“Jazz Musician” – A Descriptive or Qualitative Term?

When teaching jazz history, it is generally my responsibility to start by defining what jazz is. The conventional wisdom revolves around 3 traits that make something jazz: 1) swing-based rhythmic feel, 2) expressive elements derived from the blues and 3) the presence of improvisation. Generally, though, these things are sheepishly acknowledged to be just a guide, as there is music that contains most or all of these elements that isn’t really jazz (from B.B. King to the Grateful Dead) and there is music that contains none of these elements that is categorized as jazz (a Duke Ellington ballad being the most-cited example). There are other, secondary elements that are sometimes invoked as well, including certain types of chord progressions and certain instrumentation, though those are similarly limited in their desciptiveness, as they tend to be centered around particular sub-styles or aesthetics that are not relevant to the whole of jazz.

So when I’m in the position of teaching this stuff, I add a fourth primary element in what makes something jazz, and that is “performed by a jazz musician.” This may be an increasingly antiquated way of looking at it, but think in terms of where in the record store you’re going to place something. If it’s Duke Ellington, it goes in the jazz category. If it’s Rod Stewart, it doesn’t, even if he’s singing standards. If it’s Anthony Braxton, well, that depends on whether you a) consider Anthony Braxton to be a jazz musician (if yes, then all his stuff gets filed in the jazz bin, even if it contains none of the “big 3” elements) and/or b) have some alternative category by which to categorize him, in which case you may make the case that even his album of standards with Hank Jones goes in that other category. If it’s a question mark, then you have some decisions to make – Chaka Khan’s album of standards, then, may go in the jazz bin because all the backing musicians (Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, etc.) are jazz musicians . . . though some of them (Chick, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White) have also done other stuff. Hmmm, this is tricky.

But, of course, to use this as one of the criteria requires at least attempting to define what classifies someone as a jazz musician. This train of thought was stimulated by an intentionally provocative (but hearteningly polite) Facebook discussion begun by the pianist Eric Reed. He asked if any of his FB “Friends” would be able to make the argument for Kenny G as a jazz musician. Many responded, but few “took the bait,” so to speak. I hedged my bets a bit, but this was my response:

interesting discussion! i can’t stand kenny g’s music, and i remember a few years ago when he was interviewed in “jazzed” magazine – it was purported to be an interview discussing his status as a “jazz musician” and it was enlighteningly unenlightening. that is, the interviewer threw him softballs and he answered in totally vague terms about what he listens to, what he practices, what influenced him, and so on. philosophically, though, i think part of the question revolves around not just “what jazz means” (which has been debated many times) but whether it’s a qualitative statement (e.g. if you’re playing improvised instrumental stuff that isn’t jazz, it’s inferior). as a fer-example, let’s look at ellington or charles mingus or mary lou williams. with their credentials, i would take any of them at their word if ever they purported something to be jazz, even if (as was the case for all of them sometimes) it was a piece of music that didn’t swing, lacked overt blues feeling and did not contain improvisation. not because one could claim the music was jazz in musicological terms, but because they’ve EARNED the right to call it jazz. kenny g does play (or has played) jazz, at least sort of (i took his “classics in the key of G” album out of the library, and he blows on tenor over “body and soul” and “desifanado,” for example) it’s just not very good. so if to be a jazz musician simply requires playing jazz sometimes, then yes, he is one . . . and so is sting and so is joni mitchell and so are thousands of kids who play in their high school jazz ensembles. in metheny’s rant (which Ben Wolfe references), pat makes the argument that saying kenny g ISN’T jazz is actually letting him off the hook by exempting him from being compared to saxophonists in that tradition. if, on the other hand, “jazz musician” is some sort of badge of honor (which, frankly, i think it is, having spent more than half my life paying the dues of playing and studying this music) then that’s another story – the evidence would indicate that kenny g hasn’t paid those dues on a meaningful level and thus hasn’t earned the right to declare himself a “jazz musician” any more than buying a racket and whacking a few balls entitles you to call yourself a “tennis player.” okay, rant over :)

