An Article on Jazz as a Cultural Signifier for the 2007 Playboy Jazz Festival Program Guide

Ted Gioia’s incisive “Jazz (The Music of Coffee and Donuts) Has Respect, But It Needs Love,” which appeared in yesterday’s Huffington Post, reminded me that a few years ago, through a chain of circumstances too complicated to relate, I had an opportunity to write and extensively research an article on a similar subject. The idea was to interview various cultural critics, music programmers and ad industry folk to explore the ways in which jazz is perceived within the mainstream as a cultural signifier. As I sometimes do, I’m printing the “director’s cut,” which ran about 3200 words, over the final 2400-word edit; it’s a bit more sprawling and meandering, but there’s more information in it. Ap0logies to various friends for not altering their 2007 credits to match their contemporary circumstances.

* * *

In February 1964, the month when the Beatles set off the “British Invasion” with two appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and a Carnegie Hall concert, and Cassius Clay, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali, ascended to the heavyweight boxing throne, Playboy offered its annual “Jazz and Hi-Fi Issue,” fronted by a fetching blonde in a salmon-pink peignoir, manipulating a trumpet-playing bunny puppet with her raised right hand.

In  small print on the lower left were the articles: the 1964 Playboy Jazz Poll results, “the latest in hi-fi equipment,” “the Playboy record library,” “Mamie Van Doren Unadorned” and “Boudoir Fun with Richard Burton,” “a new novel by P.G. Wodehouse” (an excerpt from Biffen’s Millions). In place of the Interview, already a buzz-generator after 14 installments for in-depth conversations with Bertrand Russell, Billy Wilder, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jimmy Hoffa, Albert Schweizer, and Vladimir Nabokov, Playboy offered a 17,200-word panel discussion on no less a subject than “Jazz: Today and Tomorrow,” eliciting insights from Cannonball Adderley, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Ralph Gleason, Stan Kenton, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, George Russell, and Gunther Schuller. Jazz and Playboy were anything but strangers: The Interview had launched in November 1962 with a blunt Miles Davis-Alex Haley dialog, and some readers may have remembered a November 1960 jazz roundtable on which Adderley, Gillespie and Kenton joined Duke Ellington, Billy Taylor, Shelley Manne, Jimmy Giuffre, Nat Adderley, Nat Hentoff, a psychiatrist, and a lawyer parsed the thorny issue of “Dope Addiction and the Jazz Musician.”

Neither panel seems dated, and the issues that concerned the panelists in 1964 (read it verbatim on www.cannonball-adderley.com/article/playboy2.htm) remain particularly crucial to the broader jazz conversation. How does an expanding and ever more technically proficient musician pool grapple with unfavorable economics and insufficient exposure? Can art jazz and popular jazz coexist? Can folk forms from different cultures coalesce with the jazz mainstream? Can the musicians from those cultures make consequential contributions to it? Is race a barometer of authenticity? Does the term “jazz” even apply to the many styles that it is used to describe?

During that “pre-Sixties” portion of the Sixties, it was easy to absorb this discussion not only in the pages of Playboy, but “men’s magazine” spinoffs like Rogue and Cavalier, and such general circulation standbys as Esquire, Saturday Review and Harper’s. All were targeting an adult, educated, professional male readership, primarily but not exclusively white, for whom jazz coded as an alluring signifier, a soundtrack to the “Playboy bachelor” lifestyle, one that encouraged connoisseurship of sound systems, sports cars, Italian suits, Hathaway shirts European art films, dry martinis, good cigars, and fine wine, as well as sexy ladies. Among African-Americans, the hipness factor was high: progressive jazz dovetailed with civil rights movement aspirations, and it had street presence, too, through a national circuit of inner city clubs, lounges, theaters, and radio stations that presented a panoramic selection of black music.

In February, 1965, Playboy, grabbing the zeitgeist, presented an “Interview” with Bob Dylan. Five years later, Miles, now plugged in and wearing Carnaby Street threads in lieu of Italian suits, was playing first sets at rock concerts at the east and west coast Fillmores. That same year, Wayne Shorter left Miles after a six-year stint; in 1971, he and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, the guiding intelligence behind Miles’ pathbreaking jazz-rock album Bitches Brew, formed the ur-fusion group Weather Report. In 1972, Chick Corea, another recent Miles graduate, discovered Scientology and launched the smooth jazz movement with Return to Forever. In 1975, Miles sat with Playboy for the second time, having long since discarded his musical skin of a decade earlier. To a public besotted with Rock Spectacle, the aesthetic values of hardcore jazz already seemed a cultural artifact.

