesting performances for educational audiences a starting point. Then, maybe the next generation will have an even better chance of developing new and more engaged audiences.
Todd Stoll has spent nearly thirty years as an educator, performer and leading advocate for jazz. He currently serves as Vice President of Education for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City where he oversees programs that reach more than 200,000 people each year. His leadership at JALC has revived the institutions commitment to the underserved while embracing 21st century technology as a means for greater access to the music. Since his tenure began in 2011, the education department at JALC produced nearly 20,000 individual events both in its home at Fredrick P Rose Hall, throughout the US, and abroad.