Requiems Not Required: Jazz and Classical

Just today, I was sitting in the kitchen of a post production audio house – my current temporary office – and found myself inexplicably tuning in to what was playing on the radio: Schubert’s Symphony No.5. It’s a dreadfully beautiful piece of music. I say dreadfully, because it’s so evocative as to remove my mind from the mountain of very important things I have to tend to.

Thing is, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in the building who could either name what was being played, or who would allow themself to be affected (nay swoon). But it’s not like I set out one day in my youth, predetermined to “learn” classical music. I don’t think anyone does, regardless of what it is we end up liking. Often we come across these things circumstantially. If it hadn’t been for my watching A Death in Venice on TV one night long ago, I probably wouldn’t have sought Schubert’s symphony, nor the original story by Thomas Mann. I should also thank the old Warner Brothers cartoons, in particular the Bugs Bunny classic The Rabbit of Seville (riffing brilliantly and faithfully on Rossini’s Barber of Seville).

Jazz came to me later, introduced by my flipping around the radio, looking for something other than Top-40 pap. And like everything I love, once I get hooked I find myself wanting to know more, filling in the holes illuminated by the light of my curiosity. I’m prone to infatuation and, not entirely unlike the tragic protagonist of Mann’s Venice, find myself obsessed to learn as much as possible about these things.

The problem is that both Classical and Jazz, while not dead, are held in a stasis by so-called Classical and Jazz “lovers” who seek, paternalistically, to coddle them like glass-boned children, halting their growth (intentionally or not) and – as a dire result – their acceptance to new generations.

To some, this statement is nothing short of heresy. In Reflections of a Siamese Twin, John Ralston Saul – writing about the aggressive protectionism of French language in Quebec – made two valuable insights which also reflect on the state of Classical and Jazz music. First, that culture is not something which society should attempt to create, control, or destroy to meet our fashionable needs – it’s a living organism which follows its own path. Second, that the only languages which need protection are dead languages. That is to say, he was criticising those who strove to legally protect and manipulate something which didn’t require it in the first place.

The problem isn’t that most of us don’t tune-in to Classical or Jazz radio. The problem is that most everything programmed on these stations (with varying degrees, depending upon where you’re located) is safe, old, and terribly predictable. Say what you will about the soulless depths of corporate-run, computer-programmed Top 40 radio, but one thing you can’t deny is that they play songs written during this century (already nearly 8 years old). Jazz and Classical radio suffers from a predilection: only play the standards. Their philosophy: who cares if you play three different interpretations of Lullaby of Birdland seven times a day – it’s a standard. Who cares if the daily playlist is the same tired variation of Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven – they’re popular.

They’re partially correct: Lullaby of Birdland is a standard, and those three dead white German guys are popular. For both genres, deservedly so. But, in a contemporary sense, it’s only to the extent of pleasing people who have no desire to see either Classical or Jazz develop in different directions. When was the last time you heard anything from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew on the radio? That album was released almost 40 years ago – when was the last time you heard a single Classical composition written within this time?

We can’t rely on movie soundtracks and cartoons to bring notice to the brilliance of older forms of music – if we do, they will always remain “older forms of music” rather than the living, breathing spirits which they are. We do both Classical and Jazz a disservice by sneering at contemporary innovation – I contend that it’s the snobs who have done the most damage. We can’t rely solely on the likes of Wynton Marsalis as appointed sentinels to tell us what is or what is not jazz music. We can’t forsake contemporary composers, like Alexina Louie, to keep programming the same tiresome Mozart/Brahms/Beethoven lineup for our orchestras.

People should be freely exposed to different forms of music. Often. However, it should be neither prescriptive nor mandated. Assuming we are only as developed as the environment we are exposed to, it makes critical sense to see, hear, and experience as many things as possible. It is for this reason that protectionism makes no sense.

[author’s note: when using the terms “Classical” and “Jazz”, I’m using popular terminology. Technically, within both (admittedly very broad) genres, there are countless sub-categories (Baroque, Be-Bop, Fusion, Romantic…).]


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