✏️ The notes ✏️
Now, as with all of these things that I write, this is mainly a space to stretch out my thinking – so forgive the half-thoughts. I’m not writing up a final answer, I’m just showing my working ☺️. And yes, I know I need a good editor…
As I mentioned above, today’s mixtape and letter are dedicated to jazz-not-jazzand looking at how the culture of jazz has influenced other subcultures and mainstream culture. Broadly, I feel like Frasier, coffee shops, and bad car adverts have ruined jazz. If you were to mention the word to anyone who’s not already interested in jazz, it conjures up cliche after cliche. There’s a quote early on in Ross Haenfler’s book, Subculture: The Basics, where he says; “to outsiders, subcultures can seem alternately strange and silly, mysterious and dangerous, or all of the above. They appear as bizarre little worlds with secret signs, idiosyncratic rituals, fantastical styles, and arcane social codes”. It’s like that quote was written with jazz in mind. Smokey clubs, angular suits, puffed out cheeks, and mind-bending brass solos. On the surface, I’ll admit, jazz is weird. But underneath is something magical…
Today’s mixtape roughly follows my journey into falling in love with jazz. It’s only in the last five or so years that I’ve really started to take an interest, and as always with these things, I tripped down the rabbit hole. A few things kick-started the journey; the first was my dad. He has always been a huge fan of jazz, and so I’ve been played Miles, Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and many more for a long time. Up until a few years ago, my response was always ‘nah, not for me’. Then he started drawing parallels with other music, and that helped. Then I started listening to more funk and soul and I noticed little jazz flourishes. Then when I started listening to more hip-hop, I realised that the stuff that I was enjoying the most was heavy on samples from soul and jazz. It’s like I was being primed for jazz. Then, the final thing to tip me into jazz was Alex from Sounds of the Universe playing me the first Moses Boyd EP.
This all seemed to coincide with the rise and rise of the UK jazz scene, which had a distinct south London feel to it. Labels like 22a, On The Corner, Albert’s Favourites, and Rhythm Section International presented jazz in a totally different way to how I’d experienced it before (MAYA?). It felt dancefloor ready, and took cues from UK dance music culture. From there it was all downhill; Herbie, Sun Ra, Donald Byrd, Acid Jazz, Alice Coltrane (the better of the Coltrane’s). I fell for jazz in a big way.
Before long (and after a lot of reading), I realised that jazz is in more than just jazz music. The culture that exists around jazz has permeated its way into many other cultures, and had a profound impact on mainstream culture too. I’ve spent a decade talking and writing about how to understand and trace different subcultures, and yet the subculture I was falling into had gone totally under my radar. So alongside listening to everything I could, I started to read more, watch more, and speak to more people about jazz.
I think this process of tracing stuff is really important. When Henry Threadgill won the Pulitzer prize a few years ago, he said “any time we can understand a little bit more about culture, I think it makes us better as a group of people, and more civilized as a group of people.”. Understanding culture helps us to understand each other, it helps drives greater empathy, and most importantly (for me at least), it helps drive greater creativity. As William Burroughs famously said; “you got to cut up the past to find the future”.
So, where do we start? Well in the last letter I wrote about the three phases to becoming part of a culture:
- Understanding the five component parts of the subculture
- Understanding the history of the subculture
- Helping to build the future of the subculture
What I realised I hadn’t done was explain any more about those ‘five component parts’. Back in 1979, a sociologist called Gary Fine pushed beyond exploring subcultures, and went into exploring sub-subcultures (groups within subcultures), which he called ‘idiocultures’. He then described the way in which he drew a line around a set of people to create that idioculture, and said it was defined as “a system of knowledge, beliefs, behaviours, and customs shared by members of an interacting group to which members can refer and employ as the basis of further interaction”. Over the years, I’ve cut and pasted a few different definitions together to get to my own way of identifying a developed subculture. When these five components exist, and are shared by a group of people, that signals to me that there’s something interesting going on. The five are;
- Signs and symbols (visuals and iconography)
- Values (what informs our behaviours)
- Language (terms, slang, and sounds)
- Beliefs (what we believe is true in the world)
- Norms (the behaviours we exhibit)
These five areas become helpful in trying to understand a culture – which then enables you to begin building your knowledge of the history of that culture, and finally you’re then able to begin contributing to the culture. Of course these all overlap, but it’s a simple and vaguely helpful framework at least.
