Baby Boomers and the Death of Jazz
The music of your youth sucks
“Jazz is the big brother of Revolution. Revolution follows it around.” —Miles Davis
“Jazz is not just music, it’s a way of life, it’s a way of being, a way of thinking.” —Nina Simone.
“Art has a great mission. Through great art lower feelings, cruelty, and lust for dominance, are forced out and replaced by empathy and compassion for others, which serve us better individually and collectively. This is the purpose of Art.” —Leo Tolstoy
A young modern jazz dancer once remarked to me, “Baby boomers were the death of art.” When I asked what she meant, she compared America’s baby boomers to China’s youth during the “Cultural Revolution” led by Mao Zedong who mobilized China’s youth by forming “Red Guard” youth groups throughout China. That movement led to a mass purge of intellectuals, artists, musicians, and journalists. Millions suffered public humiliation, imprisonment, torture, and even execution. Part of Mao’s dogma was that no one could prove that revered works of art, literature, and music were superior to what China’s youth could create themselves. She said that like Mao’s Red Guard, America’s baby boomers turned their backs on acknowledged great artists and replaced them with their own icons. For example, instead of regarding “The Beatles” as an exceptional pop rock band, they were elevated above jazz greats such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane—the music she danced to.
Respected authors, journalists, social activists, and consumer protection advocates of the stature of Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and Chris Hedges were quietly banned from the New York Times, Washington Post, and the broadcast media. “Self-help” books replaced Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Sartre, Flaubert, Nabokov, et al. Movies that depicted the insanity of war such as “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Dr. Strangelove” were replaced by ‘patriotic’ movies such as “Rambo”, “Black Hawk Down”, “Zero Dark Thirty”, and “American Sniper” that glorified war and the US military in wars revealed to be based on lies.
Few “boomers” know that the civil rights and antiwar movements were inspired by and preceded by jazz greats such as Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Miles Davis. No less than Martin Luther King spoke of this in 1964 at the Berlin Jazz Festival:
“Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.”
“Modern Jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.”
“It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls. Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down. And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man.
“Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In this broad category called ‘Jazz’, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.” —Martin Luther King
Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” (Lewis Allan © 1937), a song that protests the lynching of Black Americans with lyrics that compare the victims to the fruit of trees. “Strange Fruit” has been called a “declaration" and "the beginning of the civil rights movement.”
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin' eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin' flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather
For the wind to suck
For the sun to rot
For the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
The civil rights and antiwar movements created a widespread public intellectual awakening and were “anti-consumerism”. This frightened manufacturers of consumer products and the media they finance so in the mid 1960’s media conglomerates stopped programming jazz and classical music on radio stations. Simplistic “rock” marketed to teenagers replaced modern jazz which was hitherto enjoyed by college students, university professors, intellectuals, and civil rights activists. Formerly thriving jazz clubs became half-empty and jazz musicians were forced to go “electric” to survive financially. While “jazz/rock”, “funk” and “fusion” is superior to rock musically, jazz lost much of it’s humanity, intelligence, and depth which was at it’s peak in the 1960’s (e.g. Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” (1959), and Bill Evans, “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” (1961)
In August 1959, Miles Davis was at the height of his fame and artistic powers. Weeks after he recorded his iconic album Kind of Blue, he was profiled, harassed, and assaulted by a police officer while standing outside of Birdland under a marquee with his name on it. “If you’re black, there is no justice. None.” —Miles Davis
It’s interesting to observe the contrast between jazz clubs which are usually small, intimate, and provide an environment for critical listening as opposed to stadiums that seat thousands filled by a uniform mob listening to electronic music blasted at eardrum damaging volume levels augmented by light shows and special effects. This isn’t “music”; it’s “theater” performed by musically illiterate musicians expressing the hormonal rage of teenagers. Indeed, helicopters blasting rock music were used to demoralize the populations of villages during the Vietnam War.
