“I’m such a nerd.” This I said out loud the other day, after debating with myself the pros and cons of letting Southside Aces fans know that Frankie Trumbauer played C-melody saxophone. Tomorrow night, the Southside Aces will feature Henry Blackburn at the Eagles. This month’s feature is The Alto Sax in Traditional Jazz. He’ll be rendering on his alto one of the most famous saxophone solos in jazz history, “Singin’ The Blues.” In 1927, Trumbauer put the song to wax with his C-melody, so technically we’re not talking about an alto song. But why make that distinction merely while I’m begging fans to make it out to the show? The C-melody is a close cousin to the alto. It’s a bigger cousin, like that one from Nebraska who played right tackle for the Cornhuskers, but a rare thing to encounter in public these days. After reminding myself—not for the first time, you may have been able to guess—of my status as a nerd, I made the decision to omit the C-melody history from the narrative. Given my normal jazz logorrhea, this counts as exercising restraint. Well, wouldn’t you know it; within a day I received notice from friends letting me know that Frankie played C-melody.
And how about last month? We’re on the stage at the Eagles about to present the public with a bunch of Fats Waller, and Erik almost announced “Ain’t Misbehavin’” as Fats’ “most popular hit.” I tensed up, as only a fastidious historian can. Zack noticed my consternation and didn’t lose much time pointing out what a dork I was. Erik amended his words, telling the crowd the song was, “arguably his most popular hit.” I washed my hands of him, declaring, “I ain’t protecting you from the Charlies out there!” This refers to the fact that there are people like Charlie DeVore who will know exactly which Fats hit was number one. Erik and Zack laughed at me. Erik displayed mock terror with an “Oh no!” face and said, “When we’re done, I’m just going to run off the stage and get out of here, talk to no one!” Our second Fats song was “Honeysuckle Rose.” This, too, was announced as, “arguably his most popular hit.” Thus he diluted the first declaration, and with such ambiguous semantics staved off being cornered by a pack of wild Charlies and Tonys.
You should know as soon as possible here that I am not complaining about folk writing in to supply me with C-melody information, nor do I feel it is character assassination to use phrases like “jazz dork” or “jazz nerd” in reference to a certain clarinetist when he gets starchy over a muddy history. I have for a long time considered it a badge of honor to even be considered in such light. If I ever manage, for instance, to even hold in my noggin half the knowledge that Charlie has under his white hairs, I’ll feel like I’ve lived a great life. Two of my greatest loves, baseball and jazz, are populated by people who can tell you much more than you would ever need to know about the smallest of minutiae in their respective subjects. Just ask my wife…
Me? I’m always grateful for these dwellers in the arcane. The information they possess is considered nugatory by most folk, and perhaps rightfully so. But haven’t you ever experienced that moment when you needed to lay your hands on some bit of far-flung esoterica, and somebody in the world actually knew the answer? The moment goes in waves. First you have the “Eureka!” feeling wash over you, happy to find the answer to your question. Then you have the gratitude feeling for the person who bothered to put the answer in their heads or some easy-to-find place. Then you have the semi-mocking, pity sensation of “Wow! Why would someone spend their time collecting that knowledge?” Admit it. You’ve gone through this. We, however, need people like this.
But it all can go horribly wrong. You know, knowledge is power and power in the wrong hands and so on. I thought about this “it’s cool to be a nerd” idea some, and decided to google “jazz nerd.” I found out I am three years late to an argument that was hatched from the mind of a Marsalis. Drummer Jason Marsalis, youngest son of the famed New Orleanian jazz family, has a Youtube rant about a certain type of goings on in the jazz world. He initially coined the acronym JNA, meaning Jazz Nerds of America. Once he discovered that the problems he had with the state of jazz was a worldwide plague, he re-coined it JNI, or Jazz Nerds International. Those with membership in the JNI, he says, “reduce the music to as many complex notes as possible while ignoring the simple elements and history behind the notes. The music student has fun but the audience has nothing with which to connect and therefore is sitting on their hands.” He believes that many of the modern, young players ignore the rich past of jazz. Mr. Marsalis believes that one of the central philosophies in this school of music is “swing is old and dated, we have to use the music of today.” He despises the alienation of audiences that this can produce. “The fact is that the jazz audience could care less whether any music is “new” or “innovative.” The audience pays their hard-earned money to hear a good show.” He cautions against spending too much time as a music school technician. You need to live, at least in part, a non-academic life and have that living infuse your music. I couldn’t agree more with the elements of the stand Mr. Marsalis takes, although he needs to be more careful to not accuse everyone of the crime.
