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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Elitist? Moi!?

Recently I took part in a back and forth in an online discussion, on the Irish Times music blog, about jazz and its perception in the eyes of the public. And there was lots of the ‘people think of jazz musicians as being ‘elitist’ accusation. And of course there were lots of ‘we’re not elitist!’ rebuttals from various respondents. And this is a thing I’ve seen many times recently – a kind of desperation on the part of jazz musicians to not be seen as being any different to any others, to be accepted as being the same as any other musicians, to be seen as being the same as rock musicians, or country musicians (though different to classical musicians for some reason.....). And in a way I’d, in an intellectually lazy way, almost come to believe that myself. But if I’m being honest with myself, I have to say that deep down I don’t believe we’re the same as everybody else. I believe that as musicians, as people who are involved in the craft of music (as opposed to the art – that’s a different story....), we’re as good as anyone, and better than most. And we should stop apologising for it.

In fact we should, I believe, not be afraid to have pride in what we do and in the uniqueness of what we do.

I remember when I was in secondary school, in a religion class, the teacher stated the view that to be a true Catholic you had to believe that all other religions were wrong. I (being the worst Catholic since Genghis Khan), thought at the time that this was a shockingly intolerant opinion expressed by an old reactionary, but then when I thought about it I realised that he was right – if you’re a Catholic but believe that Buddhists (for example) might be equally right in their beliefs, then why would you be a Catholic? To put this into a musical context – for me, given the amount of work it takes to play the instrument well enough to play jazz, to know harmony well enough etc. - given all that, then if I believed that Indie-rock (for example) a music that is much less technically demanding, had the same value as jazz, then why would I go to the trouble of doing all that extra work on the instrument? If, in my heart of hearts, I really believed that Indie-rock was of equal value (to me) as playing jazz, then why wouldn’t I become an Indie-Rock musician and save myself all this technical practice? And the simple answer has to be that for me, being a jazz musician is more important than being an Indie-rock musician.

I’m tired of the apologetic stance taken by jazz musicians about their own music – why should we be so desperate to not be seen to believe that this music is somehow special? This music IS special! This tradition is special. It is unique, it has been peopled by some of the greatest musicians and artists of the 20th Century and it has produced some of the greatest works of musical art of the past 100 years. It has enhanced and enriched the lives of millions of people, it has influenced thousands of musicians, many of whom work outside the strict ambit of jazz. It prizes the musicians who work for the good of the group, while at the same time honouring individuality. To play it at its best demands, at the very least, great technical skill, an ability to listen to others while improvising your own part, sensitivity to your immediate musical environment, an ability to make split-second musical decisions, to hear everything you’re about to play just before you play it and then reproduce it on the instrument instantly.

Add to that an ability to read music, to know large amounts of jazz repertoire (melodies AND harmonic schemes), from memory, and an understanding of the major stylistic developments in music (all music, not just jazz) over the past century and you have a job description of the minimum requirements for a contemporary jazz musician aspiring to play the music on a high level.

When you see a jazz musician playing this music well, you are seeing someone who has submitted him or herself to years of discipline and practice in order to be able to play a music that is not only profoundly difficult to master, but is also generally financially unrewarding. You are also looking at someone who has at some point had the imagination and determination to set out on what they know will be a long and tough road, but a road they’re willing to travel in order to partake of one the world’s great musical traditions. They are prepared to undergo all of this work, all of this effort, for the sake of the music and in order to be able to play it with others.

Does that make them elitist?

Am I an elitist?

Frankly I’m past caring what people think – in general this ‘elitist’ accusation is born from a very lazy intellectual standpoint, usually made from the kind of person who would in no way submit themselves, in any music, to the kind of discipline and hard work necessary to be a jazz musician. If someday I’m accused of being an elitist by a musician who has spent over 20 years of technical practice and total immersion in their music and who plays it at the highest level, then maybe I’ll give the accusation some thought. Until then I couldn’t be arsed answering those accusations any more. I don’t have time for that kind of time-wasting distraction, I’m too busy working on the music.


  1. Another great post, Ronan. Funny how no one uses the word 'elitism' in an accusative fashion when talking about sports.

  2. I think technically musicians who train Classically and in Jazz are the elite. I mean there is no denying the amount of training and time needed to progress in these genres. But I emphasize the word "technically".

    Being technically good is great but other musicians who might not have as much of this I would equally call a fellow musician if they are able to place just as much or more soul into their "simpler" form of music.

    As long as they are dedicating their life to whatever form of music they play I feel these are the "elite" because its almost a devout effort to fill your soul with that form of expression.


  3. This post was a really interesting read for me - so interesting in fact that I felt the urge to comment instead of my usual lurk and leave routine - mainly because of how relevant this discussion is to me. As a current jazz student at university, it's always been interesting to see how the different music majors perceive one another. Us jazz students only had one paper in common with all the other music majors, which was an aural/listening course with rather basic theory at the beginning of the first year. And right off the bat, you could tell who did classical performance, pop, composition, general music or jazz. There is a general, very obvious vibe that jazz majors look down upon pop students (three guesses why that is...), and classical majors look down on everyone else whilst we viewing us as a bunch of weirdos. I mean, for one it’s funny how they don’t quite act more elite than us because they don’t understand jazz at all – in Music 101 they couldn’t decipher the very basic jazz chord notations such as C7, etc. However, I am very grateful and thankful for the decade plus of classical training I had had as a child so that I had a firmer foundation to build jazz on.

