Lately I’ve been giving more thought to the word “jazz”, and what it means to categorize any art. Study any of the greats in this music, and you’ll find a very uneasy relationship between the its greatest practitioners and the word that supposedly describes the music they make. A long list of jazz legends loathed the term: Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus – and the list goes on. Their reasons were artistic, cultural and political – here, I’m interested in the artistic toll categorization takes on something creative.
I recently watched Mel Torme on his episode of “Jazz Casual” (my new YouTube obsession). The host always asks his interviewees questions such as “what is Jazz?” When questioned about jazz singing, Mr. Torme went down a list of singers he felt were jazz singers and ones that weren’t (if you’re wondering, Mark Murphy and Frank Sinatra weren’t, and he quipped that Billy Holiday was like spinach: “you may not like it but it’s good for you.”) This interview did little to endear me to Mr. Torme, but it did make me think about the dangers of categorization and any art form, but especially one that’s constantly evolving like this music is.
In the wine world, there are two ways of tasting: you could be told what sort of wine is in front of you, and then ascertain whether or not it is successful. This is how most people order and consume wine – there’s a producer, grape or style that you go by, and then the wine is judged by how it corresponds to your ideas about what a, say, California Zinfandel or a German Riesling are supposed to be.
The other way to taste is to do so blind – no label or introduction, simply wine in a glass. Then, using only the tools of your palate and perception, you discover what the wine is from it’s flavor profile to it’s overall quality. Words, labels and categories come after the encounter with what the wine actually is. (For those of you who are also philosophy major dropouts, this is the musical/wino version of Existentialism.)
I think if we are to have an art form as vital, dynamic and changing as this music is, we’d best be tasting blind, so to speak, as listeners and artists. Let’s allow the music to evolve, explore and develop – to define a term and then always measure what’s before you in relation to that criteria is to do a disservice to the art before you, and deprive yourself of a more full experience and certainly more expansive creativity.
Ultimately, Ellington puts it best. He acknowledged the best musicians of his day, like the late great Clark Terry, as “beyond category”. To defy category is to truly be creative, and free – which is, after all, what this thing called ‘jazz’ is really about.