Perspectives on jazz nerdery, if you will, appear to be as fractured as the jazz community itself. A young trombonist, Alex Rodriguez, also despises the nerd in jazz, but from another perspective entirely. In his blog, Lubricity, in 2009 he wrote a piece entitled Please Don’t Call Me A Jazz Nerd. He told the story of how he suffered boyhood trauma on account of his being a self-described dork. He disdains the idea of the hipster-nerd. He sees the nerd as being a force of marginalization in jazz. If you want success as a jazz musician, why would you want to be a nerd? “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.”
Whew! I better start calling myself something else. Maybe “Professor” with a lightly snide tone or something. Both those guys are presenting good cases for not wanting to be a nerd. One says that the nerds are only embracing modern music with no respect for the past, in the process losing the modern listener. The other is saying the nerd who only hangs on to the past without at least acknowledging the music of today will lose the modern listener. What a rhubarb! But I’m not Marsalis’ nerd. I might be closer to the nerd described by Rodriguez, but I’m not that guy either. I think I need a Jazz Nerd career counselor!
I, as you know, am a ‘20s-‘40s man myself, with those New Orleans revivals of the ’40-‘60s thrown in for good measure. This brings about a whole different type of nerdocity from the ones described above. Once you get past the mid-1920s, you find well-developed jazz genres not just from New Orleans, but from Chicago, Kansas City, and New York, just to name the main hubs. Sure, there was a diaspora of New Orleans cats helping to fuel the spread of jazz, but there were people all over the country creating distinct versions of this beautiful American art. A 21st Century bandleader such as myself could decide to just be an Armsrong band; an Eddie Condon band (Chicago/New York); a Duke Ellington band (Washington/New York); a Basie/Moten band (Kansas City); or a Kid Thomas/George Lewis band (New Orleans). And that’s just using one hand! Within each of those examples, there is a body of work sufficient to be a band’s sole repertoire. Some bands do this, although I think most travel all around the map, as the Southside Aces do. And, this is important—people have made the case that each of these highly distinct ways of playing music could be a definition of traditional jazz all by itself.
This brings me back to how the early traditional jazz nerds can muck things up. The types of nerds that Marsalis and Rodriguez describe are only the top branches of the Jazz Nerd Family Tree. This is the tree that blocks all the light so no other trees can grow. Imagine you’re leading a six-piece band such as the Southside Aces, and you play the tight arrangements of, say, a Duke Ellington small band of the late thirties. That’s when the Only-Improv-Is-Jazz Nerd emerges from the crowd during break to inform you how it’s not really jazz because it is arranged music, not freely improvised. Conversely, you might encounter resistance from the Big Band Nerd, who would prefer you not stomp all over his sweet songs with your rough, unarranged, Kid Thomas sound. Or, you’ll get the Museum Nerd saying something along the lines of, “You know, that wasn’t really the way Bix played it on the 1927 recording.” A band could also spend an evening laying it all out there on the music of Louis Armstrong’s All Star bands of the 1950s, only to run into the brick wall put up by the Hot Fives and Sevens Nerd, who only believes in Louis’ 1920s work. The Jazz Nerd Family Tree is huge, and in need of pruning. Is there a Jazz Nerd Arborist in the house?
Speaking of the Museum Nerd, I admit I love arranging and having the band recreate moments off records from the wayback. It’s incredible music, and exciting to play. But I pick and choose those moments judiciously. It would be far too stifling for it to be more than just a small percentage of our book. My goal is to not let my sometimes overly-developed sense of history prevent me or my cohorts or, god forbid, the audience(!) from having a good time. When the band plays, we have to have a chance to grow musically, both individually and as a unit. Marsalis also said, regarding the million or so jazz camps, “Rather than dividing it up with categories like “traditional” and “modern” or “old” and “new,” it should be viewed as a century’s worth of information.” I like that. I love to listen to a good Bix band, but that would never be enough for me. For example, if the Southside Aces confined ourselves to just Bix, how would we let ourselves play the great brass band music of New Orleans. Or how about 21st Century music not even intended to be jazz, such as tunes by Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga? A 21st Century sound through a New Orleans filter can sound fantastic!
Now, if you hang onto your hats, I’m going to switch metaphors. This is for everyone, the musician, the fan, the critic: There is a wrong side of the tracks in Jazz Nerdtown. This is where the people live who use their JAZZ SENSIBILITIES to be anti-social and confining. They’re just sensibilities, not rules. Myself? I’m a work in progress. These days, I probably still live near the tracks, but on the right side, I think. And any day now, I’m moving to an even better neighborhood!
To read Alex Rodriguez tell you why not to call him a jazz nerd, read it here:
If you would like to see Jason Marsalis rant about the JNI, go to this Youtube:
Finally, if you would like to read Jason's full explanation, go here: