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The Popular Resurgence of Jazz?

Publié le 1 mars, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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A new incarnation of popular music singers can be heard playing their craft on popular airwaves. The recent parade of jazz-oriented artists such as Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Michael Bublé, Jamie Cullum, and others have many adult contemporary listeners thinking “maybe I actually do like jazz,” and tempts many jazz practitioners into whispers of a word: “revival.” But is this true? Might the popular music scene actually find itself in danger of engendering a jazz renaissance?

Red Wall
Jon Nicholls, Red Wall, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

The popularity of this new type of jazz artist is much more widespread than the occasional hit single. Michael Bublé has sold over 11 million albums worldwide. He was awarded 4 Junos in 2006 alone, making him the most decorated artist at the Canadian music awards ceremony that year. Bublé has also been nominated for 2 Grammy awards in 2008 (following nominations in 2006 and 2007), for the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. Diana Krall has also received international fame and has participated in multiple world tours. She has recived 2 Grammy awards. Her Look of Love album (2001) debuted at number 9 on the Billboard pop charts (the first time a jazz album has ever opened in the Billboard top 10), and the album has gone on to sell over 1 million copies in the US alone. And the pianist/singer Norah Jones has outsold both of these Canadian artists; album sales from her first (2004) album are upwards of 20 million worldwide. Sales from all three of her albums are over 16 million in the US, and top 39 million copies worldwide. Jones has won 8 Grammys, and her albums are recognized as gold or platinum in over 21 countries. There are more: from Britain’s Jamie Cullem to Canada’s Matt Dusk to the United States’ Jane Monheit; singers employing a style of jazz and jazz standards are enjoying a marked level of popularity. Even artists not traditionally associated with the jazz genre have borrowed materials from the jazz canon. Rockers such as Rod Stewart, Robbie Williams, and even rap artist Queen Latifah, have released albums of jazz “standards”.

New Sounds, Old Stories

But what exactly is this new breed of popular jazz 1? Given that jazz music has such a diverse and checkered history (ranging from folk music played by racial minorities to widespread mainstream popularity to a highbrow elite art form) what type of jazz are these new jazz artists performing2? Well, notably, all of these new jazz artists are singers, who connect with their audiences through the use of lyrics. Lyrics, as opposed to purely instrumental performances, givethe casual listener the song’s meaning (“Oh yes, this is a song about love…”), instead of forcing them to invent their own meaning. These types of acts also concentrate their jazz leanings on previously established styles and standards. Much of their material comes from earlier pop and show tunes of the 1940s and 1950s, written by composers such as Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, or the Gershwins. This set of standard material is often dubbed the “American Songbook,” and while some of it has been adopted, reformed, and included in the contemporary jazz canon, much of it remains outside the jazz genre3. Further, because of their origins in earlier time periods, the music is heavily nostalgic, evoking feelings of reflection to a (perceived) simpler, more innocent time4. This is more than an axiomatic characteristic of creating a nostalgic musical feeling: these revivalists are deliberately seeking the soft centre of jazz music’s past. For example, in the liner notes to one of his albums, Matt Dusk articulates his desire to make “a record that can be enjoyed without offending” – that offends neither by covering controversial material nor offering any dissonant sounds. These singers are not offering new version’s of Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee, they are taking old show tunes and ballads. The approach taken by these singers deliberately stays away from things too edgy or harmonically sophisticated. As one journalist put it, these singers “allow casual listeners to experience something ‘jazzy’ or jazz-like’ without having to suffer through all those fancy chord changes and tedious, squawking solos”5.

To underline the nostalgic mission of these new jazz singers, it is interesting to note that they share a direct musical lineage with jazz singers of the 1940s and 50s (indeed, they re-release many of the same tunes as these older singers). During the 1940s, as the Swing Era (monopolized by the big dance band) declined, the record industry increasingly turned to sweeter sounds and the stardom of big singers. Instead of being featured soloists on a few tunes within a concert, singers themselves were becoming the stars. By 1944, singers like Frank Sinatra (and later Sammy Davis, Jr., Paul Anka, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, etc.) had asserted their independence from big bands and, within a few years, the Swing Era had been overcome by the era of the ‘big singer’6. Major record companies were able to consolidate production with singers by using a small number of bands tied directly to the label to back up their entire stable of artists7. These singers became known as “Crooners:” extremely popular singers with massive public followings (the original teen idols) who could deliver soft, seductive songs about love, relationships, and the lighter stuff of life. The tradition of the crooner continued through later years with pop artists such as Burt Bacharach and Tom Jones in the 1960s and 70s.