In short, jazz sensitizes and “rock” de-sensitives; they’re social, political, and intellectual, as well as musical, opposites.
Unlike boomers, jazz musicians don’t play “the music of their youth”; they play well written songs, many from “The Great American Songbook”, early 20th century American “standards” that have stood the test of time, often referred to as “America’s Classical Music.”
“Music is the language of the emotions”—Tolstoy, and the almost complete absence of beauty, tenderness, empathy, irony, subtlety, and wit in rock, rap, and “heavy metal”, has had a profound effect on American culture.
The dumbing down of American culture by the banality of popular music, TV shows, and movies was a deliberate campaign by the corporate media to negate the widespread intellectual awakening and justified political criticism inspired by the civil rights movement and antiwar protests which frightened multinational corporations and the military-industrial complex. In its place they wished to create an uncritical and compliant population they could convert into rabid consumers who would accept without critique racial discrimination, police brutality, extreme wealth inequality, and our genocidal military “interventions” abroad.
This media campaign, led just as much by the so-called “liberal” media as well as the right-wing burlesque of Fox News, produced the anti-intellectual mindset of the now elderly baby boomers and their progeny as though critical thinking was “radical” and even unpatriotic. They were encouraged to listen to “the music of their youth”, watch “Super Hero” and “patriotic” war movies designed for teenagers and receive their news from propaganda spewing media conglomerates at a time when the infirmities of aging could be somewhat offset by a more sophisticated and enlightened understanding of the world we inhabit.
Although as a jazz musician I have an obvious bias, I don’t believe this is a simply a matter of my personal musical and political tastes. Our tastes are cultivated in large measure by the music, news, and entertainment we’re exposed to, and that’s carefully controlled by a few huge media corporations that have all but banned political dissent, jazz, and intelligent entertainment. It’s a media created cultural and political narrative that encouraged the boomer generation to retain the naiveté of their youth by suggesting that this would keep them ‘young’ and to ignore the unspeakable carnage of our endless wars abroad, deteriorating standard of living, lack of basic social programs, and brutal policing experienced by the majority of citizens at home.
The Arts describe the world we inhabit, and they’ve been appropriated by powerful corporations whose agenda is to stifle political dissent, promote consumerism, and fabricate “enemies” for us to fear in service of the national security state and its military contractors.
“Jazz” is a broad musical genre, and like literature, various styles of jazz contain very different levels of sophistication, depth, and humanity. A lot of jazz sounds too abstract and emotionally vacant, even to me. What’s missing when discussing music and the arts in general is the word, “intelligence”. The album, “Kind of Blue”, for example, has a melodic beauty, originality, understatement, and intelligence to it that pervades almost every song on the album. It’s “music for adults”, so to speak, and this, in my opinion, is what defines the best of jazz. The fact that it was the best-selling jazz album of all time suggests how much that approach appeals to and is appreciated by a broad audience.
The notion that “rock” has a sexuality that jazz lacks is false. Turn down the volume of their amplifiers and digital effects, and a rock band sounds anemic and sexless compared to a good jazz band playing the same song. Jazz has an adult sexuality far more powerful, suggestive, and nuanced than the loud emotionally monochromatic clichés of rock.
The "message" of this article is not to persuade readers to like jazz, but rather to not allow the fashions of one’s generation dictate your tastes, and to encourage exploring all the Arts, not just music, but literature, politics, arthouse movies, etc., and discover for yourself what has—and what lacks—substance, intelligence, depth, and humanity.
US presidents never present jazz, often heralded as “America’s original art form”, at their inaugurations. Jazz is just too authentic, adult, and emotionally honest for politicians. The banality of the popular music they choose matches the banality of the clichés in their speeches. Democracy at its core is love for one another, and most politicians simply don’t know what love is.
Below is a cell phone video of my music students in Ecuador performing a classic “standard” from “The Great American Songbook”, "You Don’t Know What Love Is" (© 1941 Gene De Paul). —Jim Gala