As I’ve contemplated a bit since then, it has occurred to me that perhaps the notion of “Jazz Musician” being a badge of distinction (as opposed to a primarily descriptive term) is something that warrants a bit of direct attention. To those readers less intimate with the jazz subculture, this is a real phenomenon, if a mostly unspoken one. It’s not as weird as it may seem, however. I may spend many hours a week listening to and counseling people (students, friends, family) but I’m neither trained nor licensed as a psychotherapist and thus have no right to call myself one. My formal schooling culminated in a Masters degree, so regardless of the number of hours logged in study since then, I have no right to refer to myself as “Doctor Baerman” (at least until the University of South Bumblef*** steps up to the plate with an honorary degree – come ON, people). I have multiple friends who have earned doctorates and are now working in fields other than those in which they earned those degrees, but the person who earned the moniker “Doctor” has every right to keep using it. Likewise, if you maintain a license as a psychotherapist, you have every right to present yourself as such, even if the bulk of your income is derived from flipping burgers.

In this sense, the term “jazz musician” is similar, though the criteria are harder to define. In basic terms, though, it’s about “paying the dues.” First and foremost, that dues-paying involves study of the music and acquisition of the relevant skills – e.g. gaining command over the vocabulary, technique, repertoire and stylistic nuances that are generally agreed-upon as the foundation of jazz music. It’s a difficult and time-consuming process (he says as an extreme understatement) and for many musicians, this unofficial membership in an unofficial club is one of the primary perks to motivate the hours and years of gruntwork. The material gain is questionable, but the deeper you get into the music the more you appreciate the artistry and mastery of its practitioners, and being accepted as “one of the cats” can be one of the most compelling goals for an aspiring musician.

The dues-paying of learning the music is generally augmented by both professional experiences and interpersonal relationships. If you’ve played with high-level jazz musicians (and no, that time that Phil Woods sat in with my college big band because he was getting an award doesn’t count), that’s a plus. If you’ve earned the respect of peers who are unquestionably acknowledged to be accomplished jazz musicians, that’s a big part of it too. Ask an accomplished jazz musician about Grover Washington, Jr. or George Duke. There is no question that they are jazz musicians, even though the majority of their recorded outputs fall into a gray area stylistically. They paid their dues and earned their respect. Whatever another musician may think of Grover’s more R&B-based music becomes not a question of whether he can be called a jazz musician, but rather whether (in the case of someone negatively judging this music) those choices represent a squandering of the abilities with which he could have created more “real” jazz. As a younger musician I was always struck by the reverence with which the older cats talked about Grover, even though I had at that point heard little of his more straight-ahead music, but I think I get it now.

I have seldom heard a musician question whether Stanley Clarke or Patrice Rushen or Bill Frisell or Billy Cobham is really a jazz musician, even though in all cases there is a great deal of experimental and/or crossover work in the discography. I saw a video last night of Steve Gadd playing with Eric Clapton and reflected on how conversations about whether he can be called a jazz musician revolve not around his voluminous pop work (“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” anyone?) but rather the level of authenticity in his swing grooves when he played “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” with Jim Hall. So the real issue about Kenny G as a jazz musician, to me, is not about listening to his stomach-churning versions of contemporary pop tunes and evaluating its “jazz content” (hint: virtually none) unless the end goal is to discuss the bastardization of the term “jazz” as a marketing ploy (a perfectly legitimate topic in its own right, of course). Rather, the question is whether he has paid sufficient dues to earn that designation and thus earn the benefit of the doubt for whatever music he subsequently chooses to make. In his case I don’t really know the answer (and don’t enjoy his music enough to do enough research to come up with a conclusion I could really stand behind) but in the context of the jazz community, I do suspect that this is the most appropriate way to frame the question.

As I wrap up, it’s worth pointing out the big-picture absurdity that legitimately being able to be called a “jazz musician” should be something to strive for or feel good about. It’s not as if society greatly values jazz musicians in the senses of respect or material reward. Nonetheless, within the community of people who love this music, it is an important topic and one that (as you can tell from all of this) I feel can’t accurately be depicted purely in terms of musicology. Fortunately there are a lot of amazing people in this “club” so the lack of perks in the members’ lounge is not so bad . . .

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