Why Jazz Fans Shouldn’t Be So Quick To Dismiss Pop Music

Miles Davis is one of may jazz artists who have used popular music as vehicles for improvisation.  (AP  Photo)
Miles Davis is one of may jazz artists who have used popular music as vehicles for improvisation. (AP Photo)

I belong to a Facebook group called “Jam Of The Week.” Each week, the group’s founder, a wonderful Portland trumpet player named Farnell Newton, picks a jazz tune, and any musician from anywhere in the world can post a video of himself or herself playing a one chorus solo over the tune.

In about a month the group had more than 10,000 members, and hundreds and hundreds of videos posted. (Check it out if you get a chance, even if you’re not a musician.)

The other day, one of the members posted the idea of using a pop song one week. The comments that ensued were varied, but many of the jazz snobs on the site reacted negatively to this idea, with many of them slamming pop music as a whole as vacuous and worthless to jazz musicians.

The comments ranged from “Pop music sucks!” to “Why would we want to play over the same 3 chords?” to “There hasn’t been a good pop song since 80’s Michael Jackson.”

This is not a new feeling amongst jazz musicians, but it’s one that is quite puzzling to me. First and foremost, I just don’t understand cutting yourself off to an entire genre of music because of some generalization or stereotype. Of course there is bad pop music, but there is bad music of all kinds, even (especially?) jazz! Similarly, there is good music of all kinds, even pop.

Secondly, there is a long history of jazz musicians using popular music as vehicles for improvisation. The jazz greats used to mine popular songs and musicals for inspiration. Off the top of my head I think of The Miles Davis Quintet doing “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” from Oklahoma, The John Coltrane Quartet doing “My Favorite Things” from The Sound Of Music, and Canonball Adderley even did music from Fiddler On The Roof.

More recently, Miles Davis had more hits with poptunes like Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”, The Bad Plus did Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Brad Mehldau has done many Radiohead songs, and Vijay Iyer did a killer version of M.I.A.’s “Galang.”

And if I may be so bold as to toot my own horn, my band, The Jason Parker Quartet, did an entire album dedicated to the songs of Nick Drake, including this cover of his haunting tune “Day Is Done.” And you’ve heard countless Beatles songs tackled by jazz artists on KPLU and Jazz24.

All this is to say that those jazz snobs who dismiss pop music out of hand are not only missing out on a wealth of great musical inspiration, but they are also discounting some amazing music made by many of their jazz heroes, old and new.

I always tell my students (and I’m paraphrasing Duke Ellington here) that there are only two kinds of music: music that speaks to us and music that doesn’t. Genres are a marketing idea, not a musical idea, and every genre has something to offer those with open ears and open minds.  

6 thoughts on “Why Jazz Fans Shouldn’t Be So Quick To Dismiss Pop Music

  1. I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment (and facts!) posted here – good for you, Jason, for putting this out there so clearly, and without bias. Sure – I love jazz as much as anyone here, but I also like many other types of music. Although it wasn’t mentioned in the essay, classical music has long provided inspiration for jazz musicians, also. Good work!

  2. I could not have explained it any better than you – I totally agree. Also don’t forget the endless jazz versions of Beatles pop songs.
    I will also join the FB group as soon as I can.

  3. Does anyone know even a single song by the bloody Beatles that’s worth working on? I haven’t heard one yet….

  4. Right on, Jason! There’s crap and there’s gold alike to be found in nature, but it’s up to the individual to decide whether or not to wear a ring made of it.

  5. My feelings regarding “jazzing” on pop songs are such: So long as an artist reaches that heady streaming-consciousness of what I call ‘composition on the fly’, and it is compelling and interesting, then jam on anything you like – so long as the overlay is not pop (too). My thoughts on jazz are expressed below in an e-mail to jazz24 – they responded by thanking me, and saying that my comments would be passed along to the program director:

    Folks,

    I’ve listened to Jazz24.org for some time, although the bulk of my jazz and blues listening is courtesy of my LP and 78 collection and various vintage audio systems.

    I’ve noticed over the years that you’ve moved to an offering of jazz that is “softer,” at least according to my criteria. Often, I hear tunes that are better described as “pop” (popular) than jazz. Just now I heard “It Ain’t Necessarily Blues” (indeed it ain’t; as I’m a Blues aficionado) – and it ain’t jazz either.

    And now, comes “The Fishin’ Pond” by Onaje Allen Gumbs. It’s got all of the charm and chops of a television show theme – OH SNAP! – it is a television show theme (The Andy Griffith Show).

    There are also entirely too many vocal offerings. I may be wrong (I’ve already made one mistake this year), but it seems that your ratio of instrumentals-to-vocals was about 90 to 10 in the past. I don’t know what it is now, but there are far too many vocal performances (which inevitably lean toward a “pop” version of jazz), and of course, fewer sessions of what jazz is really all about – what I call ‘composition on the fly’ – ‘jamming’ – ‘risk’ – ‘reward and exhilaration’ – ‘flying without a net’ – the very antithesis of anything remotely smacking of pop.

    I once heard jazz described thus: “With jazz, it’s not the note you play; it’s the next note you play.” For people who truly understand that, you realize that jazz bends your mind, and keeps you off balance (in a good kind of way; like kids coming off a merry-go-round; slightly dizzy, exhilarated; happy) – however, by virtue of a vocal presentation, that “next note” unexpectedness can’t be achieved – if the vocalist remains true to the tune – and he/she has to stay true to the tune, at least to some degree. True, the instrumental break can get us “there” – and fine… just season the playlist with the “pepper” of vocal performances – don’t unscrew the cap and dump the container in the soup.

    A few suggestions. If you’re trying to grow your listenership by softening the jazz – forget it. You’ll just drive jazz/blues aficionados away – and you will not attract new listeners – anyone looking for pop-jazz will drift to ever more sugar-highs of pop; if they had found you in the first place. Get us back to the exhilaration of performances that incorporate the heady flow of “next notes”… Just my thoughts –

    Best,

    David

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