* This was originally written in 2013.
Now that everyone knows how I feel about Christmas music, I’ll now punish you with my Top 10 list of non-cheesy Christmas albums!
10. “Striking 12” by Groovelily. Okay, so this isn’t technically a Christmas album, but it is a holiday album, specifically New Year’s. This band is a theatrical/pop/rock trio (for lack of a better term), consisting of electric violin, keyboards, and drums. All three members share lead vocal chores, to great effect.
This live recording is a modern adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl” that is at times poignant, beautiful, and hilarious. My favorites include the haunting “It’s Coming Down,” which I used to listen to in our apartment in Kiev while watching the snow fall on winter evenings. Very cozy. I also love “Give the Drummer Some” (of course) and “Screwed Up People Make Great Art,” the title of which speaks for itself.
9. “Merry Christmas” by Mariah Carey. I can’t believe I’m putting this on here, but it’s to appease the popsters out there. If you have to listen to an album of pop Christmas music, this is the one. The reverent “Jesus Born on this Day” and “Joy to the World,” which combines the Christmas carol with the “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” to great effect, are the highlights for me.
8. “Heaven and Nature Swing” by Phil Driscoll. In case you don’t know, the best kind of Christmas music is jazzy, and this big band record is chock full of wonderful arrangements by Ralph Carmichael. Phil Driscoll is a singer and trumpet player. He can play trumpet very high and loud, but he’s not a jazz player. Also, thanks to the magic of multi-track recording, Phil is the entire trumpet section, which is weird. Still, it’s a great album, especially the extended jams on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
7. “A Very Veggie Christmas” by the Veggie Tales crew. I’ve listened to this at least 18,000 times (thanks to my kids) and have every word memorized. It’s kind of like a TV show without visuals. Bob the Tomato is hosting a Christmas party at his house, and we get to listen in. Like most Veggies Tales stuff, it’s very funny and cute. While in Poland last year, we ate as many of the foods as possible from the “Twelve Days of Christmas” (eight Polish Christmas dishes) from this recording. Our favorite was kielbasa.
6. “Timeless Christmas” by Denver & the Mile High Orchestra. This is a mini-big band led by another singing trumpet player. I really like this band when they’re swinging, but they can’t seem to decide whether to be jazzy or to be a rock band with horns. Anyway, there are some wonderful versions of Christmas classics (including the second-best version ever of “Little Drummer Boy” ever—the best is in my #1) along with some great originals.
5. “A Christmas Festival” by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. My family had a record of this when I was growing up, and it reminds me of my childhood. I remember the cover had Mr. Fiedler dressed as Santa and holding a large sack of toys that I thought looked pretty cool. This is classy stuff!
4. “Christmastime” by Michael W. Smith. This one’s for Kendra, but I have to admit, as another “poppy” Christmas album, this is pretty good. He’s got a wide variety of material, and it has kind of a timeless quality, as opposed to flavor-of-the-month-type stuff.
3. “Chestnuts Roastin’” by Nat “King” Cole. This set of songs has been released under various names over the years, but this is the version I have. We also had a record of this growing up (under a different name), and I can picture my mom decorating the living room with this playing, so there’s a real sentimental value here. And of course, it’s the definitive version of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” that you’ve all heard a million times.
2. “When My Heart Finds Christmas” by Harry Connick, Jr. So far HC has released three Christmas albums, but this is the first and (in my opinion) best. It has some of the hippest swinging tunes you’ll hear on a Christmas record, along with some reverent orchestral stuff and, of course, New Orleans-inspired jams. Harry wrote several tunes, all of which are good enough to be added to the Christmas canon.
The album ends with Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” which HC does perfectly. The problem with this song is that in the show where it originally appeared, it was sung in early spring, and the singer was hoping for a long-term relationship. Just some useless trivial for you.
1. “Oy to the World!” by the Klezmonauts. If the very idea of a Klezmer Christmas album isn’t funny enough for you, then you have no sense of humor. In case you don’t know, Klezmer is Jewish music (think “Fiddler on the Roof”). About ten years ago Kendra and I were driving around the Twin Cities doing Christmas shopping, and the Klexmonauts’ version of “Jingle Bells” came on the radio. We contacted the jazz station to ask who it was, because we were laughing out loud. Imagine that tune in a minor key, complete with a lady singing in German and a violin that at one point quotes “Rhapsody in Blue” and you might get a bit of a picture of this album.
