Please Don’t Call Me A Jazz Nerd

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.

About Alex Rodriguez

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

7 Responses to Please Don’t Call Me A Jazz Nerd

  1. jasonparkermusic says:

    I’ve followed this new thread in the jazz blogosphere which Matt started over at Twenty Dollars with more bemusement than righteous indignation. Maybe it’s because I’ve accepted that my inner dork is something to celebrate, not hide or shy away from. I don’t know. But I honestly don’t see this as a big problem.

    Firstly, as a whole, I think ALL music nerds are looked at with an equal level of scorn by those not as taken with the music as we are. Whether you’re a beret-wearing bop hipster, a mohawked punk or a pierced and tattooed metal-head…or, god forbid, you’re a tie-dye wearing bearded Phish-head…music nerds are music nerds. One only has to go so far as movies like High Fidelity or Almost Famous to see the nerd-cum-hero stereotype played out in the rock world as well. But they always end up as the hero in the end. 😉

    And in my experience, jazz musicians are looked at as sophisticated and hipper-than-thou more often than they are looked at as nerdy (Matt’s comedy examples aside, as they are, in fact, comedy). When non-jazz fans find out that I’m a jazz musician the reaction is almost always more reverential than scornful. I think people realize that jazz musicians do work hard at our craft. (Don’t confuse this with listeners having to work hard…that’s a whole ‘nuther discussion that happens to be going on over at Peter Hum’s blog, It’s more an air of mystery than douchbaggery. At least in my experience.

    But you know what makes people heap scorn on any given group? When that group gets their collective panties in a wad over something as trivial as a scene in a Will Farrell movie. Stereotypes are stereotypes and comedy is comedy. I’ll bet Farrell and Stephen Colbert are jazz fans. They were just poking fun. And if we can’t take it and get bent out of shape, it just makes us look all the more douchey.

    Just as many of us said about the Teachout article, I’d rather talk about the good that is happening, get the world out like you and Patrick and all the other participants have with the Jazz Now series, and put a good face and a good foot forward.

    Nobody is going to “just make us look cool” until WE make us look cool.

    • arodjazz says:

      I agree with your conclusion, Jason, that nobody is going to “just make us look cool.” But I disagree that “celebrating the inner dork” is the solution. It’s one thing to play the so-uncool-it’s-cool card like the hipsters in Williamsburg, but for people like me who actually lived through the trauma of nerddom, it isn’t funny.
      I’m not worried about anyone heaping scorn on us, but I am concerned that we’re not doing a good enough job of reaching out past the diehard fans to try and have a conversation about music. Of course, you have been especially successful in this regard, so I can understand why you hold a different perspective. Thanks, as always, for your thoughts!

  2. Dwayne says:

    Great article, and thanks for the link back.
    I love Jazz, big band and swing.
    I don’t know much about music at all unfortunately. I used to play the trumpet, but theory always eluded me.
    I do know I love listening to it though 🙂
    I really should pick up my trumpet again and see if I can re-teach myself. I need to find music that is interesting to play solo I guess.

  3. DJA says:

    Hi Alex,

    I’m with Jason. It’s possible the “trauma of nerddom” (and I don’t mean to diminish that — there’s nothing crueller than a pack of teenagers) is too fresh in your mind to see this, but dorks like us have seized an important bulkhead of popular culture. I’m thinking of people like John Hodgman, Stephen Colbert, Sarah Vowell, Quentin Tarantino, Dave Longstreth (of the Dirty Projectors), etc. And this isn’t a hipsterish ironic, distanced, posing kind of cool… those people are all basically unreconstructed dorks, and proud of it. An acquaintance of mine even wrote a book about it.

    Certainly, since at least the bebop era, jazz has been seen as an intellectual music outside of mainstream American culture. In most places in this country, that alone is more than enough to brand you as a dork. I’m good with that, though. There are worse things to be.

    • arodjazz says:

      Your response prompted a re-reading of my post, and I think I understand where you’re coming from. The people that you cite are, in my mind, exemplars of people who have managed to negotiate their dorkiness and relate to popular culture in a powerful and productive way. I also think that it’s something that you have managed to do with jazz especially well, one of my favorite aspects of your writing.

      What I realize is that our definition of “dork” (for the purposes of this conversation) is different. It’s not so much that I am denouncing ignorant people branding me as a dork, although it is quite annoying (and traumatic at age 12). What I am more concerned about is the way we in the so-called “nerd subculture” react to the trend. There are many people in the jazz community who snobbishly dismiss mainstream culture, perpetuating myths like the Starving Artist and the Art/Commerce Duality — this makes it harder for someone like you to overcome the unfair branding and reach an audience beyond the jazz world (not to mention make money doing what you do.) If “embracing the inner dork” means dismissing the importance of our relationship with mainstream culture (musical isolationism, if you will) then we are totally screwed. Both you and Jason are obviously doing the opposite. So keep it up — that’s the coolest thing anyone can do.

  4. Pingback: McGill Graduate Music Symposium « Lubricity

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