The recent post at Twenty Dollars (via A Blog Supreme) has REALLY struck a chord with me, so to speak. This is because of my personal experience with both jazz and nerddom, each of which had a deep impact on my childhood and adolescence.
Growing up, I was no stranger to geek culture. My parents signed me up for Portland Public Schools’ TAG (Talented and Gifted) program in first grade, so I got out of school early once a week to play math games and conduct chemistry experiments. My older cousins read fantasy and sci-fi novels voraciously, and turned me onto Magic: the Gathering by age 10. The first CD I bought was “Bad Hair Day” by Weird Al Yankovic. I wore bright yellow sweat pants to my first day of middle school. That should give you an idea of my status at the time: big-time, card-carrying DORK.
I thought that by proudly wearing the “smart” label, I was simply doing what was right in the world: pleasing my teachers and my parents, who believed that my argumentative, high-achieving nature would make me a great lawyer.
What I didn’t know, however, was that being “smart” was NOT a good thing once I left elementary school. Academic success (and my predilection for my family’s introverted subculture) turned what had previously been my proudest asset into a crippling social handicap. My friends stopped inviting me to hang out. I ate lunch alone. I overheard people talking about last weekend’s bar mitzvah and hated myself for apparently being so unworthy of their invitation. Every moment that I spent outside of class was absolute torture.
Needless to say, I was a depressed, angry little 13-year-old. I fought with teachers, got bad grades and totally freaked out my parents. My innocent world of uber-achievement had fallen apart, and only two things helped me put it back together: music and writing. Granted, these were not particularly popular, mainstream subcultures. The writing group especially was a pretty “nerdy” bunch. But the jazz band was different — cool, even — and this became even more apparent in high school.
There, I had the distinction of being the only freshman selected to play with the “top” jazz ensemble. At that time, the group was the energetic core of the music program, featuring a number of confident, hip upperclassmen whom I idolized. These guys were not the gawky, socially inept weirdos who appear repeatedly in the stereotypes at Twenty Dollars. They were just another generation of inspired young musicians searching for beauty in a Miles Davis transcription or a Thad Jones chart. That was our world.
Those same musicians, by the way, were the same people who hipped me to less-jazz-oriented groups like James Brown, Galactic, Soulive, Liquid Soul, even Eminem. I might have been approaching mainstream culture a bit sideways, but it’s not like I never shared any music tastes with my non-jazz peers.
Since high school, most of us have gone on to do things in the world that are not related in any way to jazz. We’ve each begun to solve our common problem — relating to a society that no longer swings — in different ways. But none of us have taken the path of the nerd and rejected our socialized reality in favor of an idealized, fetishized artistic past. Certainly, nobody is holed up in their parents’ basement clutching an old Art Blakey LP.
Those of us in the jazz community today have a daunting challenge before us: on one side, we are pressured to measure up and reinvent ourselves within the artistic framework and tradition that has been laid before us by our musical idols; on the other side, we are pressured to make this struggle culturally relevant in a world in which swing — a fundamental underpinning of jazz music — no longer underlies popular music. To further complicate matters, acoustic music itself is increasingly marginalized in contemporary mainstream culture.
This is no small task, and certainly not one to take lightly. I certainly don’t profess to have any answers. But even tacit self-identification with these stereotypes (such as Patrick’s self-deprecating paragraph at ABS) is dangerous. Jazz music is not music for nerds. Jazz musicians, as a group, are not nerdy — that is, we are mostly normal people struggling to relate in today’s complicated world just like everyone else.
Instead of embracing these stereotypes (which were, I have to say, brilliantly played for comedic effect in the examples at Twenty Dollars,) we ought to be open to serious conversation with open-minded music fans who don’t listen to jazz. What’s keeping us from being able to relate to them? Why do they hear the music as the inaccessible domain of loser-dorks? If you’re reading this and have any insights into that, as Nancy did at Twenty Dollars, PLEASE explain!
This is part of the reason I was so excited to participate in the Jazz Now project at A Blog Supreme. I had hoped that the project would inspire dialogue and connection between jazz fans and those getting into it for the first time. So far, I’ve been disappointed by the results. Very few people outside of the jazz world seem to be paying attention, which only reinforces the perception of the jazz community as an insular one.
So the moral of my story here is: don’t be a nerd! Ask your friends what’s up with jazz for them, maybe show them your favorite track(s) at Jazz Now and see what they have to say. Encourage them to leave feedback at the site. The hurtful stereotypes out there can only be true if we reinforce them with our behavior. And trust me, I’ve been there: it sucks to be a nerd.