When American high schools formed their first jazz bands in the 1940s and 1950s, they shunned the word jazz. At that time, jazz connoted all manner of debauchery: It was dance music, black music and low art. Etymologists speculate that the word’s original meaning is sexual, deriving from the same source as “jizz” or “Jezebel” (meaning prostitute).
Though jazz stood as total anathema to all of the musical values the classical tradition upheld, educators knew the sound of jazz had captured the interest of their students. So, they grafted a rhythm section onto groups of trumpets, trombones and saxes — the unmistakable instrumentation of a jazz big band — and gave it a sanitized, Uncle Sam-approved name: the stage band.
Stage bands could only fly under the radar for so long before the gatekeepers of music education came after them. A 1964 article in the Music Educators Journal lamented the rise of stage bands in public schools, roaring: “The paralogical reasoning that has directed this surrender to the meretricious has its basis in a deplorable misconception of the function and responsibility of the school and the music teacher. A school is not, nor was it ever intended to be, a place to which parents send their children to be entertained.”
But jazz survived. Eventually, it managed to shed its licentious baggage, and rather than abandoning their stage bands, schools began to restyle them as jazz bands and celebrate jazz for its unique heritage.
Like Rorschach’s impressionable inkblot, jazz means something different for everyone. Jazz isn’t considered smut anymore. But we have a new problem: It’s seen as pretentious and boring. How is it that jazz, a great American art form, has been misunderstood yet again?
Enter Ryan Gosling. For a movie about a jazz snob and a jazz hater falling in love, La La Land has been nothing if not divisive. As if music fans didn’t do enough to discourage Damien Chazelle after 2014’s Whiplash, the director has returned with yet another film about a young, white jazz musician enslaved by his obsession with an ill-defined notion of musical integrity.
La La Land has a lot going for it: an engaging plot, heartfelt performances by all the actors and mouth-watering cityscapes of Los Angeles (there’s nothing Angelenos love more than a wintertime kiss with the crown of the U.S. Bank Tower standing in for mistletoe). But as countless writers have reminded us the past few weeks, the movie suffers the same critical failure as Whiplash — it simply doesn’t get jazz.
“It’s hard not to detect a whiff of ideological snobbery to La La Land. The movie will undoubtedly continue to rack up awards, and introduce newer generations to jazz,” music journalist Seve Chambers wrote in a Vulture article. ”It’s just unfortunate that, as parts of the jazz world have finally ditched rigid definitions of what the genre should be, the conservative vision is now being pushed to global audiences again.”
“The conservative vision” that Chambers mentions refers to the notion of jazz that Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) espouses throughout the movie: Traditional jazz is the only pure jazz. In La La Land, Mia (Emma Stone) hates jazz, but it’s not her fault. It’s because she hasn’t heard the right stuff. She’s heard sellout jazz, jazz with such fearsome appellations as smooth and fusion.
That’s until one day, when Sebastian, our white savior, swoops Mia up from her barista job and takes her to a real jazz club, where she can hear real jazz: jazz with intensity, conflict and passion. Suddenly, Mia gets it. And only a few scenes later, as Sebastian plays a gig at the same club, she dances along in ecstasy, complete with jazz hands and finger snapping.
Jazz musicians have been subjected to these tired clichés time after time, to the point that it’s become a classic joke to reflexively hate jazz, as a recent Slate article observed. “I’ve met a few musicians who could be caricatured into Sebastian,” Ratliff concluded. “It would be a drag if he became as real and commonplace as the joke about hating jazz.”
The implication is that bad portrayals of jazz are offending the narrow preferences of working musicians. Perhaps the backlash that La La Land has received from the jazz community confirms that it’s pointless to try to satisfy the pretenses of avowed jazz fans. Because music is all about fun, right? Reasoning along these lines, fans came to the movie’s defense: “Let’s start the La La Land backlash backlash,” one wrote.
In this fray of lashing and backing, there’s one point on which the movie, the backlashers and the back-backlashers all seem to converge: All sound different echoes of Sebastian’s fearful observation from early in the film — “jazz is dying on the vine.”
The question is who’s killing it. In the movie, it’s Keith (John Legend), who wants to fuse jazz with EDM so that young people will listen to it. For the critics, it’s Chazelle, who already made it big by misrepresenting jazz in Whiplash and should quit while he’s ahead. And for the ardent fans coming to La La Land’s defense, it’s the critics, who should be grateful that jazz is getting any screen time at all.
What La La Land and its attendant pundits really show us is that jazz takes abuse from all sides — the haters, the traditionalists and the revolutionaries alike. But here’s the thing: Jazz can take it. Jazz has been misunderstood as many times as it’s been mentioned, and it’s always weathered the storm.
That’s because jazz is bigger — and stronger — than what La La Land makes it out to be. The movie’s plot requires jazz music to be pathetic. Sebastian’s cloying obsession with jazz (he worships a discarded stool from The Baked Potato because Hoagy Carmichael once sat on it) isn’t romantic and quaint unless jazz is the dying art he calls it.
But jazz is thriving, not only among introverted white guys at their pianos, but also in ubiquity. It’s just a matter of moving beyond Sebastian’s narrow notion of what real jazz is. Kendrick Lamar rapped over the Robert Glasper Trio playing killer modal jazz in “For Free.” Snarky Puppy’s house party concerts have earned them a devoted following of non-jazz fans. Then there’s pop trio Dirty Loops and their viral covers of hits like “Rolling in the Deep.”
Those examples sound nothing like the big bands of the swing era or the dogfighting combo jazz Sebastian fawns over. But that’s the point. For the same reason nobody contends that Lady Gaga isn’t an important pop star because of her classical piano background, today’s jazz artists who dabble in other genres deserve to be called innovators, not sellouts. Indeed, jazz was born at the intersection of blues, gospel and marching band traditions. It’s always been a pidgin music.
That jazz artists are exploring new sonic territories in their music rather than retreating to the safe idioms of bebop and swing shows that jazz is growing, if in depth rather than reach. Hopefully, the watered-down renditions of jazz offered by films like La La Land will inspire fans to seek out the real thing.
Jazz survived racial segregation and being called vulgar. It has survived numerous pronunciations of its death. Surely, it can survive a skirmish over a Hollywood musical that isn’t really about music.