And this is exactly the lineage the present-day jazz crooner employs. Diana Krall, for example, cites Bing Crosby as the strongest influence on her style and direction: “I studied Bing Crosby very heavily. There was one period where that was all I was listening to, and I was learning standards from Bing Crosby. I loved the way he sang…”8 Besides standards, Krall also occasionally covers other former crooners such as Burt Bacharach on her albums, and her bestselling 2001 The Look of Love featured many songs which were arranged by Claus Ogerman, the composer/arranger who was responsible for Frank Sinatra’s hits in the 1960s. Other singers draw from much the same sort of material, though they may add some contemporary touch on their own. Michael Bublé and Norah Jones skillfully blend old classics with their own kindred writings. Jamie Cullum takes old classics and adds a small touch of the new – not distorting the original content, but beatboxing or arranging the tune into his own precocious style. In this way, these present-day crooners can be understood as Bacchanalian bedfellows of popular singers of the 40s and 50s who had similar approaches and musical material9.

It is most interesting to note that, while extremely popular with the general public, these crooners are often less celebrated by the jazz press and practitioners. Indeed, the jazz tradition has a dichotomous relationship with these artists; some critics are much more comfortable castigating them as outcasts from the jazz community than celebrating them as harbingers of a new jazz upswing. The criticisms range from patronizing to downright nasty. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff speaks of Diana Krall’s musicianship, saying that she has “no spirit, no fire, no sense of the pulse of jazz […] she’s a cabaret singer”10. Greg Buium refers to Krall’s music as “musical fossil fuel,” saying that “her stuff would have been behind the times 40 years ago”11.

Why are critics fit to upbraid these artists so vehemently? Are jazz critics just angry, or is there something else fueling their revulsion? Well, some of them may indeed be angry, but the short answer is that they are protecting the current high culture status of jazz; they are seeking to cast out all examples of music which does not ‘correctly’ meet the requirements of the established jazz narrative. Another review of Diana Krall affixes the crooner within this historical narrative: “Once upon a time, jazz was popular music and that’s the tradition she [Krall] is in”12. However, if this new crooner can be thrust out of the privileged circle because he or she does not allegedly uphold ‘modern’ standards, this begs the question of what is this modern thing called jazz?

Serious Music

Speaking at an academic conference of jazz educators in the 1980s, Billy Taylor stated that: “Jazz is America’s Classical Music. It is both a way of spontaneously composing music and a repertoire. […] Though it is often fun to play, jazz is very serious music.” Taylor’s comments underscore the myriad of changes that jazz music underwent after swing music fell from popularity in the late 1940s. If jazz had been America’s popular music during the 1930s and 40s, it became America’s classical music during the 1950s and 60s. The bebop movement of the 1940s marked the beginning of jazz’s transition into elite art. The expansion of musical form and preeminence of technical virtuosity, begun during the bebop movement, continued during the period 1949-1955; jazz rapidly began to fill out its modernist pretensions, expanding its styles and technical virtuosity, in what Paul Lopes calls a “modern jazz renaissance”13. In the 1960s and beyond, the elite jazz art world continued to develop and enshrine itself within elite institutions and academia14. This is the current status of jazz music today: the dominant narrative of jazz has firmly established it as high culture – highly specialized performers offering technically complex music which is judged by a small circle of educated, articulate critics.

So, it is this positivistic formal tradition that allows critics and patrons to define the work of the current crooner as not jazz. They make their living by knowing what jazz is; it is complex, difficult, elite, and the pretty, simple, nostalgic renderings of 1940s show tunes offered by the current variety of crooner certainly does not measure up. Some brief comparisons of form between ‘high’ modern jazz and this new/old ‘popular’ jazz reveal some intriguing and telling differences. Modern jazz is largely instrumental in nature, with extended and technically complex improvised solo sections. The crooners are all singers, and solo work is generally contained to a short chorus bookended by vocal verses15. Modern jazz does not contain anywhere near the same amount of repetition found in most vocal jazz songs. And similarly, most of the crooner’s material relies on written arrangements, songs that can be performed again the same way on multiple nights – itself generating a level of repetition and familiarity for audiences16.