Earlier I mentioned “Little Drummer Boy,” and this features a Klezmer/rock/surf version with some killer drum breaks. It’s a very short album, which is okay, because as cool and fun as it is, the songs all start to sound the same in short order. At any rate, this is the hippest Christmas album of all time.
There you have it! I have to give honorable mention to Natalie Cole, the Vince Guaraldi Trio (Charlie Brown), Bing Crosby, and the Concordia College Percussion Ensemble, all of whom have awesome Christmas recordings. We also own “A Toolbox Christmas,” which utilizes tools musically, which is kinda cool. Sadly, we also have “The Jingle Cats,” which consists of meows recorded in various pitches and played back to the melody of Christmas carols. It’s as horrendous as it sounds. The perfect gift for your enemies this Christmas!
Excuse me while I go listen to these (except for the Jingle Cats), and Merry Christmas!
*This was originally written in December, 2013.
Those of you who know me are familiar with my attitude regarding Christmas music out of season. One of my greatest pet peeves is listening to (or worse yet, being forcing to sing) Christmas music when it’s not Christmas season. Many a soul has watched with glee as I come unhinged as the result of someone singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in September.
Why is it such a big deal? What do I have against Christmas music? The answers are, 1) it really isn’t a big deal, but I thought it would be fun to write about it, and 2) I don’t have anything against Christmas music. The fact is, I love it. That’s precisely why I don’t like hearing it out of season.
In our home, I insist on no Christmas music until after Thanksgiving. That also goes for Christmas decorations. My reason is simple: I do enjoy all that Christmas-y stuff, but I don’t want to be tired of it by the time December 25 rolls around. Do you know that the “Twelve Days of Christmas” begin on December 25?
Yet in today’s America, the stores start putting out Christmas stuff in October, and on December 26, discarded trees already start littering boulevards. After two straight months of Christmas everything, people can’t wait to move on, and that’s sad.
I prefer to wait until after Thanksgiving, so that when Christmas comes I still enjoy hearing those songs and looking at my tree. Since we have an artificial tree, we have the luxury of leaving it up as long as we want, which at this point in our lives is stretching past mid-January. It’s depressing to take down that cozy tree and lights, knowing that there are still months of bleak winter weather ahead.
But back to the music. I love music, which is another reason why Christmas music annoys me. What I mean is, everyone and their brother feels the need to record a Christmas album. People who spend the rest of the year living like there is no God suddenly start singing about Jesus, and generally get full of holiday cheer and sentimentality.
The sad truth is that most new Christmas albums are cheesy pop drivel, sung by today’s hottest pop and country “artists.” What does the average Christmas album contribute to our civilization? Do we really need to hear Justin Bieber croon about chestnuts roasting or Taylor Swift babble about the magic of the season? Do we really need another version of “Little Drummer Boy”?
Add to this the fact that some radio stations actually brag that they play all Christmas music during this time of year, as if that’s a good thing. I avoid those stations like the plague. Why don’t we have radio stations that play only patriotic music around the Fourth of July or Easter music around Easter? Or maybe just a station that proclaims it’ll only play about twenty-five different random songs covered by several thousand singers?
I propose a law that would put limits on Christmas music. Once a store or radio station hits their quota for the day, no more holiday cheer. Of course, what crazy people do in the privacy of their own home is their business. The penalty for violating this law would be the forced listening to of a handful of non-Christmas songs that have indeed been covered by a zillion artists, such as “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Carry On Wayward Son,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
There would also be a quota on how many times a certain song can be recorded. There would be strict limits on the helplessly overdone songs. Sacred examples are “Joy to the World,” “Angels We Have Heard On High,” and “Silent Night.” Secular examples would be “Jingle Bells” (including quoting the melody at the end of other songs), “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas.”
Finally, there would be strict enforcement of the proper singing of songs. In particular, the melody of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” would be sung correctly. People now sing the notes of “everywhere” (as in “over the hills and everywhere”) wrong! It should only be sung that way the last time through! Argh! Somebody stop me!
So there you have it. I apologize if I have diminished your holiday cheer. Join me next time when I break the news to you that there is indeed no Santa Claus.
I’ve been thinking about the stereotypical American tourist. Growing up in a tourist town, I had a distaste for the many out-of-towners who’d descend on my little town every summer. I didn’t realize that, without the business brought in by these people, my community would be much worse off.
There are others who look down on tourists—in particular American tourists in foreign countries. Their reputation tends to be that of overweight, obnoxious morons. Is this fair? What do you think?
