A Word That Makes Me Cringe

The epitome of hipness

The epitome of hipness

One of the important thrusts of this blog, and my own nascent career in jazz, is the way that the music is represented in writing.  The internet is, of course, the place where I see most jazz writing, and after three months I’ve gotten a feel for the general writing style of the many blogs I follow.

During this time, I have noticed a few posts peppered with a word that completely distracts me from the content of any sentence in which it appears:


I first remember seeing the word come up in a post by Howard Mandel (last paragraph) and sort of rolled my eyes, in the way I used to roll my eyes at my parents’ hopeless lack of hipness.  But days later, one of my favorite musician-bloggers Andrew Durkin used it to self-identify.  Another young jazz musician and blogger whom I greatly admire, Darcy James Argue, has used the term a few times as well.  The culmination came on Thursday, when uberjazzmetablogger Patrick Jarenwattanananon used it in A Blog Supreme’s Lester Young tribute.

So is jazzer an acceptable noun to describe jazz musicians now?  After the jump, I will discuss the origins of my own issues with the word.  And there’s a picture of cucumbers.  Post your take in the comments, please!My earliest association with the word jazzer is its elongation, Jazzercise.  I remember seeing a sign for a Jazzercise class that my school bus used to pass on the way to elementary school.  Already an ardent NBA fan, I always thought that its owners were misplaced fans of the Utah Jazz.  This was, of course, before I had even heard of jazz music.  That’s already an association I’d rather not have to revisit merely to shorten the term “jazz musician.”

Fast-forward to high school, where the unhip associations really solidified.  For the first two years of high school, the jazz band was run by two cool young jazz musicians who helped out the main band director.  We trusted them, looked up to them, and checked out the “cats” they suggested we check out.  They jokingly referred to us as “kittens” — cats in the making.

After my sophomore year, the band director at my high school retired and was replaced by one of the squarest, craziest, and awful music teachers with whom I have ever shared a rehearsal room.  Not only did she push out our beloved jazz director, but she insisted on directing the jazz ensemble herself.  She was the first person to introduce me to the word jazzer, a term that she used disparagingly to describe the undisciplined improvisers who refused to sign up for Wind Ensemble.

Perhaps my own emotional associations with the word suggest that I’m making too big of a deal out of this.  But I don’t think I’m alone in hearing jazzer as the vocabulary of square, misguided band directors.  I do, however, concede that it fills an expedient role as an identifier of the overall jazz community: it describes musicians as well as fans, and all who fall under its umbrella are those devoted to participation in the jazz community.  It’s less specific than “jazz musician” and shorter than “member of the jazz community.”  It doesn’t carry the same reverence as “cat,” the term that I use most often to describe a fellow jazz practitioner.

But jazzer carries with it a certain air of nerdiness and an unwelcome vibe to the jazz discourse.  I suppose that there is opportunity for the term to be used ironically, to describe the fetishized fervor with which some people approach the music.  But I don’t see how it can be used positively; the idea of being called a jazzer again literally sends a chill down my spine.  So you won’t see any more use of the word at this site, and I strongly encourage other jazz writers and bloggers to use the term carefully.

I have absolutely no problem, however, with vegetable enthusiasts’ use of the word to describe a type of cucumber.  I just feel sorry for the cucumber.

Jazzer jazzer jazzer jazzer … maybe if I repeat it enough it will sound absurd enough to go away.  If you believe that jazzer should be saved — or you want to call out any other new arrivals to the jazz vernacular that upset you — say so in the comments below.

About Alex Rodriguez

Jazz Writing, Engaged Buddhism, Improvised Music
This entry was posted in Jazz Journalism, Resisting Definition and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to A Word That Makes Me Cringe

  1. david picchi says:

    I hear you. Most of my experiences with that word are quite similar. I heard it most often in college. As a music major, you were enrolled as either jazz, classical, or education (which generally also meant classical). Anyone who could be heard saying that word was not the former.
    I hated it. Honestly, it felt like a racial slur. And I do not know why either. What is the big deal?
    Maybe it is that it was a nickname given to a group of people by someone NOT a member of that group. I am not sure, it just sounds SO unhip. A nickname given by a person who is that unhip cannot possibly be hip, can it?
    In any case, it feels like an insult. Denigrating and belittling to what we do.
    I agree with you, “member of the jazz community” sounds way better.

    • arodjazz says:

      I think you hit the nail on the head: “a nickname given to a group of people by someone NOT a member of the group.” That’s exactly what it is — Lester Young certainly never called anyone a jazzer!

  2. Ha! This is a great essay, Alex.

    I certainly don’t begrudge you your antipathy for this word. But consider: most of the language that jazz musicians use for social purposes — to communicate with each other, or with society at large — is ripe for this sort of parody. “Cat” is a great example: while you’re right that it elicits reverence within the community (and it’s a word that I love to use for that reason too), outside of that group, it feeds frustratingly stereotypical expectations about what jazz even is. (Which I suppose is a good thing for musicians who benefit from those stereotypical expectations — but which is probably not healthy for jazz as a whole.)

    The comparison to racial (or other) slurs is interesting. One of the strategies minority groups use to deal with that sort of linguistic oppression is to proactively reinvest a given term with new meanings, in an attempt to drain it of its original negative power. See for instance what some members of the GLBT community have done with words like “queer” and “dyke” and “faggot.” As a hopeless postmodernist I want to believe in that possibility.

