Sunday, 26 February 2012

Sixteen reasons for hating modern jazz


I’m genuinely astonished that the Fast Show’s series of "Jazz Club" sketches didn’t kill off any interest in this spectacularly annoying musical genre once and for all. But it evidently didn’t. I watched a recording of the BBC 4 documentary, 1959: The Year that Changed Jazz last night, as part of a life-long quest to understand the attraction of this particular musical form. 1959 was the year that saw the release of influential albums by Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. I have listened to extracts from all these albums at some time or other – and, like many people who basically can’t stand jazz, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out is the only one I found even vaguely bearable.

This documentary did nothing to disabuse me of the notion that Miles Davis’s tone is depressingly sour and thin, Charles Mingus’s music is crude and tedious and  Ornette Coleman produced formless and deeply annoying nonsense. It’s not that I was introduced to hip jazz too late. The husband of one of my mother’s friends was the jazz critic for the Evening Standard in the early 1960s (nishe!), and LPs by a host of achingly trendy and “groundbreaking” jazzers were to be found in the storage compartment of our bass-heavy Blaupunkt radiogram. As a boy with catholic musical tastes, I gave all of them a try. Hated them, and, as an adult with catholic musical tastes, still do.

I could just about stand the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sidney Bechet and Gene Krupa (who all emerged from traditional jazz or swing) but felt that a couple of listens was enough. As for the rest, one listen was more than enough. I feel the same way fifty years and many tries later. A defining moment for me was watching Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a film of the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival: when Chuck Berry comes on to play “Sweet Little Sixteen” I felt like crying with gratitude (you can see his performance here – check out the jazz musicians laughing at him in the background while providing a truly inept accompaniment - wankers!).

And yet many people with great taste obviously enjoy and revere this stuff: it evidently makes sense to them. So I guess I’d better say, “Sorry. It’s not you, it’s me” and do my best to mean it.

While taking full responsibility for my lack of taste, here are my main reasons for hating modern jazz:

1. The French love it.

2. Ken Clarke loves it (it is deeply Liberal music – there are no rules, hardly anyone wants it, and adherents feel smugly superior to everyone else).

3. The amount of musical knowledge required to understand what the hell’s going on must be immense, and, as there’s rarely a coherent tune or rhythm to latch onto for listeners without a grasp of music theory, I just don’t believe that most self-professed aficionados  can be enjoying it as much as they claim to – in fact, it's hard to believe they're enjoying it at all!

4. The musicians look like they’re having a whale of a time, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to pretend that aural torture is fun.

5. It all appears to be about the expertise or "originality" of the musicians rather than the pleasurable effects of the music they produce. (Another parallel with liberalism - liberal policies make the proposer feel good about themselves, but the effects of those policies on the rest of us are invariably destructive.)

6. It makes you feel like its perpetually 3AM, and you’ve been smoking and drinking for hours and now you have a sore throat and a splitting headache and feel a bit sick and you just want to crawl home and get into bed and never hear any jazz ever again.

7. When modern jazz is used on a film soundtrack, it's absolutely impossible to concentrate on what’s happening on the screen – you just want the awful racket to stop.

8. Have you ever heard someone playing free-form jazz saxophone in the underground and not wanted to shoot them?

9. Over the years, many fans and musicians have worn beards without moustaches. Unless you're Amish or Abraham Lincoln, this is unforgivable.

10. I was psychologically scarred thirty years ago when a boss invited some of us to dinner at his place and insisted on playing his Sun Ra collection to us afterwards. For several hours.

11. It seems that many practitioners have to be off their tits on heroin to play this form of music – never a good sign. 

12. It takes perfectly nice tunes and destroys them (watch Anita Day murdering “Sweet Georgia Brown” here). 

13. If I ever hear another jazz scat singer, I may have to contact Dignitas.

14. The people who play it seem to spend a lot of time smirking at each other in a mutually masturbatory fashion – “Wow, you’re like so brilliant and I’m like so brilliant too, yeah?”.

15. Claiming to love jazz appears to be all about what it says about you (another link with Liberalism, in that it’s all about having the right attitude).

16. Other forms of music have the power to make me feel sad, happy, melancholic, amused, excited, patriotic, thoughtful, energised - the list of potential responses seems endless. With modern jazz, I only ever feel annoyed, depressed or vaguely upset. And who the hell would seek out art that habitually makes them feel like that? 

Not nishe!


  1. The Bird Lives!

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  3. Five reasons for not writing off modern jazz in its entirety. Keith Jarrett - well alright the Berlin concert and one or two other pieces; Herbie Hancock- oh alright he's as much jazz/funk as jazz but he did play with Miles Davis before his atonal period; Weather Report - some of it; Stanley Clarke - OK, he's the other side of the jazz/funk divide but tuneful. Oh dear, I've run out of excuses. My major jazz loathing is trad, largely through having to listen to my brother's extensive collection of Chris Barber and Kenny Ball LPs. I still have night sweats....

  4. Some trad is okay. Like you, I grew up hearing Acker Bilk (Delia's Gone) and Kenny Ball (Midnight in Moscow) and, while I'm not a fan, I have no objection. I love Herbie Hancock, and there's a bunch of other post-modern jazzers I enjoy - oh dear, I suppose I'd better do a list of my favourite jazz tracks and have done with it. Stand by!

  5. And there we must part company. About 25 years after the trad LP torture, for some reason I agreed to go with my brother to a jazz evening in a pub in Wotton-under-Edge. I was hoping for something slightly edgy or a piano/bass/drums trio. Instead, men with beards, trumpets and banjos entertained us with "Boodlam Boodlam Boodlam Shoo" and "Is you is or is you ain't my baby?", the latter not entirely convincing when delivered in a broad West country accent. After 10 minutes, I would have gladly settled for an evening of Sun Ra.

  6. To be fair, ex-KCS, I'm not sure Wotton-under-Edge is a Mecca for the best in traditional jazz music. My only visit to a jazz club took place 35 years ago and consisted of sitting on a wooden bench in a packed cellar in Covent Garden while a fat man with an alto sax did his impression of a cat and a bat being tortured simultaneously while the other musicians played something completely different. It was, without doubt, the longest 30 minutes of my life, and I had to fake a severe headache to escape without offending my host, who was, like, solid gone, man.

    "What about a visit to Ronnie Scott's!" must be the most chilling phrases in the English language (along with "You sure got a pretty mouth" delivered by a man.)

  7. nice opinion.. thanks for sharing....