Jazz Art by Archibald Motley

Why You Need To (Forgive La La Land and) Learn the History of Jazz

Prior to the Oscars (and that ridiculous gaffe), big, bad Internet trolls and nitpickers alike were calling out La La Land for its pedantic preaching of jazz by a white man i.e. the “whitesplaining” of jazz. The picture even got a lot of flak for being indulgent and celebratory of a majorly white industry since there were no major characters of color in it (and well, Los Angelenos also took affront at the lack of gay characters as well). Meanwhile, Moonlight, the underdog for Best Picture, was the representation of all things that 2017’s movie industry needed to be: of the minorities and their struggles as well as compensation after the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversy. I’m not quite sure if I agree with all the criticism so here is a piece I started writing many weeks prior to the Oscars; it is about cutting some slack to La La Land as well as my unabashed love for jazz:

For the past couple of weeks, there’s a certain movie soundtrack that’s been on a monotonous loop on my Spotify: La La Land’s. The last time another soundtrack looped on repeat on my phone was right after I had watched and fallen in love with Whiplash. Both movies endeavored to portray the complex relationship that the contemporary world has with jazz – that of a grimacing one in Whiplash and the other of an unrequited love affair with a “dying” partner in La La Land. Damien Chazelle, the director of both movies teamed up with the same musical collaborator, Justin Hurwitz, to produce the two soundtracks and invigorate some jazz into our vernacular today. These two men have a certain point of view of jazz and their love for the music is palpable, but like everything in today’s overly sensitive world, their views are judged with caveats. Firstly, they are criticized for being “white” and preaching about a “black art form.” Secondly, they are criticized for harping on about “old jazz” and for lamenting its demise when others believe that jazz is doing exactly what it set out to do: adapting and evolving with time. There is no singular “old jazz” or a collective “new jazz;” perhaps, I can buy into that argument but, I can also appreciate that Hurwitz and Chazelle are romantics paying homage to a time when jazz reigned supreme – when the industry was littered with geniuses such as Parker, Armstrong, Gillespie, etc. You don’t have to be of a singular skin color to appreciate the wondrous nature of jazz, surely?

At this point, I must hearken back to my own introduction to this sporadic, seismic music. Having finally gained unrestricted access to my elder sibling’s extensive CD collection one day, I was intrigued by a certain gentleman blowing effusively into a trumpet on the cover. His name was Miles Davis and the album was Kind of Blue – the inimitable highest selling jazz album of all time. Inserting the disc into the player, I waited patiently as the soothing then mellifluous sounds interspersed with erratic notes serenaded me that afternoon. Jazz stirred my mind, goading it to corners of my clavicle that I did not know existed. As sporadic as the rhythms were, they stirred with a feverish energy, regaling stories of struggle, life and then cheerful abandon. Miles and his Quintet were sharing experiences that I had yet to fathom as I started to shake my head and tap my feet to the rhythm. My fate was sealed: I had been converted to a jazz lover instantaneously and labeled myself as one of its lofty defenders forthwith. I detested anyone who claimed that “jazz put them to sleep” or that they didn’t like jazz. How could someone singularly define a genre that evaded conform and how could anyone be put to sleep when a bevvy of sounds are thrown at you?

In La La Land (sorry for spoilers), Sebastian counters Mia’s similar concerns with jazz by giving her a slight history lesson; he says, in so many words, that it was the music of the African slaves and their drums. What began as drumming sessions in the Deep South, mainly in Congo Square in New Orleans at the turn of the last century, became a path-breaking form of expression. This music captivated the nightlife of that eclectic city and soon, racial lines started to blur – at least during hazy nights of jazz strumming. These “jazz” musicians with their Dixieland-like swing and improvisational playing, unable to speak their minds, surrendered themselves to the music and spoke a language far more piercing, far more heartbreaking. These men practiced feverishly – some of them, such as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong with his “ancestral African lip and tongue” were just better suited for the instrument, bringing a feverish virtuoso to the scene. This was the “Africanization of American music.” Each artist had his or her own set of influences and experience to bring to the table and since the music form was based on the improvisation “jamming” format, no two performances were ever the same and no two songs or styles were ever the same – also informed by Sebastian to Mia in the movie. Jazz felt like an oration – it grew every session and changed with every passing day. Because of its zany structure, jazz has a plethora of styles from bebop to swing to cool to fusion, etc. At the height of its popularity, the bebop genre reigned supreme. The stalwarts of bebop included the two men who Miles Davis claimed encapsulated jazz; he once said, “you can describe jazz in four words: Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong.” So, like Sebastian in the film, and probably Chazelle and Hurwitz in real life, I can understand the exasperating feeling of being around “lazy listeners” who find the instrumental virtuosity of jazz musicians to be pedantic or high-brow. However, at its root, jazz was the music of the lower-class, it was anti-bourgeoisie, even detested by high-profile black Americans in the pre-WWII era. But, when compared to today’s monochrome, highly symmetric music, it can seem esoteric.

