Tuesday, February 26, 2013

White Jazz, pt 2

You probably don't care about the Austin High School Gang but bear with me because their story is revealing. They were a bunch of guys who went to, you guessed it, Austin High School in Chicago. They decided they wanted to be in a band together and then, after, get this, hearing a jazz record at the soda shop, that they wanted to be a jazz band.

The amazing thing about them is just how ordinary their story is. They met at high school. There aren't any soda shops anymore. Today they would have hung out at the food court at the local mall and one of them would have brought the music that inspired them on their iPhone. But the primary thing about them is their sheer ordinariness.

They had a couple of things going for them. All but one of the gang had some musical training. That was more common back then than it is now. They also lived in Chicago which, if you wanted to be near real jazz in the 1920s, was the very best place in the whole world to be.

But otherwise everything about this jazz craze that caught them is like so many other teen boy crazes. In the 1980s, you used to see guys carry a sheet of plywood down to the park so they could practice break dancing moves, in the 1990s, it was skateboards that they practiced incessantly, later it was snowboards, BMX bikes, various extreme sports and so forth.

Kids don't do music as much as they used to but you only have to go back to the late 1970s to find a time when thousands of them started punk bands. Punk is much easier to play than 1920s jazz, of course. This is because punk was a very limited and simplistic kind of music with no room for development, which goes a long way to explaining why punk died so quickly; even a musically illiterate culture like ours is going to tire of music as simplistic as punk pretty quickly.

1920s Chicago jazz, later known as Dixieland or trad jazz, lasted for decades. There is still a trad jazz movement out there today, although it is pretty small, but the original movement lasted almost five decades, which is a lot longer than any do-it-yourself music trend in the 20th century.

It's instructive to compare the attitudes of the white versus black jazz musicians and enthusiasts. Until very recently (think Wynton Marsalis) black jazz musicians cared a whole lot more about the future of jazz than its past. But whites get excited about jazz heritage, they care about its roots. For blacks, jazz has tended to be a validation of their own authenticity. That is to say, it has been a way to show themselves and whites just how deep and rich black culture is. For whites is was more of an escape. They love the authenticity of jazz but it is precisely the possibility of dressing-up and playing a different role than the one life hands them that is the appeal.

And this early jazz had all the elements that appeal to boys and young men. It was small-group music. It didn't need a lot of arranging. It allowed for a sense of adventure and discovery. And it came with more secret lore than  Harry Potter novel.

It also had the advantage of not being completely dominated by an established group who had started doing this stuff a decade ago and who were motivated to keep the kids out. 

Most important of all, it was good. You listen to this stuff casually today and it feels comfortable and easy like nostalgia of a golden era when life was easy. The truth is the exact opposite. It was a music born of hard times and it was based on deep and rich tradition that allowed infinitely more possibilities than rock and roll, the blues, soul or hip hop could ever do.

And that is why, even today when hardly anyone listens to jazz, its culture casts such a long shadow. That is why concepts of cool hold sway over journalists who graduated from university in the 1980s and 1990s, all of whom are so painfully uncool they squeak. It's also why a younger generation of high school kids and even university graduates would gravitate to hip. With "cool" so completely owned by an elite, hipster offered freedom.

And the "cool"people got insecure and decided to murder hipster while it was still a puppy. And they succeeded. For now. Their grip on the cultural controls won't last forever though. And when it goes, look out.

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