FEATURE: ‘The J-Word’: Why Jazz Remains a Misunderstood Genre



‘The J-Word’:


IN THIS PHOTO: The Comet Is Coming/PHOTO CREDITFabrice Bourgelle   

Why Jazz Remains a Misunderstood Genre


IT seems the mere mention of the word 'Jazz'…


IMAGE CREDIT: Jazzradio.com

is like uttering some kind of curse. There are certain genres that have struggled to assimilate into the mainstream through the decades. Like the spectacled child standing shivering and exposed in the playground – waiting to be picked for the football five-a-side – the poor old genre of Jazz often gets selected as a forced consolation. I am a fan of Jazz but worry it is still seen as a rather boring and ignored style of music. It is maligned and snobbishly overlooked by those who feel they have a grasp on music. If one looks at the critics’ favourite albums of any year and how many Jazz albums make it into the list?! It is hard to say why many feel the genre lacks appeal. For me, I think the fact it has not burgeoned and gained mainstream passage is the fact reputation and assumption goes before patience and endeavour.


IN THIS PHOTO: Laura Jurd's band, DinosaurPHOTO CREDIT: Getty

Many assume they hate Jazz and it will offer no surprises. I bring this up because I am seeing a lot of prejudice come through for certain genres. There are certain age groups and demographics who refuse any taste of Jazz because, in some way, it repulses them. I am not a huge devotee of the genre but I cannot understand the attitude afforded Jazz music. In recent years, bands like Here Comes the Comet and Dinosaur have been nominated for the Mercury Prize. Those two bands, one can argue, take a rather ‘interesting’ approach to Jazz. Rather than a more conventional and streamlined take on the style - think John Coltrane and Miles Davis – they bring more acidic hallucination and a psychedelic angle. I call Miles Davis ‘streamlined’ (more on him a bit later) but I mean his Kind of Blue material. Dinosaur’s prize-nominated, Together, As One, is an eight-track release of various-lengthened songs. Each composition is immerse and transportative. One listens to the record and can close their eyes and drift – imagining the scenes and projecting your own interpretations.


IMAGE CREDIT: Jazzradio.com

The same can be said of Here Comes the Comet’s Channel the Spirits. When defining the album, - speaking with M last year - band member Betamax Killer spoke in these terms:

Channel The Spirits was meant to be a soundtrack to planet Earth’s doom. To stare death in the face and explore a symphony of human emotions. Panic, hope, defiance, fear, brotherhood and a release from cultural restrictions. We hoped to discover the underlying human power beneath the mundane day-to-day routines of modern life. Through the process of making the record we have been on a journey together through the distant realms of our collective mind. It feels like we have become creative space explorers”.

Modern Jazz is not that far departed from the older, more traditional forms we are all familiar with. Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die is a perfect integration of styles from the Long Island trumpeter. One gets a hit of Noise-Rock and Psychedelia; Jazz and Hip-Hop all in one. It is an extraordinary record that is the definition of what modern Jazz is all about: the assimilation and unification of various themes and genres against a backbone of conventional Jazz.  


Loneliness Road is the latest album from Jamie Saft, Steve Swallow and Bobby Previte. It sees Iggy Pop collaborate and is an inter-band conversation where the members show their mastery of their respective instruments. Falling between the seduce and sophistication of Bill Evans and the urgent rush of Alice Coltrane – one of the strongest Jazz albums of this year. Diana Krall’s Turn Up the Quiet and Linda May Han Oh’s Walk Against the Wind are respectable and standout records from the year. The latter, especially, boasts huge fluidity and poetic expression – the sound of a woman’s path through life and development. The performances are uniformly exceptional and add so much colour, candid energy and emotion to the music.  Whether one likes to admit it or not: all of us have an attachment to at least one Jazz piece.


IN THIS PHOTO: Louis Armstrong/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty

Take someone like Louis Armstrong, for example. He remains one of the most influential trumpeters and composers from the world of Jazz. What a Wonderful World is one of the most popular and requested songs in the world. It seems to resonate in so many people and is an accessible, touching and universal number that cuts to the heart. People might be a little wary of lionising Miles Davis, John Coltrane; Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. Their music seems to define what Jazz is and, if you don’t like it (or get it), you cannot say you appreciate Jazz. Maybe that is an over-simplification but one need not know every passage and album (from those artists) to approve and understand what they are about. I am a fan of Miles Davis but would say Kind of Blue, Birth of the Cool and Sketches of Spain are his finest – In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew are essential works.


I think one of the big problems when it comes to Jazz is the critics who are charged with proffering the genre. Many, when looking at the list of best Jazz albums of this year, seem to reduce their assessments into tropes and diminishing sentences. A few albums I have seen on a list have been labelled as records to listen to when having a cup of tea – perfect background music that you can enjoy when doing other things. I think this reductive and dismissive attitude, whilst unintentionally diminutive and patronising, seems to mirror the views of many out there. Jazz, like all great music, is not meant to linger in the back of the mind and prohibited from focal attention. I agree some Jazz albums are not palatable and popular enough to convert those uninitiated and hesitant. The best Jazz records are those that keep the ethos and roots firm but update and evolve the form. I have mentioned modern artists like Here Comes the Comet who, in a way, have more in common with bands like The Stone Roses and The Beatles – as they do Mile Davis and Louis Armstrong.



If one feels they ‘hate’ Jazz then one would hope they have had enough exposure to make that determination. It seems the popular go-to decisions for many: I have not given it a chance and, therefore, it sucks. I think a lot of us get into the presumption all Jazz sounds like a single artist/album then, yeah, you are going to fall into that mindset. The fact is no genre, even Jazz, is limited in scope and appeal. A lot of the modern equivalent is far-reaching, progressive and exciting. Those who claim Jazz is a boring genre would do well to properly investigate what is happening right now. There are two sides to Jazz that need to be defined and distinguished. There is the more romantic and reflective side and the cross-referencing, cross-pollinating brand. Maybe those who favour the former are of a certain age and taste: those who chase the more modern and experimental alternative slightly younger and more hip. That would be an over-simplification but Jazz is at its broadest and most accessible right now. If one listens to the finest Hip-Hop artist around and you’ll see how influential and important Jazz is to them.


IN THIS PHOTO: Kendrick Lamar/PHOTO CREDIT: Alan Gwizdowski

This has been the case for decades. Whether samples into De La Soul’s incredible L.P., 3 Feet High and Rising, or Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly – Jazz has been invigorating and connecting artists in all corners. It is not a coincidence some of the best albums ever – whether Jazz is used as a sample or an original thought – take so much from Jazz. It has never been a genre limited to certain tastes and rigid in its sound. This is definitely true today. The reason it is still fighting against resistance is the fact the mainstream still refuses to fully embrace it. In a way, when integrated into Hip-Hop and Rap, it is almost like an ingredient in a dish – rather than the main meal itself. Jazz warrants fonder and worthy study as it is not a dirty word…not anymore. I don’t think it ever was but we have to stop labelling genres and thinking we know everything about them. Jazz is misunderstood and underappreciated. I am not saying everyone should obsess over Jazz and go right through the ages but reappropriation is required. If the average listener gives it a chance they will find, without having to dig too far, there…



 IS much to love.