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All That Jazz!

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I want to start by saying that I consider myself a music lover. From a Beethoven symphony to the latest underground phenom toiling their way at the Empty Bottle, from reggae to tamburitza, from a gospel choir to a punk-rock screech, I love it all. I deejayed at a free-form college radio station for almost a decade. If you slit my wrists I think they would bleed out a fine black dust from the old reel-to-reel tapes we used to use, and then I'd breathe my last.

So call me Brutus, but I feel the need to weigh in on WBEZ's plan to eliminate most music programming from its airwaves next year [Letters, May 12; The Business, April 14]. In short, I have not come to praise the current music format, I have come to bury it.

To be fair, I should add that while I love music, I don't really like jazz. Oh sure, I like Miles Davis, Lightnin' Hopkins, Duke Ellington, and at least a solid handful of the major and lesser lights in the jazz firmament. How could you not like them? They developed their own sounds, their own ideas, conveyed their theme of the world through their gifts of music. In short, they had genius.

But most of the jazz that you hear today, whether it be in a lounge, at a club, or on the airwaves, is about as interesting as watching a high school gym class do calisthenics or, more charitably, like listening to Al Di Meola play scales.

As Tony Wilson said in the film 24-Hour Party People, jazz is the only form of music where the performers are almost always having a better time than the audience. Unfortunately, a small cult of jazz aficionados (why are they called that? they don't say "classical aficionados" or "hip-hop aficionados") has held the main public-radio station in town hostage for over a decade, raising such a ruckus at the prospect of any substantive change that the program director can't even do his job.

Listen to public radio in most major cities and the stations offer a welcome musical diversity. I'm most familiar with KCRW, based in Santa Monica, which broadcasts an eclectic mix of music across the LA basin, of which jazz is a substantial but complementary component. When I hear shows like Passport and Afropop Worldwide, both broadcast by WBEZ on Friday night, I mourn for the radio station that WBEZ could have become, one offering a range of interesting music that you don't hear on commercial radio. Many a Friday night I've danced around the house to djembe drums or maybe an accordion. But soon enough the inevitable happens. The jazz takes over, and I put my dancing shoes away.

Let's be honest: most jazz falls somewhere between boring and unlistenable. I guess Schoenberg is also pretty unlistenable, but at least you can imagine that it is expanding the musical confines of the listener, that someday a race of advanced beings may listen to his music and find Schoenberg a revelation or, somewhat less believably, actually enjoyable. But I doubt a superior race of beings will ever think the same thing about a generic jazz quartet doing a jam in E, so there is no excuse for its lack of listenability.

For some reason this has become the default programming on Chicago public radio. And the creaky irrelevancy of some of this stuff is dumbfounding. Listening to Marian McPartland and her guests is like opening a door on a busy urban street and stumbling into a box social. It's so backward yet so sure of its tightly defined customs it would be a marvel, if it just weren't just so mind-numbingly dull.

WBEZ dumping its jazz format is no great tragedy. Back a few years ago when WNIB, the independent classical-music station, was sold to an out-of-state conglomerate financed by the Mormon church, which junked the old format so that they could program more classic rock for the baby-boomer set, now that was a tragedy. But a change in WBEZ's format is long overdue.

James Barnett

W. Warwick

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