Guest Journal / History / Journal / Visual Culture

Improvising History: the Fine-Tuning of International Jazz Day

Gabi Tartakovsky.

Billie Holiday with Mister Downbeat

Jazz’s elusive charm is now finally marked as a global concern. UNESCO began tackling the music’s limited mass appeal by promoting International Jazz Day, making its swinging debut this past April. From Indonesia to Portugal, veteran Jazz heads and casual fans came together that day to witness special tribute concerts and attend related film screenings. Although launched in admiring France, International Jazz Day’s centre stage was still firmly placed on American soil. Events in New York, Washington, New Orleans and Chicago all professed why Jazz had been once dubbed ‘The only true American art form’.

For Jazz took shape in the United States – primarily among African-American communities in the Southern states – and quickly became a unique commentator. It illustrated modern American history while also being severely affected by it. The big band sound, for example, complemented America’s upbeat sense of livelihood before the Great Depression and endemic racial inequalities inspired compelling tunes, like Strange Fruit and Freedom Day. However, International Jazz Day risks undermining the distinctive American narrative which created Jazz culture to begin with.

UNESCO’s quest for international appreciation (and participation) already tends to rewrite Jazz’s back pages. The organisation historically depicts the Jazz bandstand as ‘an example of tolerance’ and wishes to celebrate Jazz for ‘promoting peace, dialogue among cultures, diversity and respect for human rights and human dignity.’ Yet, segregation was evident in many American Jazz bands’ personnel during the 1940’s while the few Jazz night clubs which catered to a racially mixed clientele were often harassed by the police.  To many Americans, Jazz’s African-influenced drumming was nothing short of ‘Jungle Music’. Even later on, embracing Jazz was a confrontational stand, socially and politically.

Hugh Hefner was one avid supporter, founding the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1959. He sensed a kinship with the music, believing it challenged conservative norms like his own magazine. The vital upheaval Jazz stirred during America’s darkest days has been put aside now. Mainly, International Jazz Day reaches out to the global community due to its capability of celebrating the music, free of the United States’ troubled past.

There’s one peculiar attribute in Jazz history which International Jazz Day can truly benefit from. No one really knows exactly what Jazz is. As early as 1940, legendary bandleader Glenn Miller was being accused of betraying Jazz’s essence. In his despair, Miller then told Down Beat Magazine:

I haven’t a great Jazz band and I don’t want one. We leaders are criticized for a lot of things. It’s always true after a band gets up there and is recognized by the public. Some of the critics… point their fingers at us and charge us with forsaking the real Jazz. Maybe so. Maybe not. It’s all in what you define as real Jazz.

Constantly retooling the music developed in time an extremely rich body of work. It enabled Jazz to accommodate various tastes, and granted the right means of exposure.

International Jazz Day already joins a busy calendar, alongside various dates hailing cultural landscapes of old. Commemorative occasions, such as Record Store Day (est. 2008) and Free Comic Book Day (est. 2002), struck a deep chord by pushing an agenda which also stimulated a correlated market. In their case, the glorification of independent businesses and analogue items pushed collectors and newcomers to seek exclusive releases, rejuvenating struggling industries. Whereas International Jazz Day is held as a non-profit initiative, treating its subject delicately – almost spiritually – further establishing Jazz as a best kept secret.

It is a familiar pattern that leaves Jazz’s rare entrepreneurs, like Marc Free, facing mounting professional challenges. The co-owner of Posi-Tone Records recently told NPR: ‘It strikes me that people want to run away from Jazz being a business. People have this attitude that Jazz runs best with Patronage.’ This patronising attitude contributed to Jazz’s traditionally modest share of the music industry; usually accounted for 3-5% of all album sales.

As figures drop across the board, Jazz now finds itself in the same position as other, staler genres, like classic Rock. Both are hanging on due to massive reissues, satellite radio stations and the odd festivals. Although Jazz never quit at breaking in ‘the new thing’, its current marketing methods seem vastly outdated. Jazz stars pushing for crossover success are primarily women. All fairly attractive and offer non-threatening treats, be it Esperanza Spalding’s empowering Funk, Hiromi Uehara’s classical chops or Diana Krall’s teasing standards.

International Jazz Day is good at heart but won’t tickle potential audiences either. Its multiple cross Atlantic concerts serve as a large school band practice, helping music students to blow their saxophones a bit prouder. Sadly, International Jazz Day in its present form does nothing to resolve the inherited frustration: Jazz’s edge is missing yet its explosive elements are still present, worldwide. ■

Top image shows Billie Holiday and her dog, Mister Downbeat (New York, N.Y., June 1946. © The Library of Congress)

Gabi Tartakovsky is a writer and blogger, exploring the hidden aspects of popular culture. He contributes to PopMatters and Films in Review, among other magazines. You can follow him on Twitter @Gabitsky.

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