Where is the Fine Line in Jazz?

I was recently scolded by a listener.

It is not unusual for a radio jock to get an unhappy email from a listener. In my experience, it almost always has to do with a song that is played, overplayed, or not played enough, and even though it is the music that the listener has an issue with, it is the radio host who gets the blame.

It was this most recent complaint that came across as far more angry than your average letter. In fact, the note made it quite clear that after hearing a particular song, the individual was “through” listening to my program.

steely danThe song in question was the title track to the Steely Dan album Aja. The complaint, in short, was that Steely Dan didn’t play jazz, and that Aja wasn’t jazz and didn’t sound like jazz, even if Steely Dan was a jazz band by nature.

My initial reaction to letters like this is to respond with a common defense, which is to suggest that jazz is a free art form that knows no borders, and that just because it doesn’t sound like Coltrane or Charlie Parker doesn’t disqualify it as jazz. But in this case, and for the purpose of this blog, I decided to take a deeper look.

Allmusic.com suggests that Steely Dan plays in the styles of Soft Rock, Pop/Rock, Jazz-Rock, and Album Rock, and the album Aja is listed under the same headings. In fact, if I was to try and find Aja on ITunes, I would have to look under the rock genre, not the jazz genre. Ok, so maybe not a lot in my corner so far.

But then you look a little deeper. The song Aja features some great jazz musicians, including Wayne Shorter, one of the most legendary musicians in jazz history, and sax man Pete Christlieb. The problem with that, after doing my research, is that to consider Steely Dan/Aja as jazz, based on the fact that Shorter and Christlieb play on it would also qualify the following musicians/bands as jazz: Santana, Don Henley, The Rolling Stones, Lee Ann Womack, John Denver, Vanessa Williams, Kenny Rogers, Neil Diamond, Christina Aguilera, and yes, Tony Danza. These musicians all recorded with either Shorter or Christlieb, none of which would qualify as jazz musicians or jazz bands (although Tony Danza’s album was packed full of standards).

I also can’t argue the improvisational factor. Certainly there are improvised solos on this track, even good ones, but I’ve heard good improvised solos from Slash of Guns N’ Roses too, and that doesn’t make Paradise City a jazz tune.

Pete Christlieb, ironically enough, will actually be in town at a jazz club soon performing with a group called Nearly Dan, paying tribute to the music of Steely Dan. I might have that in my corner, if they weren’t doing a pre-concert interview on our local classic rock station. That, and the fact that you could probably do a jazz tribute to Megadeath if you got the right band and arrangements together doesn’t put a lot on my side either.

So did I lose this one? Did I cross the line with Aja? Should I have just responded with “Jazz is free, it has no boundaries”? Should I have said “I’m the DJ, I’ll play what I want”?

Maybe I did the best thing I could do, and just not write back.