A few years back, my family and I went on a cruise. Upon first glance, one might conclude that the above observation is accurate. However, a deeper look reveals that it’s wrong.
An eye-opening experience for me was a shore excursion in Belize. We were riding on a bus en route to our destination, and our native guide asked us if we were familiar with the Belize welfare system. He then explained, “It’s called ‘Get up and go to work.’”
This elicited an enthusiastic cheer from the passengers. It was then I realized that these are hard-working, middle class people. They aren’t lazy, pampered slobs. They’re law-abiding people who mind their own business and probably had to save money for a long time so that they COULD be “lazy and pampered” for a week.
But you can be sure that within days they’d be back on the job, doing their part.
It makes sense that something like a cruise would attract middle-income customers. Rich people would tend to have their own yachts rather then be crammed into a floating city with thousands of others.
So, the next time you see some American tourist (wherever it may be), remember that they probably worked very hard to earn their own little temporary slice of paradise.
This past weekend was the dreaded “Spring Ahead,” and just as predictably as the time change itself were the anguished complaints of friends lamenting this ritual. But this time it’s different: the United States Senate just unanimously (by voice vote) passed a bill making Daylight Saving Time permanent. Will it become law? Time will tell (lame pun intended).
The way some of my friends talk, it’s a wonder humanity can survive this semi-annual trauma. They quote statistics about increased car crashes, strokes, heart attacks, etc. that occur after these changes.
And parents with small children? It’s chaos for weeks as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives. Kids are waking up at all ridiculous hours and don’t get used to it until it’s almost time to change again.
Some may not like this, but it’s never been a big deal to me. “Fall back” is always fun, but does anyone actually get more sleep? I usually just stay up an hour later…and each spring I too react with, “Oh no, that’s THIS weekend?”
For “spring ahead,” I like to move my watch/clocks ahead around supper time, so I’m in the right frame of mind earlier. With our kids, we started transitioning gradually a few days early–maybe getting to bed 15 minutes earlier (later in the fall) each day as it approached. I don’t remember it being that big of a deal.
Part of me wants to ask the complainers, “Don’t you ever have to get up an hour earlier for something?” or “Don’t you ever stay up an hour past your bedtime?” and “Is your life ruined for weeks after this happens?” If that’s the case, maybe you have some bigger issues you need to address…
As far as daylight itself, therein lies the rub. The closer you live to the equator, the less variety there is in the length of your days. But where I live (only slightly north of the halfway point between equator and North Pole), there’s a relatively big change in light.
It’s usually light about an hour before and after sunrise and sunset, respectively. With daylight saving time, it starts getting light by 5:00 a.m. around the first day of summer, and it doesn’t get dark until nearly 10:00 p.m. If we were to ditch daylight saving time, it would be light by 4:00 a.m.(!) and it would be getting dark by 9:00 p.m.
How about the first day of winter? Around here, sunrise and sunset are approximately 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., respectively. If we stay on daylight saving time, it won’t start getting light until around 8:30 in the morning, ewell after most people are at work or school. On the plus side, the sun will be up till around suppertime, give or take.
My dad, who was born in 1925, has never liked daylight saving time. To this day, he’ll sometimes say what time it “really” is, before lamenting how stupid all this is.
Honestly, I don’t care that much either way. I’d prefer that it stay light later in the summer, and the winter…it’s dark and cold for months either way. I just take vitamin D and try to enjoy being cozy.
Either way, no legislation can change the amount of daylight, or the hours in a day. But it’s also nice to argue about something as mundane as this for a change.
Once upon a time, there was something called “rock ‘n’ roll.” It was new, radical music that scared the mainstream establishment. Over the course of roughly half a century, it shaped popular culture in America and beyond. Generations of kids grew up with it.
The whole rock ‘n; roll scene was, by nature, rebellious and dangerous. Parents disapproved, which meant teenagers were drawn to it. Those who performed it were seen as counter-cultural revolutionaries. At the very least, rock questioned the status quo, and at the most, completely rejected it.
In 1965, The Animals set the tone when they sang, “It’s my life and I’ll do what I want.” Twenty Years later, Twisted Sister proclaimed, “We’re not gonna take it!” You don’t have to search far to find lyrics in any sub-genre of popular music about doing your own thing, etc. The name of the metal band Corrosion of Conformity seemed to embody the rock ‘n’ roll attitude.