In relation to the popular culture matrix, it still is. The jazz audience remains specialized, a subculture, a 3% sliver of the total music pie that divides to micronic levels for those mavericks whose radical departures from the tried-and-true are the DNA of jazz evolution. Mainstream music pubs like Rolling Stone, Spin and Vibe seem to consider the word “jazz” more offensive than  “ho” and “bitch,” and mass market glossies ignore it altogether. It goes without saying that jazz is minimally present in print and TV advertising. Undeniably, jazz is barely a blip on the popular culture radar screen, and its coolness quotient resolves barely on the > side of null and void.

Well, perhaps it depends on what your definition of “cool” is. “Jazz is cool,” says Alan Brown, a market researcher who has analyzed classical music audiences. “To some extent, it’s the new classical music, and the audience is sophisticated — or seen as sophisticated. Our culture reshapes art forms constantly, and over a period of years the meaning of the art form changes in the public consciousness. That’s extremely difficult for some arts organizations that hold dear a specific definition of jazz.”

“Jazz Cool has become marketable to the bourgeoisie,” ripostes Greg Tate, a veteran essayist and cultural critic for the Village Voice, who agrees with the “America’s classical music” trope. “It’s lost its stigmata and its stain,” he continues. “On one level, it’s read as very safe and uplifting, a part of American culture that young people are encouraged to want to study and learn and participate in.”

“It’s certainly not the cutting edge of what really cool young people are into or following,” declares Touré, a novelist, staff journalist and editor at Rolling Stone, and occasional talking head for CNN and MSNBC on pop culture matters. “When I encounter a character in an ad or in a movie who’s all into jazz, it’s like a cliche of the idea of being cool, which is outdated. Part of jazz as Cool came from it being counter-culture, underground, something that was sometimes attacked as the devil’s music. But nobody’s scared of us now. The same thing in Hip-Hop. We used to be seen as dangerous figures, and now we’re selling Pillsbury and Chevrolets. Nobody’s scared of us. Jazz is supposed to suggest classy refinement, intelligent, mature, with that little burst of excitement—but a SAFE burst of excitement.

“It doesn’t come through the airwaves on its own any more, and you need a certain music education to understand it—you won’t be into it just by accident. Also, it requires an intellectual concentration much greater than a lot of people today are ready to offer. It’s weird talking about a melody or a rhythm. When do we talk about ME? The generation of now is very much about that. A lot of songs are really just the singer’s exploration—and by proxy, you as the listener—of ‘who am I?’”

These sentiments are demonstrably true for the masses, yet jazz does address that question for far more than a few. Indeed, considered on its own terms, the music has never been healthier. In the wake of ’80s young lions like Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard, post-Boomer jazzfolk — Nicholas Payton, Brad Mehldau, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Danilo Perez, to name a few — have built their styles from the ground up, absorbing the vocabulary and syntax upon which jazz was built. Thousands of students learn jazz in high school bands, and pay high tuitions to jazz degree programs at numerous universities in the United States and Europe. Nor is academe the only institutional setting in which jazz has staked firm roots. Supported by a well-heeled, racially integrated board, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra represents its parent institution as a full-fledged partner to the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York City Ballet, while the SFJAZZ Jazz Festival celebrates its quarter century this year. The music generates sufficient advertising revenue to justify the continued publication of well-produced monthly trade magazines like Downbeat, Jazziz, and Jazz Times, and inspires its practitioners to release a few thousand new CDs each year.

To pinpoint who exactly comprises this audience and what jazz signifies to them is a complex proposition. “We’re just beginning to understand how people relate to the art world in general, including jazz,” says Brown. “There’s so little market research. But there are statistics that demonstrate that the constituency for jazz is more diverse than other forms of music.”

In February, Blue Note released comparative demographic information for jazz and total music market that both supports and counters Brown’s diversity proposition. Certainly, its constituency is seasoned. Some 76% of jazz buyers are “over 36” as compared to 44% of the total market; of the jazz-buying over-36ers, 44% are male and 32% female, while the gender breakdown for the total market is 57%-43%. It is also quantitatively more affluent (44% of jazz buyers earn over $75,000 [29% over $100,000], compared to 31% [19%] of total music) and more educated (38% of the jazz market are college grads or have graduate education, compared to 22% of the total sample). Jazz appeals to a more racially diverse audience than other genres, with a 57% “Caucasian”-34% “African-American”-9% “Other” breakdown, as opposed to 72%-17%-11% overall.

“There’s many jazz audiences rather than one,” says Randall Kline, the Artistic Director of the SFJAZZ Festival. “We appeal to different demographic groups at almost every concert we present. With Dave Brubeck, the age skews older. With Jason Moran, it skews younger. For a Latin Jazz show, it’s primarily Latino. Jazz is the perfect candidate for long-tail marketing over the Internet, because it’s lots of niches, and we’re always marketing to those niches.”