    Also, whilst jazz is now the main chunk of my life, I still feel that in a broader, long-term scheme, that I will never quite be a jazz musician like some of my fellow students will become. Sure, I will become more and more competent on the electric and double bass, and feel some satisfaction in that, but I don't think I will ever live-breathe-and-sleep jazz like some of my peers. But having said that, the other half of jazz majors aren't interested in jazz AT ALL, so I would have to say I'm in the middle ground. And here is where this whole "elitism" thing kicks in. Even those of us who aren't as jazz-obsessed realise its value and difficulty - that's why we're doing it. So it’s really frustrating whenever the general population draws upon myths like “but jazz is so easy, you just play random notes!” that people just have NO IDEA how much more complex jazz is. And I guess it’s because of this – because jazz is largely musicians’ music – that makes jazz so “elitist”.

  4. Great post, especially the distinction between craft and art. I wouldn't go into the art bit, but craft-wise is indisputable that jazz musicians are an elite for the reasons you mentioned. And no reason to be ashamed of it or hide it.

    I wonder, though, whether people who view jazz as elitist are intimidated by the music/musicians or by the audiences. People go to jazz gigs for a variety of reasons, some of them related to the music itself, but in my experience people in jazz gigs get excited mostly by the basic stuff, that is, higher volume, higher notes, fast tempos, drum solos, and tenor sax/trumpet codas. I wouldn't call that an elite audience.


    PS @Amanda, I'd love for you or someone else to elaborate on "the other half of jazz majors aren't interested in jazz AT ALL". I understand what you say, but I don't get the rationale for that.

  5. Thanks to everyone for responding.

    Amanda, I completely understand the situation you describe at your school. I teach in a jazz school here in Dublin and I wouldn’t say that all the students are 100% into jazz and see themselves as becoming jazz musicians when they leave. But whether you fundamentally identify with jazz or not, I think the beauty of what’s called a ‘jazz education’ is that it gives you an incredibly broad based and complete music education, covering huge swathes of material – technical, theoretical and aesthetic. It is, in short, a liberal arts education in music. I believe that any serious musician would benefit from studying jazz in a jazz school, whether or not they become working jazz musicians afterwards. I think they not only benefit themselves from the education, they also benefit others in the wider music world by becoming music teachers who actually know something about music!

    And I must say I find it touching when young people, such as yourself, opt to study jazz – I think by doing that, by choosing to study a demanding art form that is difficult to make a living from or that has a clear career path, they already set themselves apart from the herd as being people who want more than the 1+1=2 life choices most people take. And we need those kinds of people now more than ever........

    Fernando I think people are intimidated by the music and the musicians – but it’s a knee-jerk reaction. There’s usually very little thought gone into it when people accuse jazz musicians as being ‘elitist’. Most jazz musicians I know – and I know a lot! - just get on with it, work on their music and are doing the best they can. They don’t waste any time looking down on other people, they’re too busy practicing and trying to make a living!

  6. Hello Ronan,

    Thanks for a very relevant post (and a very familiar-sounding one at that, reminding me of a number of conversations over the past few years).

    One thing to be acknowledged here is the PC-ification of the word "elite" (at least here in the US), making it into a label for something very bad. It has become a all-purpose dirty word, a pejorative to throw around haphazardly at anything one wants to simple-mindedly classify as anti-populist, over-intellectual, snobby, snooty, or not economically expedient. (It also now has an overtly political connotation as well).

    It's come out of this idea that somehow, things that require commitment and discipline should not be seen as "better" or "more valuable" than those that do not. Anyone that considers what they do to have quantitatively more importance/value than someone else's work is therefore "elitist" (ie, some kind of stuck-up, judgmental snob).

    Since we live in a post-modern world, where nothing is seen to really be of any value, then to start assigning value to things is really the biggest sin, hence the demonization of elitism.... and not coincidentally, the marginalization of things like classical music and jazz, and the rise in the perceived significance of commercial music, since all you have to do to be a success there is Believe In Yourself, apparently.

  7. Yes, that's a very good point Russell - the 'everything is equal to everything else' concept. I think people who do things of real value should be not afraid to say so - yes, we ARE really good!' might be a refreshing thing to hear from time to time.

    After all there are many worlds which revel in quality work - food and cooking immediately springs to mind - so why not the arts? And why not music? And why not jazz!?

  8. I guess for me the distinction is between a jazz musician expressing this sort of "elitist" attitude about jazz musicians (which I do think is appropriate for the reasons outlined here; the baseline for what's necessary to be a decent professional jazz musician is just a lot more elevated than it is for most of the music you hear on a daily basis) and expressing the elitist attitude about jazz as a music. I guess this runs me afoul of Mr. Scarbrough, but I don't consider this as a refusal to assign value; rather I would say that when it comes to art, the only value that matters to me is the subjective value I assign to art, which (since it originates entirely from inside me) is no more or less valid (or valuable) than anyone else's. The only question about music that really matters to me is "how does it make me feel?" which isn't a subject that really allows for any fruitful back-and-forth.

    Coltrane was undeniably a better musician than, say, Jeff Beck is, by any objective criterion you want to apply. But if Coltrane and Beck have equally powerful effects on me, then I can't say Trane is better because his command of his instrument, knowledge of music, etc., was so clearly superior.

  9. I enjoyed the piece and the comments...

    I think every "elitist" conversation is different, depending on who you're talking with and what they bring out of you. The key is whether one simply states a position confidently or gives off a whiff of superiority. And because it's about music, it's pre-loaded emotionally.

  10. "Most jazz musicians I know – and I know a lot! - just get on with it, work on their music and are doing the best they can. They don’t waste any time looking down on other people, they’re too busy practicing and trying to make a living!"

    Well put.

    Most great jazz players I know are well rounded, respect musicians of many disciplines, have a good sense of humor (usually self-deprecating.)

    I think that what drives jazz musicians that I know a bit batty is that they aren't treated with anywhere near the *respect* they feel they deserve as professionals from other disciplines. Being treated with respect is something htat all people deserve. That includes people who commit to a difficult craft/art like jazz music.