Man, Nicholas Payton sure knows how to rile people up…
I’m not going to re-hash the whole thing here, all the back-and-forth between Payton and intelligent (Marcus Strickland) and idiotic (Brent Black) dissenters is out there if you care to read it. Payton’s basic argument, I think, is that the word “jazz” is too loaded with cultural, racial and economic connotations to allow musicians to create and profit freely. Basically, if you want to play jazz, then that label will constrain you. Payton attacks the term “jazz”, proclaiming it died in 1959 and even going as far as to put it on par with the n-word, among other quasi-outrageous/blasphemous/ludicrous claims.
I see where Payton is coming from regarding the term “jazz” and the constraints, limitations and expectations it places on artists. I understand wanting to be free from such a label and the 100 years of baggage it carries. Jazz must die, and with it the boxes it puts artists in.
However, can’t the same be said of just about any genre label? The very existence of genre is based on limitations and expectations. Once you name something, you define it. You forever limit it to that definition. To me, this is what Miles and Duke were against. This is where Wynton Marsalis butts heads with those who bristle at his rigid definition of jazz. It makes sense, especially for artists who play a music that is considered passe by so much of modern culture, to want to shake free of a brand that constrains.
Payton declares jazz dead and plants his flag in a new genre he names Black American Music. I have two problems with the Black American Music label. The easiest problem is that it is simply too broad to accurately describe any one type of music. Under the heading of Black American Music we could place Jazz, R&B, Hip-Hop, Gospel, Blues, Ragtime, Funk… the list could go on. While it is completely true to say that these are all forms of Black American Music, and even share the same roots (and I do like that the name focuses on credit where credit is due), I don’t think it is descriptive enough or narrow enough to ever be adopted by the general public as a way of describing what kind of music they like. As freeing as it would be for musicians it would be useless to most audiences.
Which brings me to the larger problem with the label Black American Music, which is that it is still a label. I think labels are woven more deeply into our culture than most of us would like to admit. When people say they are jazz fans, this statement implies so much more about them than simply the kind of music they like. Same for punk fans, hip-hop fans, country fans- these are not just styles of music, but cultural identifiers. It speaks to what is on your iPod, sure, but also what is in your closet, what is on your TV, what is on your book shelf, what kind of movies you like. In some instances it speaks to your socioeconomic position and even to who you’ll be voting for in the next election.
Are these labels a good thing? I can’t see how they are. They’re convenient, especially for record labels and bloggers, but they only serve to build walls between music and, eventually, between music fans. To really break down these walls we don’t need better labels, we need no labels.
How freeing is that? The thought dawned on me as I was looking over Ted Gioia’s list of the 100 Best Albums of 2011 that I wouldn’t have given 75% of these albums a chance at all, based solely on genre. My listening time is precious, and with such a massive amount of good music out there, both new and old, I’ve used genre labels to whittle down the options to something (somewhat) more manageable. If these labels didn’t exist, I would be forced to approach everything from a more open-minded place. The worlds of music currently stored under R&B, Hip-Hop, Rock, Classical, Country, as well as Jazz would all be able to meld into one new genre, with the only unifying requirement being that I dig it. It’d be the Shit I Dig section.
From now on, that’s what I listen to: Shit I Dig. That’s what I write about: Shit I Dig. That’s what I play: Shit I Dig.