SFJAZZ’s most recent audience research also confirms that those niches conform to the high skew of plus-$100,000 households and college graduates. This makes sense to Andre Guess, Kline’s counterpart at Jazz at Lincoln Center since 2000. “The people who read Playboy forty years ago, who had the slick hi-fi and so on, are commensurate to the $125,000 a year subscribers at Lincoln Center now,” Guess says. “Where it has some appeal is with the 30 to 45 year-old guy with a nice job, who just met this woman he’s trying to get to do certain things with him, so he takes her out to Jazz at Lincoln Center or to Dizzy’s Club, has a nice dinner, and at the end of the evening… It’s all a setup for his thing.

“Popular music is basically the soundtrack of adolescence and sexuality. Jazz was that at one time. There’s an element to it now. But from a marketing standpoint jazz mostly is mellow or laid-back, something that I graduate into after my young and wild-and-crazy days. I want to grow up now.”

The notion of jazz as sophisticated seduction resonates with such upscale brands as Brooks Brothers and Cadillac, both long-time Jazz at Lincoln Center sponsors, and Movado watches, which Wynton Marsalis endorses along with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Pete Sampras and Tom Brady. Infiniti and Audi have sponsored SFJAZZ; so has Target. During the ‘90s, Lexus put a jazz soundtrack to commercials hawking its 400 luxury line, targeted to over-40 executive types, but shifted gears when when Infiniti, a direct competitor, stamped its launch campaign with the Dave Brubeck classic, “Take Five.” The ‘90s also saw Starbucks associate its brand identity with jazz by distributing content generated by Blue Note at its stores; this year, Hear Music, Starbucks’ house label, partnered with Concord, the L.A.-based jazz independent.

On the other hand, the safe-as-old-pajamas connotation persuaded Ryan Kitch, a New York based sound designer for Saatchi & Saatchi, to use a Latin Jazz version of Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island for a Cheerios spot intended for Mexican-U.S. distribution. “The song spans several generations and has a nice, timeless feel,” Kitch says. “Cheerios has been part of family life for generations, and lots of people can relate to it. But we also do spots for Wendy’s and J.C. Penney, and usually end up more in a Rock type of world.”

Such jazz-embracing attitudes are exceptions to the rule in the corporate world. “Advertisers are always looking for something hip and contemporary and on the edge, and they feel that jazz is old and done,” says sound designer Chris Bell, who worked on the aforementioned Lexus commercials.

“Jazz is in a sort of no-man’s-land,” says Steve Silver, the San Francisco-based creative director who conceived the Lexus ads. Silver plays saxophone, and mentions that his father, Art Silver, wrote a jazz review in Playboy’s inaugural, Marilyn Monroe issue.

“For an upscale advertiser you’d think that jazz would work pretty well,” Silver continues. “But often, upscale means luxurious, and if you want to convey luxury, the no-brainer approach is to use opera or classical music. I say ‘no-brainer,’ because frequently, something counter-intuitive would work better. On the other hand, if you want to say ‘urban hip,’ it’s not your best choice. There were times, of course,  when jazz was TOTALLY “Urban Hip.” That time is not going to be now. Jazz would be a great opportunity to make your product stand out, and I’d love to use it. It has so many flavors—it could be optimistic or cacophonous. Or it could be not so tied to class and income. But it isn’t hugely in demand for those particular flavors that you’re trying to communicate.

“Jazz is different than a lot of these other sounds, because it requires you to listen and engage and be intellectually—and emotionally—stimulated. We’re so far away from Classical, that as soon as you hear the violins, two notes, half a bar, you think, ‘Well, that’s classical.’ As soon as you hear a Rock or Hip-hop sound with that heavy beat, you’re viscerally engaged, but not really intellectually engaged. When you use music for commercial purposes, you’re not showcasing the music. You’re using the music to showcase something else. So if the music is too engaging, too rich, asks too much attention, it gets in the way of the trajectory that the advertiser really wants, which is the product. It’s almost too distracting.”

Notably, artists like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, who signified jazz when jazz led the zeitgeist, still code intriguing to the young and cool. “When we were producing the Verve Remixed series, we found jazz, iconic jazz in particular, had a lot of cachet in the dj/electronica/lounge crowd,” says Jason Olaine, who directed A&R for Verve between 1999 to 2004 after a six-year tenure  programming the Oakland jazz club-restaurant Yoshi’s. He’s referring to several CDs on which deejays  altered classic tunes from the catalog with drum loops and analog scratchy sounds. At the time, Olaine notes, “they were some of the most widely played soundtracks to chic bars and fashion hotspots from San Francisco to L.A. It seemed like a good way to monetize the catalog and reach some new kids, not only educating them about some of these classic artists but also possibly turning them on to buy our catalog.”