It is interesting to note that, historically, listeners have shown that they like relatively uncomplicated music. This places them at direct odds with serious jazz critics, who require a sufficient complexity of form and performance practice in order to justify sustained criticism. Therefore, we can see that the definition of ‘jazz’ is a dynamic and contested term. Furthermore, there are certain factions (aligned with the current dominant narrative of jazz) who design to act as gatekeepers, able to define what is and what is not jazz.

Conclusion: The Popular Future of Jazz

Finally, we must return to our original question. Are the recent commercial successes of new jazz singers indicative of a coming popular jazz revival? Probably not. The dominant narrative of jazz since the 1960s has successfully striven to define itself as a legitimate elite art form. This form of jazz is marked by technical virtuosity, complex theoretical form, and sustained criticism. The work of the new crooners does not follow this definition, instead relying upon simpler nostalgic material to gain popularity; this is the fundamental distinction between the two. The music perpetrated by the crooner will not be able to fulfill the current definitions of jazz. Despite the recent popularity of the new jazz singers, their success poses very little danger of revivifying the genre of jazz. This is because jazz will remain too complex, too elite. Under the leadership of crooner artists, the “jazz” genre may enjoy some flirtations with popular interest, but will not again ascend to the popular dominance it enjoyed in its past.


1. It would stand to mention that many of the terms I use in my article are unfortunately loaded with contexts. “Popular” music, “Elite” music, “High” culture (and the unspoken-but-implied counterpart “low” culture), “crooner,” and others carry with them allusions of certain types of class. However, while I am forced to adopt this terminology for ease of reference, the connotations need not necessarily come with. While I believe that a division between “elite” and “popular” music can be made based on formal and critical distinctions, I in no way mean to imply that one form of culture is better or more worthy than another.
2. Kart, Larry. “Provocative Opinion: The Death of Jazz.” Black Music Research Journal 10.1 (1990): 76-81.
3. Berlau, John. “Music to Live By.” Insight on the News (6 May 2002).
4. Buium, Greg. “Name Brand: How Diana Got her Groove Back.” (CBC: 5 Dec. 2005), found online at <www.cbc.ca/arts/music/dianakrall.html>.
5. Mayer, Andre. “Crossing Over with Michael Bublé.” (CBC: March 31, 2005), found online at <www.cbc.ca/arts/music.html>.
6. DeVeaux, Scott. Birth of the Bebop. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press (1997): 338-340.
7. Lopes, Paul. The Rise of a Jazz Art World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U. P., 2002).
8. Berlau, John. “Music to Live By.” Insight on the News (6 May 2002).
9. There are some who would take affront at my quick and easy categorization of all new
jazz-esque singers as crooners. The term may carry with it negative connotations, imply a lack of substance or skill on the part of the performer and a lack of depth or intelligence on the part of the listener. This is not my intention. The categorization of an art form is always a precarious challenge. Not all crooners render the same songs, or in the same manner, of course. What I am intending to do is draw out reference points common across all these singers. But while the individual styles and historical time periods referenced may be different for each of these crooners, the fact that they are drawn from previous styles provides an establishing consistency to this claim.
10. Berlau, John. “Music to Live By.” Insight on the News (6 May 2002).
11. Buium, Greg. “Name Brand: How Diana Got her Groove Back.” (CBC: 5 Dec. 2005), found online at <www.cbc.ca/arts/music/dianakrall.html>.
12. Berlau, John. “Music to Live By.” Insight on the News. (6 May 2002).
13. Lopes, Paul. The Rise of a Jazz Art World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U.P., 2002).
14. Harris, Tyler. All the Things You Are: Jazz History and a Theory of Cultural Flows. Carleton University, MA Thesis, 2006: 139-140.
15. Byler, Robert. “Traditional Jazz Resurgence is Illustrated by Representative Profiles of Current Bands.” Popular Music and Society 10 (1985).
16. Gridley, Mark C. “Why Have Modern Jazz Combos Been Less Popular than Swing Big Bands?” Popular Music and Society 9 (1983).

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