Anyway, back to jazz. There are a number of challenges with trying to understand how jazz has influenced broader culture. First, jazz music is pretty loosely defined. When a journalist asked Louis Armstrong to define it, he said “if you don’t feel it, you’ll never know it”, which isn’t massively helpful. Miles Davis called jazz “protest music”, again, a great definition, but not helpful for what I’m trying to do. The second challenge is that, as Herbie Hancock said in Reaching Beyond: Improvisations on Jazz, Buddhism, and a Joyful Life, jazz “enthusiastically adopts influences from other cultures and genres while at the same time strongly influencing them”. So there’s a symmetry to jazz and its adjacent cultures that makes things complicated too. The third challenge is one of coolness; over the last century, jazz has fallen in and out of cool a lot, and when its coolness is in the ascendency, it garners more references from other musicians than when it’s deemed less cool (happy to share the research on this). So its definition is loose, its influence is symbiotic, and its external references are unreliable. Brilliant.
What we do know about jazz is that it’s got a very clear visual style; sunglasses inside, sharp suits, cigars and cigarettes, loose dresses for dancing (flapper dresses), afro-futuristic clothing, dance crazes, puffed out cheeks, references to space and spirituality, the solo, drugs, Eastern religious iconography, nightclubs, the sax, the trumpet, horn-rimmed spectacles. All things that are individually generic, but combined begin to form the visual cues of jazz culture. The impact of jazz on fashion has been substantial (as outlined in Alphonso McClendon’s Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity, and Subcultural Improvisation. As has its impact on art – Basquiat was obsessed with Charlie Parker, and talked about the idea that he’d go mad if he didn’t hear Parker’s music every day. You can trace elements of jazz culture in Basquiat’s work too; there are ideas that come up time and time again, yet his use of experimentation and improvisation on how he bought those ideas changes drastically over time. He’s treating the ideas as jazz standards, and his technique as the performance of those standards.
In Reaching Beyond, Herbie Hancock talks to Wayne Shorter, and both talk about sharing and openness being a fundamental part of jazz culture. They talk about turning suffering into joy, and by many accounts, jazz was the first real counter-culture – which was intertwined with the civil rights movements, as well as playing an important role in how the beat writers developed too. In fact, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and other Beat Generation writers frequently referenced and were inspired by bebop, with lots of references to Dizzy Gilespie, and Charlie Parker. All three groups had a shared belief that freedom was the ultimate expression of life, and that music, art, and protest could unlock that freedom. For many people, jazz was life (check out this incredible poem by Ted Joans, Jazz Is My Religion).
Freedom is something that permeates jazz performance too – while improvisation wasn’t created by jazz players, it was certainly perfected by them. The live improvisation of compositions opened up a world of new possibilities. When Herbie Hancock and his players toured with their Mwandishi album, they performed alternative versions of each song most nights, turning the album into version one, which was then iterated on tour. The same happened with many jazz standards – players would create their own versions, effectively creating the ‘remix’. Another massive contribution to culture was the pivot that jazz players made in elevating the performance to be held in just as much esteem as the composer and composition itself – the performance became an act to witness and admire, and this in turn gave way to greater collaboration and, conversely, showboating and soloing.
Finally, the language of jazz… The sonic influence of jazz is hard to over-estimate. Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Beefheart, Zappa, Ray Charles, Radiohead, Rolling Stones – the influence of jazz goes far and wide. Many of the Motown session musicians were jazz session players (and you can hear it). Quincy Jones came from the world of jazz. Ahmet Ertegun did too. Modern music and the record industry are built upon the foundations of jazz. According to WhoSampled.com Miles Davis’ music has been officially sampled 263 times, George Bensons’ 416, and Herbie’s been sampled 878 times. Hip-hop makes up much of that, and artists like Dilla, Q-Tip, Madlib, and Questlove have never been shy in their love of jazz. Q-Tip is even starting to give lectures at NYU on jazz and hip-hop. Jazz gave us the backbeat, the downbeat, it industrialised the call and response, it made syncopation danceable, and it created magic from chaos and dissonance. You can hear it in almost everything – from The Saturday’s to Sunn O))).
Ultimately, over the course of the last century, jazz has made a substantial impact on multiple cultures and our global mainstream culture. We can attribute improvisation, greater equality in music, greater respect for performers (not just composers), nightclub culture, and music as accessible art to jazz. Without jazz we’d have no hip-hop, music would be vanilla, and the spiritual side of music would be restricted to the church or the temple. You might not like jazz, but rest assured, jazz is in almost everything you do like.
I’ll leave the final word to Wayne Shorter, who when talking about jazz said; “[jazz] music opens and expands our lives. Nothing compares to the power of music to instantaneously transcend all forms of discrimination, engender a powerful spiritual unity, and elevate listeners.”