Peeling the Jazz Onion

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 3 min.

robert_graettinger1I’m not really interested in the question, “What is jazz?”, but I do find it funny that there are things called  “jazz purists,” such as the one featured in this blog post.

I don’t understand the idea of being a purist about anything (which is part of why I don’t care for the need to commit to a genre in the marketplace). But let’s say we peel away the layers of musical impurity that have come to conceal pure jazz. We peel away all the fusion and smooth and Latin and Indian and hillbilly and cool and funk and free jazz and neobop and hard bop and bepop and swing and ragtime, et al… since there’s no way to know where to stop, eventually we are left with two musical entities that sound like Gregorian chant and African tribal music of some sort (who knows for sure?), and that’s about as close to anything that our documented musical history can give us in terms of the roots for current music.

We do have documentation of the Western musical heritage that precedes the Middle Ages, but outside of technical (Pythagoras) and intellectual (Aristotle) ideas about music, Gregorian chant is as far back as we can go in terms of an idea of how things actually sounded early in the eurocentric tradition; regarding African music (the history of which I am less aware of), we can only make assumptions about how it sounded in the past because of their use of an oral tradition as opposed to a notated one. Still, I’m certain that the more we peel, the further we get from anything that resembles jazz, and the closer we get to nothing. No music at all.

From the other side, if we peel back the layers of methodological impurity, such as would render Duke Ellington to not be “real jazz” due to his lack of improvisation (and who knows where that puts the likes of Bob Graettinger), we end up with chaos. From this angle, the closest thing to “pure jazz” would be the noisiest, least organized free jazz possible, which is clearly not what the purist is in search of.

Slippery slope arguments, you say? Probably, yes, but there is no way to know where to draw the line, which isn’t really my point here anyway. My point is that the only thing that could reasonably be called “pure jazz” would be a sort of jazz that exists only in the imagination of whoever decides to think of such a thing. So, as opposed to going to see a concert based on something as tenuous as genre, we should go based on having checked into and having determined that whoever’s playing is someone we want to spend money and time to see. This would seem to be especially true for the so-called “purists” among us.

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Further Reading

2 Replies to “Peeling the Jazz Onion”

  1. I tend to think of stylistic “purism” (in music or any other medium) mainly as a manifestation of fear (of change, of the unknown, of the Void, or indeed of life itself).

  2. Hi Renaldo –

    What you’re saying does seem to be the case. The irony to me is that no single “advancement” in any field (well, certainly music) ever came about without mixing previously unmixed things, including whatever a purist would call “real jazz.” The very thing the purist worships is a bastard.

    Even in the example of something like early opera, which was by many accounts an attempt to get back to a “purer” kind of Attic dramatic experience, was, as a result of that very effort, doing something new at that time (not to mention going crazy with the deux ex machina and changing the endings of the stories and, you know, having Orpheus on a horse and dressed as a knight of the round table lol… they weren’t exactly sticking to Aristotle’s Poetics when they were staging these things… which was probably for the best).

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