Why Jazz Fans Shouldn't Be So Quick To Dismiss Pop Music

Mar 15, 2014

I belong to a Facebook group called “Jam Of The Week.” Each week, the group’s founder, a wonderful Portland trumpet player named Farnell Newton, picks a jazz tune, and any musician from anywhere in the world can post a video of himself or herself playing a one chorus solo over the tune.

In about a month the group had more than 10,000 members, and hundreds and hundreds of videos posted. (Check it out if you get a chance, even if you’re not a musician.)

The other day, one of the members posted the idea of using a pop song one week. The comments that ensued were varied, but many of the jazz snobs on the site reacted negatively to this idea, with many of them slamming pop music as a whole as vacuous and worthless to jazz musicians.

The comments ranged from “Pop music sucks!” to “Why would we want to play over the same 3 chords?” to “There hasn’t been a good pop song since 80’s Michael Jackson.”

This is not a new feeling amongst jazz musicians, but it’s one that is quite puzzling to me. First and foremost, I just don’t understand cutting yourself off to an entire genre of music because of some generalization or stereotype. Of course there is bad pop music, but there is bad music of all kinds, even (especially?) jazz! Similarly, there is good music of all kinds, even pop.

Secondly, there is a long history of jazz musicians using popular music as vehicles for improvisation. The jazz greats used to mine popular songs and musicals for inspiration. Off the top of my head I think of The Miles Davis Quintet doing “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” from Oklahoma, The John Coltrane Quartet doing “My Favorite Things” from The Sound Of Music, and Canonball Adderley even did music from Fiddler On The Roof.

More recently, Miles Davis had more hits with poptunes like Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”, The Bad Plus did Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit," Brad Mehldau has done many Radiohead songs, and Vijay Iyer did a killer version of M.I.A.’s “Galang.”

And if I may be so bold as to toot my own horn, my band, The Jason Parker Quartet, did an entire album dedicated to the songs of Nick Drake, including this cover of his haunting tune “Day Is Done.” And you’ve heard countless Beatles songs tackled by jazz artists on KPLU and Jazz24.

All this is to say that those jazz snobs who dismiss pop music out of hand are not only missing out on a wealth of great musical inspiration, but they are also discounting some amazing music made by many of their jazz heroes, old and new.

I always tell my students (and I’m paraphrasing Duke Ellington here) that there are only two kinds of music: music that speaks to us and music that doesn’t. Genres are a marketing idea, not a musical idea, and every genre has something to offer those with open ears and open minds.