In the 2003 movie “School of Rock,” Jack Black’s character lectures his class, “There used to be a way to stick it to the man; it was called rock ‘n’ roll!” Are those in the modern music scene “sticking it to the man” today?
One doesn’t have to search long to find that “sticking it to the man” today basically just means swearing a lot and being as vulgar as possible (look up the lyrics to any given rap song for evidence). Just when you thought the level of hedonism in popular music couldn’t possibly be outdone, a new rap or pop “artist” proves you wrong. Even Taylor Swift cusses like a sailor in some songs, and the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” uses words typically associated with the locker room, not the stage. But is any of this really going against the status quo? It’s not like this is the America of “Leave it to Beaver”--heck, it’s not even the America of “The Simpsons.”
But today’s musical stars seem to still think they’re rebels. In 2021 the rock band Rise Against sang, “We are the nowhere generation/we are the kids that no one wants/we are a credible threat to the rules you set/a cause to be alarmed.” If you want to see Rise Against in concert, you need to be fully vaccinated, or provide proof of a negative Covid test within 72 hours of the show. Wow, they ARE a threat to the rules! Maybe they should change their name to “Bow Down To”...
What about the classic rockers? Are they still sticking it to the man? Recently, 76-year-old Neil Young demanded that the music streaming service Spotify censor someone he doesn’t like (Joe Rogan’s podcast) or else! When they refused (who’s rebelling against whom here?), his music was removed from their platform. Those old hippies can no longer stream his music on Spotify, which I’m sure has them all in a quandary.
Neil Young is well-known for writing the anti-establishment song “Ohio” about the Kent state shootings of war protesters in 1970. He also wrote, “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World,” which as a side note was used by the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. There’s so much I could say about all of this, but I’m sure you’re intelligent enough to appreciate the mountains of irony herein.
But wait, there’s more!
In late 2021, the popular rock band the Foo Fighters refused to play a show in Minneapolis. Why? Those rascals who run it refused to demand that everyone who attended get The Shot (or a negative Covid test). But obviously the Foo Fighters ARE indeed big rebels, because band leader Dave Grohl uses the F-word a LOT. As in basically every sentence he says. SO dangerous, so rebellious!
The self-proclaimed punk rock band The Offspring fired their drummer in 2021. His offense? He didn’t receive the Covid shot. [Note: a vaccine is intended to prevent infection and transmission of an illness, and the Covid shot does neither, hence my terminology]. Why didn’t he get the shot? Did he want to kill people? No, it turns out his doctor told him not to because of a pre-existing medical condition. He also had Covid in 2020, giving him natural immunity.
So obviously the Offspring are big fans of freedom and not letting anyone tell them what to do. I suppose you could say they encouraged rebellion–rebellion against a doctor’s advice! Way to be dangerous, boys. Actually, yes, forcing young people at little risk to Covid (but unusually high risk of adverse reaction to The Shot) to get The Shot is dangerous. So I guess they are being punk rock!
And finally, the coup de grace: The rap-rock band Rage Against the Machine demands all of their concert attendees to get The Shot (or yet again a negative test). One of their lyrics reads, “F— you, I won’t do what you tell me!” Again, so much I could say…
So, the rock ‘n’ rebels have become the very thing they made a lot of money singing against: pro-censorship authoritarians who will not tolerate dissent.
Again I ask: are there any rebels left in rock?
It could be argued that literally every Christian rock band ever has been rebellious, forsaking the popularity that could be theirs if only they wouldn’t sing about such non-rock ‘n’ roll topics as sin and forgiveness.
Then there’s Eric Clapton. The guitar legend is now one part laughingstock, one part public enemy number one. Why? He’s spoken out against The Shot (which he received, by the way). Rolling Stone (wow, people still read that?!) also added the important–and I’m sure totally accurate–word “racist” to what Mr. Clapton’s been saying. I should add that Van Morrison (the guy who wrote “Brown-Eyed Girl”) has joined him in his criticism of The Machine. They even wrote an anti-lockdown song together. Maybe they could start a band called “Criticize the Machine”... At any rate, all of this makes them evil and racist, obviously.
But I think I may have found the greatest rebel of them all. Johnny Rotten, the notorious frontman of the ground-breaking punk band The Sex Pistols, declared in 2020 that Donald Trump was the “only sensible choice” for president. You can’t get any more anti-establishment than that!
