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A jungle out there?

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It’s a jungle out there
Disorder and confusion everywhere
No one seems to care
Well I do
Hey, who’s in charge here?
It’s a jungle out there
– Randy Newman

Prominent: standing out so as to be seen easily; conspicuous; particularly noticeable

Popular: regarded with favor, approval, or affection by people in general

Both prominent and popular are commonly used adjectives, so common that the two words and their respective synonyms are found confusing, hence they are innocently substituted for each other. An episode this weekend made me aware of just how casual we are, and just how precise we need to be when discussing music genres. Classical, Jazz, Rock, Country and R&B are well known to us and when first they emerged, life was simpler, and we were not hard-pressed within each to make distinctions.

What was once so simple then, time has re-written genre by musical genre. Today’s R&B is unrecognizable from the sounds and artists that made it famous. Tuning into the R&B section on my streaming service will show you just how all over the map it has become. I’m not sure I would classify this as an evolution as to me the term R&B has been co-opted. Introduce present-day R&B to a baby-boomer and I would warn the brave soul doing so to stand back away from the boomer’s recoil.

Jazz, considered by some to be America’s Classical Music, at its very core involves improvisation, syncopation, and a prominent rhythm. It is a genre of music that has truly evolved and while Jazz is considered popular, I posit that one need be more specific and that Jazz, absent a defined structure, much like a river has flowed freely through the decades picking up new ideas and influences and liberally depositing them along the way.

By no means exhaustive I’ve put together a chronological list of “schools” of Jazz over the years/decades:

  1. Ragtime
  2. Folk/Blues
  3. Classic Jazz
  4. Hot Jazz/Chicago Blues
  5. Swing/Kansas City Style
  6. Gypsy Jazz
  7. Bebop
  8. Rhythm & Blues
  9. Vocalese
  10. Mainstream
  11. Cool
  12. Hard Bop
  13. Bossa Nova
  14. Modal
  15. Free Jazz
  16. Soul Jazz
  17. Groove
  18. Funk Fusion
  19. Afro-Cuban Jazz
  20. Post Bop
  21. Acid Jazz
  22. Classicism
  23. Smooth Jazz
  24. Retro Swing
  25. Jazz Rap
  26. M-Base
  27. European

 

Mind you this not-exhaustive list spans a scant 130 + years. Such is the nature of Jazz, and much like the river it never stands still. No argument that Jazz is prominent in America and the world. Modern day history and societal shifts can be traced in its decade by decade re-invention of itself. Tell me that Jazz is popular and I’d instinctively ask “Which style? To which school are you referring?” There was a time when Smooth Jazz ruled the roost and Kenny G. was both popular and prominent. This fact did not sit well with members of the Jazz community and it was his fateful decision to record a track where he overdubbed himself on Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World that brought about the greatest recorded smackdown. Pat Metheny’s no-holds-barred rebuke in Jazz Oasis -> http://www.jazzoasis.com/methenyonkennyg.htm is simply a classic. Metheny’s takedown of Kenny G. is legendary and timeless. It can be read repeatedly, never losing any of its impact or punch. It is indeed a humiliating kick to the crotch.

That was then, and if someone in the mainstream said they liked Jazz, chances were good that they’d point to an instrumentalist like Kenny G. or a band like Spyro Gyra. To some, the mere mention of these artists are fighting words, and you can see why when you look and listen to all that came before them. Some would argue that the ensuing style was a collective rebuke to Smooth Jazz making it all the more necessary. No pain. No gain.

So, you tell me you like JAZZ or ROCK or CLASSICAL or COUNTRY or BLUES or SOUL, I get that you do but which style? Which offshoot? All of these genres evolved. Each of them did so in dramatic fashion with respect to their individual timelines. When asked about my musical interests and favorite music styles I find myself forced into making distinctions without pause.

European Jazz and Modern Classical music of last century’s ’60s, 70s and onward, save for some instruments unique to each genre, are morphs of each other. The two of them can sound so electronic, experimental, ephemeral, ambient … the list of adjectives goes on. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between the two. Woe is the burden of the record shop owner and his/her employees to properly categorize the music for interested customers. I have mentioned in previous pieces that I frequently visit shops here in the States and abroad, and now I’ve made it a practice in all shops new to me to inquire, “Under what category would I find …?” Miscellaneous has now become prominent under each genre in so many shops that it’s become my starting point.

These issues and concerns transcend recorded music working their way into live music venues. It is not enough to promote and publicize an artist or a band as being a top-level genre. The taxonomy of it all has grown far too taxing. A little context, please. If I, you or the general public is going to spend the time, money and resources to attend a live music concert/performance, knowing broadly what to expect would make a difference. Jazz, by nature, being more improvisational and spontaneous can be problematic that way, so some guidelines – artists’ influences, similarities to others – would go a long way.

The taxonomy of the world around us encompasses far more than music, but when you start taking each of the terms listed and uncover their respective sub-classifications and divisions, the complexity and variations in music genres become frighteningly similar.

Life
Domain
Kingdom
Phylum
Class
Order
Family
Genus
Species

Evolution brings with it change and transformation and as it applies to music, the more we discover, the less we thought we knew. That’s where the fun begins whether it be digging through bins in record shops or tapping the “discover” button in your streaming service.

 

Copy editor: Dan Rubin

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2 Responses to A jungle out there?


  1. Even the impossibility of writing about genres and classifications demonstrates the quicksand of the post-modern world, does it not?
    Having recently attempted a brace of 100w descriptions of 12 music genres, I can confidently support the conclusion: Read the label but trust your ears.
    Cheers.

  2. Grover says:

    David and I had an excellent chat about how context is so important for music. David Byrne has a great TED talk on how space and architecture affect the creation of music and how it can be enhanced and atered by different contexts. Well worth watching!

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