You're a quiz-show contestant asked to define the word "jazz."
Is it the old-timey, street-marching, New Orleans music of Louis Armstrong, the squealing cacophony of saxman Ornette Coleman, or the big-band sounds of Duke Ellington? Does your definition also cover the slick, cool, West Coast 50s sounds of Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan, the 70s electrified music of Weather Report and the contemporary weirdness of Lounge Lizards?
You buzz and answer: Yeah, Bob, it's a very experimental style of music that shuffles around the beat until it finds a way of swinging.
That answer should win you a home entertainment center, having held up as a pretty much classic definition of the j word since the turn of the century.
But if you go home and fill that prize CD player with the current best-selling jazz discs, or tune in yer snazzy new receiver to a so-called jazz radio station like the Valley's KJZZ, you'll hear that something's wrong. You'll be overwhelmed with a music that's called "jazz" but doesn't jibe with the classic definition at all.
What you hear on KJZZ is wussjazz: Happy-face riffs repeated torturously by the likes of saxophonist Najee and the Rippingtons. Timid solos leaving the melody only long enough to get in a well-practiced, bluesy wail. Drum machines--or drummers emulating them--laying uncreative, simplistic beats for the likes of Spyro Gyra. Nothing complicated or dark enough to risk giving listeners a negative vibe. In short, bad pop music.
Somehow, this lame syrupy stuff has come to be called "jazz," without living up to any of the intensity or depth found in 80 years of jazz history. Part of what's gone dreadfully wrong in contemporary jazz are the three M's that rule the record business: money, marketing, musical ignorance. In the past ten years, this triumvirate has given birth to a new strain of jazz, the kind that weighs nothing musically but adds pounds to the appropriate wallets.
The first step: Sign musicians whose main interest isn't music.
"I would have played jazz standards," wussjazzer Najee says in the press release for his latest album, Just an Illusion, "but I knew that I wanted to have a certain amount of success and recognition."
The saxman is shockingly barefaced in presenting a philosophy that, although omnipresent in pop music, has understandably been anathema to the risk-taking of jazz. "Especially in today's economy, you have to make calculated decisions as to what's going to work," the saxophonist admitted in the November 1992 issue of JAZZIZ.
Najee's wussjazz has worked all right. His last three albums have all sold well. But sales don't mean substance. Musically, Najee's Just an Illusion--a title that accurately sums up his relation to jazz--is as numbing as Novocain. Illusion's "Skyline" and "A Touch of Heaven" are textbook examples of how to write forgettable melodies and boring grooves. Najee may have sensed this because he dresses the rest of this disc in vocal costume jewelry. Pop R&B singers Freddie Jackson, Jeffrey Osbourne and Soul II Soul's Caron Wheeler all make appearances, no doubt hoping their respective duets with Najee will be a repeat of the Grover Washington-Bill Withers hit, "Just the Two of Us."
Najee also incorporates rappers on two cuts--an idea pioneered by jazzers like Greg Osby. But where Osby used it to expand the vocabulary of jazz, Najee dangles rap just enough to show himself oh-so contempo. On "Burn It Up," guest rappers repeat only the title, ad nauseam. Same thing with "Here We Go," the only variation being a background children's chorus chanting, "go, Najee, go."
As a jazzman, Najee is an embarrassment. He plays pop, a music born to be as momentarily gratifying as a candy bar and as throw-away as the wrapper.
Once the record companies corral instrumentalists like Najee, those willing to play anything for the bucks, they have to figure out how to sell their lightweight output to us. Labels may not make any money selling real jazz, but they've found the term "jazz" to come in handy when selling the fake stuff.
Record labels have developed their own simplistic litmus test for distinguishing between jazz and pop music. Barring country and classical music, if the artist sings, file it under "pop-rock." If the song is instrumental, stick it under "jazz." Labels assume the average record shopper doesn't want to be confused by too many categories, so they've made it easy and profitable--stick everything under jazz or pop-rock. Never mind that a lot of so-called jazz artists like Kenny G are really just the worst kind of pop noodlers.