So, while most rock bands have proven that they’ll do exactly what the authorities tell them (provided it’s authorities they like), there are still a few rockers who march to the beat of their own drums.
Keep on rockin’ in the…free world?
It was about a year ago when my supervisor was chatting with me and my co-worker. He said, “Did you hear they cancelled the NCAA [basketball] tournament?”
“March Madness? You’ve got to be kidding!”
And thus, it began.
You know the story, so I won’t put you through the torture. I’ll just share one recent anecdote: a couple weeks back, in the midst of a global dramatic drop in cases and deaths, a student of mine (I’m a full-time online teacher) asked how he was to complete an assignment. It required the student to go to a grocery store and answer several questions regarding where different types of food came from, how much they cost, how they were displayed in the store, etc.
The student (a high school senior) said he wasn’t comfortable going to a grocery store, because he has young siblings “and we’re taking Covid really seriously.” Aside from shock and anger at those who have caused children like this to be afraid of going to the grocery store, it got me thinking: When will it end?
At what point can we “go back to normal” and all that entails? From my observation, some people will NEVER go back. There are people who will ALWAYS wear masks, NEVER go to a concert/game/etc. again, and generally live out their days enslaved to FEAR. The media groomed us for this nearly from the beginning with the mantra, “The new normal.”
That’s what this has been about from the very beginning: FEAR. I wrote a couple blogs about it nearly a year ago now. Aside from the obvious facts that told me that the vast majority of the population had nothing to fear from The Virus, I had recently experienced a miracle (truly a deliverance) from fear of sickness that plagued me from early in my childhood. That made the wanton barrage of FEAR that much more repugnant to me.
So, we have an entire planet bound by FEAR. It’s been obvious to many for a long time that facts (“science and data”) actually have very little to do with public health policy. For example, here in Minnesota, the governor has decided that it’s safe to have outdoor gatherings of 150, but the ball stadiums can have 10,000. What data determined this? And why can’t I find scientific studies that prove cloth face masks are an effective tool against spreading this (or any other) virus? I could go on and on.
While I think some politicians truly are drunk on the power they’ve gained through this, I think many (I don’t have any idea what fraction) simply have too much invested to go back now. Nobody wants to admit they’re wrong, so any steps toward loosening restrictions are done in tiny fits and starts.
Have you ever heard a politician admit they were wrong? Me neither. So to say something like, “You can quit wearing masks, since they clearly have a negligible effect on the spread,” is unthinkable. Instead, they’ll do something like let kids start going back to school in person once in a while, but everyone has to take xyz precautions, because “experts” say we should (despite an appalling lack of that pesky “science and data” to back it up).
Despite the best efforts of many in power, the statistics are leaking out about the collateral damage of the reaction to The Virus. The reaction (NOT The Virus) has killed far more teenagers through suicide than will ever die of the actual illness. Elderly people have been closed off from their families—how many have died of that, rather than The Virus? I just heard it reported that 2021 is expected to be a big year for divorces. Mental health issues have gone nuts across the board. I could go on and on.
Faith comes by hearing, and when you daily ingest news reports that follow the template, “[Good news about The Virus] BUT [FEAR-filled worries of what might happen],” it’s no wonder that a nearly zero-risk kid is afraid to go to the grocery store.
There are plenty of dangers out there, yet most people historically have lived their lives anyway: they ride in cars, fly in planes, eat foods with proven links to disease, etc. Why is this so different? By riding in a car, do you deny that car accidents are real? Yet in the past year, it seems that anyone who questions the talking points on The Virus is accused of pretending it’s not real, not loving their neighbor, killing Grandma, etc.
I’ve heard that some people in the Twin Cities have yard signs that read, “In Fauci We Trust.” Aside from the obvious idolatry (there’s plenty to go around on all sides), the fact that these people will do whatever one man says is pretty scary to me. Apparently, until Fauci says it’s safe, these people will continue to hide away, stroking FEAR as if it’s a beloved pet.
Nearly a year ago, someone in power at the time commented, “The cure can’t be worse than the disease.” Well…it was, it still is, and it will continue to be, as long as we allow it.
What will it take? Apparently, the vaccine isn’t enough. Who holds the golden keys to freedom? Fauci? The CDC? The World Health Organization? CNN?
If you’re waiting for them, I have bad news for you: It’s never coming. As long as you live your life by what the media, politicians, and “experts” tell you, you’re in for a miserable existence.
A friend of mine is fond of the following story, and though it doesn’t mention FEAR specifically, it applies:
One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealously, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
“The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one that you feed.”