    For me the question is not so much whether the term is used, but whether it is used self-consciously or not. I can’t speak for the other bloggers (members of the blog community?) you mention, but in my own case, “jazzer” is always used self-consciously. In context, I hope that’s clear — especially given that I am prone to song titles like “Jazz-Pop Jerkoff,” photos of the band in a “jazz hands” pose, self-deprecating lyrics that employ silly music biz terms like “dropped” (i.e., “released”) and “joint” (i.e., “recording”), and blog posts occasionally peppered with not only “jazzer,” but “hotcha,” and “reet”!

    For me, all of this is part of a (gentle, loving) satire of the inexorably commercial environment we (as artists living in this place, and at this time) are all inevitably implicated in. (I’ve always been inspired by the thought of John Lennon going along with the request for a publicity photo but making a funny face at the moment the camera clicked.)

    • arodjazz says:

      Thanks, Andrew, for your response. I agree with everything you said there, especially the way forward that you suggest for use of the word: self-conscious, lovingly self-depricating, gently prodding. That sort of treatment (similar to the way Darcy James Argue has used it) rings very differently than the unself-conscious peppering of various non-musicians’ written jazz musings.

      On the flipside, you bring up an interesting point about the role of “jazz lingo” in its written representations (online or otherwise.) You stated that the Prez-inspired jive vocabulary — cats, hipness, cool, jive, square, whatever — lends itself to unhelpful stereotypes of jazz and its musicians. I think that you’re right there, too, in the sense that jazz journalism is journalism, not a reproduction of the oral vernacular that musicians might use. Writing in a way that ignores the conventions of standard journalistic English or splices in choice phrases from the jazz dictionary is not going to help anyone understand it better. But at the same time, using hollow-ringing, outdated square-talk like “jazzer” as if it were a standard part of the vocabulary of jazz description leads towards a different undesirable result: the acceptance of the word as a normal way to talk about jazz!

  3. Chris Rich says:

    I’ll take the pledge.

  4. When I went to college (when DINOSAURS roamed the earth) we JAZZERS hated the LEGITTERS. They were the ones who could only play “classical” music.
    The faculty was THE WORST. They did not consider jazz to be a “legitimate” form of music. They destroyed my respect for academia and love of classical music for a very long time.
    One particularly unctuous cretin actually said there would be no “twelfth street bebop” in his Music Theory class.
    I should have walked out right then and there. This “professor” had absolutely ZERO knowledge of American popular music history.
    Twelfth Street was the inspiration for “Twelfth Street Rag”, and even High School musicians knew that BEBOP was played on 52nd Street.

    • arodjazz says:

      Hey Mike! To clarify: you’re saying the same thing as Dave, that the “Jazzer” moniker came from your classical colleagues in music school? Or did you at one point embrace the term?

  5. Nate Trier says:

    I had never heard this word until a couple of years ago, and it sounded really weird! (though I never made the ‘jazzercise’ connection, thanks for that 😉

    What bugs me about it is that other -er words denote a “flavor” – someone can be a rocker, a crooner, etc. – and I feel like those words also diminish what the recipient a bit.

    I (and I presume most other people involved in this discussion!) feel that jazz is much more than a flavor, or icing on a cake. It’s a rich, beautiful kind of music–perhaps even a lifestyle–that deserves, needs, and rewards great effort.

    (And I agree with Andrew, that calling people ‘cats’ is the biggest perk ever.)

    • arodjazz says:

      Interesting connection to other -er words … that reinforces the case that the words were born out of journalistic expediency, and — much like a rushed, unthoughtful review — can leave lasting damage to the way the music is represented in writing.

  6. Simply my lazy shorthand, Alex. For once, I wasn’t overthinking word choice — something I aspire to do more of, really. There is something so square it’s hip about it, and I think that filtered through my brain somehow, but I don’t think it’s that worth fretting about. Maybe that’s just me though.


  7. Thank you for your comments on the term, jazzer. I have always despised and never uttered this silly word. I used to think that it belonged solely to the “Mingus, who?” crowd, but I guess I was wrong.

  8. Klaus Van Brueggen says:

    I am a jazzer and am proud of being a jazzer nevertheless!


  9. As one who remembers talking to musicians in the 70s, people like Arthur Blythe, Julius Hemphill, Makanda Ken McIntyre, and others when they played at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT, most of them disliked the word jazz and preferred “creative music”, making them “creative musicians.” I know that’s a hefty monicker but I’ve tried to use that term ever since.
    Of course, this world is hung up on labels and “descriptors” – save one from having to listen to something we think we won’t like (thereby shutting ourselves off from new and possibly challenging experiences.)
    Keep writing, keep playing, stay on your toes!

    • arodjazz says:

      I’m not a big fan of the term “creative musicians” either, because it implies that musicians outside of that community are uncreative. Some musicians take the term to even more esoteric heights, such as Yusef Lateef’s self-identification as an “auto-physio-psychic” musician. To me, even “member of the jazz community” is better than that!

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  12. Thank you for this great comment Alex. I hate the term also, it is like fingernails scraping across a blackboard because not only is it grammatically incorrect and demeans what jazz musicians do, but as someone whose ongoing love for the music began in the late 50’s, the word was never used by any of the jazz greats have listened to and/met since then. It is some horrible slang aberration of the language that younger people use to try and sound “modern” but which only makes them come off sounding lame. I know I will never get used to hearing it definitely will ever be utterd by my lips doubt. I would rather drink a bottle of key oil and eat the coating off of Plasticover reeds than say that word.

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