Unfortunately, a lot of good jazz players have proved only too willing to profit from the watering down of what is jazz. Through the years, many have gone the route of Najee and the parade of other lightweights. Highly respected figures like trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxman Stanley Turrentine, and guitarists George Benson and the late Wes Montgomery have all, at one time or another, turned to playing instrumental pop at the expense of serious jazz careers. They may have claimed that they turned to the simple tunes of wussjazz because it makes them "feel good," but don't buy it. High-caliber artists got there by improving their chops and their composing skills, not retreating to a high-school level of musicianship. Trailblazing guitarist Montgomery's decline into three-minute covers of fluff like the Association's "Windy" remains a tragic example of a uniquely talented artist doing anything for the cash. Today, the message remains the same: If you play straight jazz, the money sucks.
It's no surprise, then, that guitarist Larry Carlton would cite Wes Montgomery as a major influence on his career. Bits of Montgomery's unmistakable style slip through occasionally on Carlton's discs, but the real similarity lies in how both have misrepresented themselves by drastically playing beneath their capabilities. Carlton has always sounded painfully restrained as he carefully nurtures his fluffjazz career, the most recent installment of which is appropriately titled Kid Gloves.
The elementary formula of this project--and all wussjazz--is evident in the title cut: Write an attractive melody of a dozen notes or less, repeat it two to four times. Slip into another key for a chorus or the listeners will catch on to just how nursery-rhyme simple the tune really is. Slink around a bit with some fancy guitar work, but avoid improvising anything adventurous that might spoil the lightness. And always come back to endless repetition of that simple beginning theme.
Carlton knows it also can't hurt to bring aboard a fellow wussjazzer as a guest artist--in this case, the sterile sax of Kirk Whalum for the tune "Oui Oui Si." To give this album a genuine wussjazz pedigree, Carlton even corraled the father of candyjazz, Dave Grusin, as an executive producer.
Yuk. Sure is hard to get a feel for real jazz with Gloves on.
To be fair, there are moments when Carlton shows he can step out of the sugar bowl and play. "Farm Jazz" and "Michele's Whistle" would both make killer tunes if he would add a little more meat to their melodic bones. And Carlton's soloing on "The Preacher" reminds us how hot and clean he can play when the rare mood strikes him.
The really despicable side to wussjazz players is that while Najee, Carlton and their ilk are getting rich making wordless pop pap, they also take great pride in being known as "jazzman." If you don't think this is important to them, check out the obvious wanna-bes in jazz-lite bands like the one that will perform at Desert Sky Pavilion on July 4. Clad in sunglasses and berets la late 50s Sonny Rollins, they'll occasionally let go of a sax screech as a reminder that they "know" about hip, dead junkies like Charlie Parker.
Although they don't get rich, music fans also benefit from the dilution of what's really jazz. Thanks to the record labels and players like Najee and Carlton, becoming a jazz fan no longer requires having to listen to Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington or John Coltrane. Baby boomers with Earl Klugh and Rippingtons CDs can accumulate points with babes at the condo barbecue simply by saying they are "into" that esoteric music known as jazz--which, understandably, works much better than "I like Top 40 stuff with no words in it."
Apart from a few fussy purists who object to the new company they're forced to keep, everybody wins. Right?
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Not in the end.
Time does not treat wussjazzers well. Pop music changes and so does pop jazz. As years go by, Kenny G may uncomfortably have to agree with jazz critic Leonard Feather that his 80s music was "beneath criticism." The inevitable rejection of wussjazz can be traced back even further.
Big-band leader Paul Whiteman was catching mucho flak in the 20s for even referring to himself as a jazzman, let alone for the "King of Jazz" moniker he adopted for himself. In 1939, writer Wilder Hobson spoke of Whiteman (and prophetically of progeny like Najee and Carlton) as taking "very little from the jazz language except some of its simpler rhythmic patterns," drowning the soloists in "symphonic orchestrations" and showing "little more than a trace of the personal expression, improvisation, counterpoint, or rhythmic subtlety of natural jazz."
Not many music lovers, then or now, know enough about the guts of jazz to question the inclusion of the Whitemans, Najees and Larry Carltons. Where are music fans going to hear enough jazz to help them tell the difference, let alone decide whether they prefer the real thing?
Maybe as close as the condo barbecue. Next time, bypass the Lee Ritenour versus Larry Carlton debate by the pool and ferret out the fan snarling about how jazz is going to hell. Let him drag you to his apartment to hear some real modern jazz. It might be that after a few sides of the bass rhythms of Charlie Haden, the attack styles of Bill Frisell and John Zorn, the breakneck piano work of Gonzalo Rubalcaba, David Murray's big band or Michel Petrucciani's elegant piano stylings, you'll find Najee and Kenny G sounding like--well, G whiz.