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.