So, after my last series of blogs on jazz, I thought I should do two things: tell you why I like jazz, and give you a list of some jazz tunes to check to see if you like them.
In my last blog, I tried to answer the question, “Why don’t people like jazz?” So, why do I LIKE (love?) jazz? I could say a lot about this, but in a nutshell, I like jazz because it’s happy, energetic, interesting, beautiful, and cool.
Here’s a list of FUN jazz tunes to get you started.
PART V – Why Don’t People Like Jazz?
*The following was written while on vacation (when I write most of my blogs!), and is pretty much a stream-of-consciousness thing. Apologies for any inaccuracies.
So...why isn’t jazz music more popular?
Jazz is usually very fun and happy, and since most people like to have fun and enjoy being happy, it stands to reason that they should be able to enjoy this delightful art form as well.
Jazz music from the intra-[world] war period actually bore a resemblance to what passes for pop music: the songs were simple and fun; jazz had a beat, and you could dance to it. Those are timeless qualities.
And yet people just don’t like jazz—or at least, they don’t think they do. I’ve discussed a few ideas in previous posts, but simply put, the answer to why jazz isn’t more popular is: it’s not what the public wants right now. I guess that’s a “Duh” statement, but that’s the case. Tastes change; indeed, after ruling popular music for half a century, rock ‘n’ roll has lost its dominance.
But, things tend to be cyclical, so there’s a reasonable chance that jazz, in some form, will make a resurgence (this actually happened for a year or two in the late ‘90s). In the meantime, there’s no shortage of wonderful jazz (both recorded and live) to listen to.
Do you remember when, in my spine-tingling summary of jazz history (Part II), I mentioned how bebop saved jazz? It did, giving it an infinitely larger palette of harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic choices. It encouraged musicians to take risks; to avoid the same old, same old.
That’s all important (and awesome), but as is so often the case, there’s a flip side: modern (post bebop) jazz tends to focus on what the player wants, not what the audience wants. Also, the complexity limits the number of players who can pull it off. It’s a lot easier to play rock, country, blues, etc., than jazz.
And let’s be honest: most people don’t like bebop. This brings us to what is quite possibly the biggest reason jazz isn’t more popular: The average person doesn’t understand it. This doesn’t mean that people who don’t “get” jazz aren’t smart. But to go into a club and hear a band playing a hundred miles an hour with notes erupting with the ferocity of a nuclear explosion isn’t most people’s idea of a good time. It isn’t danceable, it’s hard to find a discernable melody, and it just sounds...weird.
In fact, a style called “hard bop” developed in the ‘50s as a reaction to these very issues. Groups such as Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers slowed the music down, brought back a more bluesy feel, and emphasized a big beat (Art played his drums with a heavy feel, whacking his snare on the 2 & 4 beats, foreshadowing rock ‘n’ roll).
People who don’t like jazz often complain, “It doesn’t make sense; it just seems like people are playing randomly.” Consider this: if someone speaks a language you don’t understand, it doesn’t make sense to you. It just seems like people are making random sounds (have you ever made fun of someone speaking a foreign language?). Why is this? It’s because you don’t understand the language. If you don’t understand the language (in this case, jazz), of course it won’t make sense to you. You have to learn it, which sounds like work.
The good news is, the best way to learn jazz (as a listener, anyway) is to listen to it. Better yet, it’s fun and easy. Give it a try—you won’t regret it!
PART IV – Of Venues and Attire
*The following was written while on vacation (when I write most of my blogs!), and is pretty much a stream-of-consciousness thing. Apologies for any inaccuracies.
In Part III, I discussed what I call Academic Jazz, and its influence on the culture. In this part, I’ll look at the club circuit and concert hall jazz. Have they helped jazz or held it back?
While getting to hear live jazz (whether in a club or auditorium) is awesome, there are some characteristics that are ensuring that they’ll stay that way.
There aren’t a lot of jazz artists who can successfully tour concert venues, but there are a few. Of course, how many cities can draw a big enough audience for a show like this? Not many, obviously! Harry Connick, Jr. Isn't cheap (especially if he brings his big band).
No, the club circuit is much more accessible, yet even then, do you live anywhere near a jazz club? Me neither. Most big cities have more than one jazz club, but the ones you hear about tend to be very swanky.