Answering the question as to why white men shouldn’t try to “whitesplain” jazz, my attempt might be futile because jazz has been elevated to a status of sanctity; it is deemed sacrilege to speak ill of it like so many do today. Mia is not the only fictional female character to denounce jazz but Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, as well as Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep, have done so before her thus, jazz has become a running joke. Jazz aficionados are left scrambling trying to defend it like I did for many years and Sebastian does in present-day LA. One could argue that all the greatest jazz innovators were black with few white jazz musicians or even Latino ones but this argument seems to me stemmed from a personal vendetta of antiquated views rather than a legitimate rational one. It was raspy Louis Armstrong who had once crooned, “My only sin is in my skin. What did I do to be so black and blue?” Those musicians were black and blue, lamenting being a black man in America, underpaid, underappreciated, underutilized. The very essence of jazz is rooted with the plight of black Americans so I can understand being emotional about others trying to infringe upon it, and perhaps trying to taint it. But sometimes, the music just needs to play and whomsoever wishes (regardless of race or color), need to dance to its beat.

Going back to the history of the music, its music pioneers became known as rebels in a stunted conservative American society during the Prohibition, wherein jazz was known as the devil’s music – the swing was considered to be frivolous – detracting from church music. But unlike popular belief, these musicians were not abject usurpers creating a miasma in society. These fellows were influenced by the likes of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and other cool cats as Miles affectionately called them. Miles, certainly my favorite jazz musician, was a flawed man but even in the tortuous life he led, he knew when to recognize greatness and how to pay homage to them. A lifelong fan of Charlie “Bird” Parker (as Parker was affectionately known because he would squeak on reed), he said that when Parker entered the scene, inspired by those European masters, concocting his own flair, he stirred a nation on its path to freedom. Other jazz musicians came to be because of Bird and years later, other artists such as Nina Simone, Michael Jackson, etc. – all surfaced because of the groundwork by Bird. Charlie Parker, because of his short lifespan now remains in the hearts of jazz aficionados as legendary anecdotes, which probably surfaced to explain his dexterity (to the craft) and creative intelligence – he was, according to Miles again, a musical genius. Bird warned of a foreshadowing drug that consumed him but many jazz greats were consumed by their inner darkness. His untimely death at 34 was one of the greatest losses of music history. He gave voice to a marginalized race of people thus he was simply an artist voicing his opinions and stirring up others.

Now, why does it matter that jazz is being preached by a white man? I’m a brown woman who is just as much captivated by jazz as Sebastian, Chazelle and Hurwitz. Jazz has given each of us so much that it is only befitting that we share our passion for its beautiful glory days. As I sit down reflecting on my formative years, I can see definitively through my current slightly cynical eyes, that when one is untainted, one can absorb and develop a greater affinity for things that adulthood does not seem to offer as frequently. Jazz has become such a fixture in my writing routine that I am so grateful to have discovered it and become enamored of it in my youth. Having recently visited an exhibition on Marc Chagall and his deep connection with music, it became clear to me how the great maestros that had inspired Davis and Parker – Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and, Beethoven had stirred his mind to paint, to create operatic experiences and ballet performances in addition to his paintings; he lived in a consummate world of reinvention. Music gives us so much that we owe it to give something back. Kudos to La La Land and Whiplash, and perhaps a minuscule brava to me for writing this piece?

Sadia Sarwar is an upcoming author with plenty of opinions and rarefied tastes. Follow her on @sadiamhsarwar. This post has been edited by Anika Huq. 

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