“The characters in jazz today are less singular than before,” Touré reflects. “There’s no excitement around the genre now as there was when Miles and Monk and Bird and Ornette Coleman were reinventing music.” He suggests that the cross-generational fascination they inspire has as much to do with the transgressive qualities they projected as with their respective sounds. “There’s definitely an aspect of Fear of Black Man, that fascination with the black man that is wrapped within the cool of jazz,” he says. “It’s a small underground club, some kid’s hiding away practicing, and he blows away the club, and it’s late, and there’s alcohol and women, and there’s Black Brilliance on the stage. In America that fascination always exists, but the locus has changed. It used to be located on jazz and boxing, but it isn’t in those places any more. Now in Hip-Hop you get a lot of that Black Male Other.”

“There’s a sort of stereotypical character that does rap, and the music is an extension of their life and the culture,” Guess elaborates. “There has to be a movement to create an aura or mood around musicians like Miles, Trane and Sonny Rollins, that marries itself to what jazz is, so the uninitiated can say, ‘Okay, this is the vibe, and I can see it in this person.’”

It’s tempting to fetishize the stylish surface imagery of those years. As a corrective, Tate mentions a scene in ATL, a youth-oriented Urban movie from last year. “One guy in the film is dating the daughter of a fairly well-off black professional, and he goes to this lily-white southern country club,” he says. “The band is playing something, I think, from Kind of Blue. It struck me that this is not just old folks music. It’s old WHITEFOLKS music.”

In point of fact, the jazz paradigm for the digital era follows pathways reminiscent of the one-world lifestyle pitched by Benetton. The underground club and existential brilliance found therein do exist, at least in New York, but the performers could come from anywhere; jazz now functions on a global playing field, and multiculturalism is the new mainstream. Kind of Blue modalities will be part of the game in the brave new world. So will church music and the blues, bebop and soul jazz, the piano vocabularies of Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, the universes of Coltrane, Monk and Sonny Rollins. So, too, will the intoxicating melodies and rhythms of Cuba, Brazil, India, and West and North Africa; the song forms of popular music, from hip-hop to Bjork; the Euro-Classical tradition. The more intrepid may translate Fibonacci equations into musical flow, explore post-Webern dissonances, or make computers improvise in real time.

“From a marketing perspective, jazz reads more intellectual than sexy,” Guess notes of this tendency. “It needs to be decoded, and it’s hard to overcome that. One reason why jazz been marginalized is that it’s a little like pornography—the ‘I know it when I hear it’ kind of thing. That’s one of the reasons why Wynton Marsalis places such an emphasis on trying to define it in a way that you can understand it.”

But the Internet inevitably will open doors for micro-marketing strategies, and as the elites that it has created parlay their assets into increasing social influence, jazz—in all its many varieties—seems well-positioned to find a consequential niche. Consider the Silicon Valley venture capitalists and information technology executives who populate the board of SFJAZZ, chaired by 32-year-old Srinija Srinivasan, Editor-in-Chief at Yahoo! Inc. Through the prism of mass media and fashion culture, they may code nerdy, but they will be the movers and shakers of 21st century progress, and their geek cool demands a music that engages their quirky, pragmatic, improvisational intelligence. Being cool, they will not require definitions.

“It’s a lot of money, a lot of power, and a younger culture,” Kline says. “It’s like San Francisco from the Gold Rush, people coming west to earn their fortunes, that rugged guy in Levis with a pick-axe over his shoulder. I think jazz fits with that sensibility. How we in the jazz world position ourselves is the challenge, but the place of jazz will be much stronger and longer-lasting.”

1 Comment

Filed under Article, Greg Tate, Jason Olaine, Playboy, Touré

One response to “An Article on Jazz as a Cultural Signifier for the 2007 Playboy Jazz Festival Program Guide

  1. Tony Medici

    This has to be among the most stupid, sexist comments I’ve read in any article about jazz:
    “The people who read Playboy forty years ago, who had the slick hi-fi and so on, are commensurate to the $125,000 a year subscribers at Lincoln Center now,” Guess says. “Where it has some appeal is with the 30 to 45 year-old guy with a nice job, who just met this woman he’s trying to get to do certain things with him, so he takes her out to Jazz at Lincoln Center or to Dizzy’s Club, has a nice dinner, and at the end of the evening… It’s all a setup for his thing.”
    Wow, crass and dumb.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s