Herein lies what I believe is a big reason why jazz isn’t more popular: it’s earned a reputation as being snooty. Whether it’s haughty musicians who look down their noses at other players (jazz is difficult to play well), or the rich, white listeners sipping their wine while enjoying the sophisticated life, most people consider jazz as something for...snooty, rich, white people.
I have nothing against rich white people (though if they’re snooty, that’s a different story). But this perception has hurt it. And while I like the idea of dressing up out of respect for the music and its legacy, if jazz is ever to be appreciated by the common people (or hoi polloi if you’re snooty), I think some of this needs to change. Dressing up can be fun, but wearing costumes (fedoras and pinstripe suits or tuxes and evening gowns) makes jazz seem irrelevant. Remember, this music came out of Storyville (New Orlean’s red light district).
On the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty of jazz clubs that are dives. For my money, those are way cooler. Most NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana) clubs are dumps (Preservation Hall intentionally so). Jazz reflects all of life, so to keep it relegated to fancy venues just doesn’t work. The Essentially Ellington kids (see Part III) dress to the nines with suits and dresses; the Sant Andreu kids (usually) dress in T-shirts, jeans, and street shoes.
If jazz were played by normal-looking people in normal, laid-back settings, I think that could go a long way toward making it more accessible. And by all means, it’s still fun to go the ritzy route, but ultimately that’s only a roadblock to wider acceptance.
PART III – Jazz Goes to School
*The following was written while on vacation (when I write most of my blogs!), and is pretty much a stream-of-consciousness thing. Apologies for any inaccuracies.
Jazz today tends to consist of what I’ll call “Academic Jazz” (high school jazz bands and college music programs), the club circuit, and concert hall jazz.
Thank God for Academic Jazz. Most public high schools (and some middle schools) have a “jazz band.” This is probably the most effective means of exposing mass numbers of kids to music most would probably never hear otherwise.
While most kids leave jazz behind with graduation, a few will fall in love with it and continue to play. Some of those will make it a career, with most who do going into teaching subsequent generations, and a tiny fragment will become working jazz musicians (some would say that term is an oxymoron!).
As great as it is to have widespread jazz education, it is, for the most part, a cyclical institution, keeping enough interest to perpetuate itself, but having little effect on the music world as a whole.
So, is there a way for Academic Jazz to have a broader impact? I don’t know, to be honest. But I have noticed some things of interest.
In the U.S., there’s a wonderful program called “Essentially Ellington,” based out of Jazz at Lincoln Center. This program provides sheet music of (mostly) Duke Ellington music to music programs across the country (and even the world).
The program also hosts an annual contest, attracting the best high school jazz bands from across the country. There are a bunch of videos of these bands on YouTube, and they’re very impressive. The bands perform entirely from memory, and they feature improvised solos that are often fantastic. It’s wonderful to see these kids playing jazz at such a high level.
Another cool Academic Jazz program is the Big Friendly Jazz Orchestra, an all-girl jazz band from Japan. They too have some very impressive videos with precise ensemble playing (though the soloing lacks some originality). I need to note that the most recent videos I’ve seen posted from this group are at least five years old, so I don’t know if they’re still around.
As great as these programs are, however, they pale in comparison to what I’m convinced is THE greatest jazz education program in the world: The Sant Andreu Jazz Band from Barcelona, Spain.
The program was started in 2006 by Joan Chamorro, a professional jazz musician from Barcelona. Since its inception, Mr. Chamorro has deluged YouTube with a dearth of highly professional videos of his jazz kids (often accompanied by adult pros).
While professional-quality videos don’t hurt, it’s these Catalan kids who have made Sant Andreu an international phenomenon. They range in age from kindergarten (seriously) to their early twenties, though most are teenagers.
Many are multi-instrumentalists and several sing incredibly well. The ensemble playing is precise, but swinging and nuanced. And the solos…often times if I’m just listening (not watching), I can’t differentiate between the kids and the pros.
The American kids (Essentially Ellington) play great, but they tend to take a more showy, competitive approach. It’s the “I can play higher, louder, and faster than you” mindset.
In contrast, the Sant Andreu kids don’t play like they’re trying to show off. Yet, their solos are better, conveying the tone, phrasing, style, and overall musicality that better serves the music. This can be achieved only by completely immersing themselves in jazz.
Okay, I’ve really digressed here! Let’s look at the club circuit and concert hall jazz next.
I've included some old blogs along with the new. Should you ever find yourself suffering from insomnia, this is the place for you! That's as poetic as I get...