Can't Silence This Monk

Jazz is terminally ill. That most American of musical genres is in serious danger of dropping dead, struck down by an incurable condition known as apathy. No one cares about jazz any more. But you know what? Jazz has grown boring anyway. Just look at all these pompous artistes tooting their horns without any sense of showmanship, without personality, so serious in their work they've forgotten that music is supposed to be fun. Unfortunately for them, fun and character -- two essential ingredients to any kind of saleable artistic endeavor -- are sorely lacking in the image jazz artists so often present, when they bother to present any image at all beyond that which can be gleaned from deeply theoretical, professorial-style interviews in any number of musicians-only publications.

Jazz wasn't always like this. Think about the public persona, the Q-rating, as it's now known, of old-time cats such as Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller. Today jazz artists rarely attain that level of across-the-board recognizability. Sure, that's due in part to situations beyond the control of most musicians. But it certainly doesn't help that the vast majority of these tremendously talented individuals have forgotten one hugely important element: It's entertainment, man, not a lecture. Like it or not, there's more to entertainment than hitting the right note.

So until jazz musicians themselves wake up and smell the brass polish, most music fans, including many potential-but-as-yet-unaware jazz supporters, are going to continue to echo one very definitive chorus: Screw jazz; let's rock.

That hurts, doesn't it, jazz fans? Especially for you few lonely die-hards, you true jazz connoisseurs, clinging desperately to your icons, your deities: Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk -- you can't stand to hear that kind of talk. Have another glass of Cabernet, though; bury yourself in the comfort of your standards, your history. Everything will be just fine.

Yeah, right.
"Jazz has been committing suicide for quite a few years," shouts jazz bandleader Thelonious Sphere Monk, Jr., or T.S. Monk, as his fans know him. "It just happens to be such a wonderful art form, such a strong art form, that we haven't been able to kill ourselves yet. But where are we? We're in our own little world. And that doesn't make much sense, because if you're not touching base with the mainstream, you're committing suicide."

No need for an assist from Dr. Kervorkian. According to Monk, the jazz industry is doing the deed all by itself. Understandably, as a band leader and the son and former bandmate of a jazz legend (T.S. began a two-year stint drumming with his father's band at the age of twenty), that makes him a little nervous. It makes him somewhat unhappy. Oh, all right, why be polite? It pisses him off.

Consequently, T.S. is campaigning for a wholesale change in the way jazz is marketed. In fact, in the seven years since he fully embraced his heritage and released his first jazz album, Take One (1991), he has become one of the most ardent agitators for the complete retooling of the genre's public image. "If jazz were the finest tomato paste in the world," he analogizes, "and if it were sitting on a shelf in the biggest supermarket in the world, I would have to say that its problem is that all the other tomato pastes on the shelf have shiny, gleaming aluminum cans with fabulous artwork on the front, enticing you and attracting your eye. And people are buying them. Jazz is on the edge of the shelf, in an old, rusty tin can, with a tattered label. And we're sitting in there saying, 'How come nobody's buying the best tomato paste in the land?' This is the problem."

He's right. It's true that jazz is, by and large, living in the past, dying in the present. It was once America's pop music. Ubiquitous. High and mighty. Untouchable by less-creative, less-spontaneous musical styles. In the early decades of this century, jazz enjoyed premier status in dance clubs and concert halls throughout the land. It was a fun music, a good-time, crazy sound that hit the masses where they lived. Essentially, in the days of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, jazz was a party and everybody was invited. Then came bebop. "You have to understand that the bebop movement in jazz was very similar to the punk-rock movement in rock and roll," explains the 48-year-old Monk. "It was very underground, it was very political, and it was not smiled upon by the establishment. All of a sudden this music went from being the mainstream music of the country to going in a direction that's politically incorrect.

"That created a problem with the marketing of jazz. How do you market a Thelonious Monk? We know how to market Duke Ellington, we know how to market Louis Armstrong. How do you market a John Coltrane, a Charlie Parker? They're playing this wild stuff and we don't know what it is. When jazz turned in the direction of bebop, that was almost like a communist movement. They basically rolled out the old guard to disassociate from beboppers. Guys like Louis Armstrong and these heavy-duty, established guys basically said that bebop wasn't cool."

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Adam St. James