Wrong From the Top: Me on Justin Moyer on Jazz

Yesterday, The Washington Post’s Justin Moyer posted a spectacularly ill-argued and misguided screed against jazz, which I will herewith proceed to expose for the drivel it is. I would not do this here except that (a) this happened in the Post, meaning it is central to the DMV musical experience (maybe); (b) I used to freelance for Jazz Times, and still listen to jazz a good amount; and (c) the article is just that bad. Now let’s proceed.

Although he begins by baldly stating “Jazz is boring. Jazz is overrated. Jazz is washed up,” Moyer does not pose an argument that actually synthesizes various strains of thought to support these statements; instead, he makes five points that build on each other in no way. While the listiclish format will not endear him to ancient scholars of rhetoric, it does make it easy to set ’em up and knock ’em down.

Moyer’s first knock on jazz is as follows: “Jazz takes great songs — and abandons the lyrics that help make them great.”

When I was in high school, I told someone that classical was my favorite type of music, and she replied with scorn that classical was the easiest music to compose because it had no words. I never thought I would encounter an argument quite like this again, but Moyer brought it back!

The obvious error is of intention. If you want to hear songs with words, you can go to a show with a vocalist — even a jazz show, as there are many vocal jazz concerts. If you want to hear talented musicians exploring the basic harmonic possibilities associated with that song while weaving in fragments of melody and occasionally arriving at serendipitous moments of synthesis, you should go to a jazz show. It appears Moyer prefers the former type of show, but this does not invalidate the existence of the latter.

Perhaps Moyer was conscious of this flaw in his argument when he followed Point No. 1 with “Improvisation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” States Moyer, “The knowledge that great music is improvised makes it more remarkable. But the fact that music is improvised doesn’t make it great.” This would be a devastating argument if only everyone who loves jazz didn’t already agree with it.

You see, most people acknowledge that there exists both great jazz and bad jazz. In great jazz, the musicians achieve the full possibilities of the improvisational form, the eye-opening combination of exploration and synthesis mentioned earlier. In bad jazz, they’re just noodling around and they don’t do any of that stuff.

Later, Moyer says he doesn’t like Wes Montgomery’s music. That’s fine! It further appears that many people disagree about what constitutes great jazz and bad jazz. Montgomery is not some people’s cup of tea; others appreciate what they perceive as elegant and deft musicianship that doesn’t call attention to itself but repays the attention you give it. But nobody is saying it’s great because it’s improvised, except the straw man Moyer created.

“Jazz stopped evolving,” complains Moyer in Point No. 3. He then discusses artists who have continued exploring the boundaries of jazz (leaving out about a million other people) and then says they don’t count because he doesn’t like them. So there, modern jazz artists! (Also, don’t front like back in the day you weren’t bumping “Rebirth of Slick,” which of course featured rapper Ladybug Mecca, a native of Silver Spring. See, this post relates to the rest of this blog somehow!)

He also says that “jazz is being kept alive by nostalgic Americans” who have the temerity to continue enjoying the music of their youth. One day, Justin Moyer, you too will be old, floundering in a world of new music that sounds like noises and trash to your different-era ears, and on that day you will take solace in a recording of music in a style traditional to you, and Justin Moyer III will laugh his head off at your grandpa music. But Justin Moyer III might still be listening to jazz, because jazz artists continue to evolve the genre in ways Justin Moyer doesn’t like.

Ready for the next devastating indictment of a musical genre? “Jazz is mushy.” It turns out that there are a bunch of artists playing jazz and they do it differently! Moyer quotes famed jazz traditionalist Wynton Marsalis as saying that “too often, what is represented as jazz isn’t jazz at all,” and then complains that Louis Armstrong, Kenny G, Charlie Parker, and John Zorn don’t sound like each other. This is right after he complained that jazz stopped evolving 50 years ago, folks. I can’t even figure out what wrongheaded piffle I’m supposed to be rebutting here.

Moyer also complains that people use the word “jazz” to refer to things that are definitely not jazz, like President Obama’s speaking style or Ralph Ellison’s prose. While I find this annoying as well, it has zero to do with jazz being boring, overrated, or washed up, which the lede lead me to believe this listicle was going to prove.

Here comes the clincher: “Jazz let itselt be co-opted.” For Moyer, the sign of a dying art form is that some of its practitioners (he doesn’t say how many, or what percentage thereof) have been able to secure academic positions rather than languishing in glamorous artistic poverty like all the respectable musicians. White people have begun to study this music in school like it’s worthy of further analysis or something. And look at people memorialising musicians they enjoy! Why, the horror.

In conclusion, Moyer failed in every conceivable way to prove the statements with which he led off his meandering, content-free musings. However, he did inspire me to read his article twice: Once so I could get mad about it and the second time so I could write this response. And thus, Moyer was likely successful in his overall objective. Sigh.

Here’s some good jazz to wash all that bad feeling away:

Yeah, no evolving happening there!

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