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.

0 Replies to “Where is the Fine Line in Jazz?”

  1. It’s quite ironic; Jazz purists think they’re a pop/rock band; rock purists insists that there’s nothing “rock” about them. Why would Marian McPartland feature Fagen & Becker on Piano Jazz?
    I think the debate is silly because it’s only about surface elements.

    We’re not playing the entire Steely Dan catalog on KPLU. We’ve got a few songs in our system; including Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-OO”.

    How bout focusing on the song “Aja” itself, the composition? The chord changes, arrangements, and harmonic and rhythmic textures are extremely sophisticated. If this tune were performed with traditional acoustic jazz instruments rather than the electric ones on the record, absolutely NO ONE would consider this tune a rock or pop tune. The pop and rock elements are only on the surface.

    That’s my take on why we’re playing it on KPLU.

    1. Thanks Nick!

      Truthfully, I think any song could be picked apart until there is nothing left, whether it is to support a tune or bring evidence against it. My thoughts in response to the email probably only scratched the surface. I never even thought to mention the vocals on it. Are they the reason for a listeners like or dislike?

      Improvisation, chord structures, band members, instruments, rock or jazz, vocals, etc, I think are all fine things to talk about. But what it probably comes down to for each individual is as simple as:

      Do I like how the song sounds or not?

  2. I think what this discussion really highlights is the absurdity of trying to define what jazz is. Most people have a few generally-accepted guidelines of what jazz music is and isn’t and when that line gets crossed they become uncomfortable.

    A few things to keep in mind – plenty of Duke Ellington’s music contains almost no improvisation. “Sketches Of Spain” contains no track with a “swing” feeling or extended improvisation over a repeated form. Nobody would argue that Duke & Miles aren’t jazz – but then again, it’s highly doubtful that the masters cared if what they played were called jazz or not.

    Like any artist working in a specific medium, weather it be sculpture, textiles, poetry, or jazz, the artist tries to put forth the best work they can and if it ends up crossing the line of a specific genre, that shouldn’t reflect on what the piece of art is so long as it is accepted by the audience it was created for. I don’t know if Steely Dan intended their music for jazz audiences, but if you, the programmer, feels it deserves the attention of jazz listeners, why not play it.

    I would think that what your cranky listener might take exception to is the fact that you would consider playing Steely Dan, but maybe wouldn’t consider playing any Miles post 1965 (Sorcerer, Miles Smiles, ESP, Files De Kiliminjaro, etc.) , or Trane post 1963 (Live at The Village Vanguard, or Love Supreme, etc) or Weather Report (“Birdland” not included), Return To Forever, or a host of other forms of music generally accepted as being “jazz”. If it is worthwhile to stretch the audience to consider Steely Dan as “Jazzy” enough, fair enough. But what about some jazz music that is not typically played on KPLU? I understand that requires a lengthy knowledge of the jazz idiom to present and program, but from what I have read on this blog, that shouldn’t be an issue for the talented programmers at KPLU.

    Thanks for keeping the music playing, love your show! – Thomas Marriott

    P.S. I would take issue with Mr. Francis’ assertion that “The chord changes, arrangements, and harmonic and rhythmic textures are extremely sophisticated.” That my be true relative to other forms of popular music, but not compared to what can be found in the lexicon of “jazz” music. That being said, I agree with his statement that “If this tune were performed with traditional acoustic jazz instruments rather than the electric ones on the record, absolutely NO ONE would consider this tune a rock or pop tune.” Well said and very true, but it isn’t performed that way and I think that’s what probably bothers the listener who wrote in.

  3. What if you had played East St Louis Toodle-lo by Duke, from Pretzel Logic??
    I wonder if your listener would have accepted that?
    I host a jazz radio program as well and I play what I listen to at home. Maybe some people don’t like that, they can always change the station.
    Don’t change what your doing based on one opinion, otherwise you might not get to play anything!
    That’s the beauty of jazz, everyone has a like and some artists they just won’t listen to.

  4. Jazz ought not to be defined exclusively. If you want to play Steely Dan on your show, why the heck shouldn’t you? It’s your radio show. If someone wants to get all bent out of shape about it, that’s on them. It’s not like by playing Steely Dan you’re somehow poisoning Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. I agree with Arnold: play what you want, it’s your show!
    Exclusive definitions in jazz have no merit as far as I’m concerned. There are a number of threads that connect jazz, as you enumerate, including personnel, repertoire, improvisation, “swing feeling” and many others.

  5. A worthy topic, KK… I was having this same debate with a friend of mine lucky enough to have gone to the New Orleans Jazz Festival earlier this year. It’s easy to shrug off the notion that something can’t be jazz just because it’s not played by a jazz artist – and I’m as guilty of that sometimes and anyone else – but at the same time that’s what makes jazz great. Look at the great example Ray Charles set with what he did; not all of it was jazz, and Charles wasn’t even called a jazz musician half the time, but he wrote and led one of the most swingin’ bands in history. His roots were jazz and blues, but he could do country just as well. Charles is in a class by himself, but the ball swings both ways with musicians that are not primarily jazz.
    I’m definitely a traditionalist – but I’ve always thought this particular way: I know jazz when I hear it.

    and besides… on KPLU, if you don’t like something… just take a 5-minute break. Something new will be on then, and it’s very likely to be something I like. That’s the beauty of 88.5, your library dwarfs my own.

    and just for kicks… here’s a listener call I got one night. I’ll never forget it, I laughed for 5 minutes.

    Listener: “hey, you need to stop playing all this crappy Billie Holiday stuff. I mean, if I want to listen to a whiny female vocalist, I’ll call my ex-wife!”


  6. I guess I am not enough of a purist to get huffy about whether a great song like Aja is truly jazz. So shoot me! I find this kind of orthodoxy only serves to interfere with the enjoyment of good music. Steely Dan is always worth a listen. And if Duke Ellington could be widely recognized and praised for incorporating symphonics into his Jazz, why not Steely for incorporating jazz into Rock, or Rock into Jazz. This is starting to sound like a Reese’s commercial.

    Keep up the good work, Kevin. You bring us good music and great insights.

  7. Good debate, indeed. I’d have to side with the listener that Steely Dan fits better in the broad Rock genre than in the broad Jazz genre. I won’t get into the reasons as they’re not relevant to my main point. That being, it is your radio show and an engaging radio show will feature highlights of the genre (in your case, jazz) with occasional hints at recordings just outside the genre.

    A classical (orchestral) program might feature Bach and Mozart and so forth but might sneak in some John Williams score for fun and to broaden the listener base. Classic Rock stations can’t limit themselves to Led Zep and CCR. They need to play the latest Tom Petty and other guitar-based band to keep things fresh and stimulating.

    As long as you don’t start sneaking in Rage Against the Machine or Spike Jones, you’ll be fine.

  8. Hahaha…Tom, you said it! What is it with us humans? Why do we tend do default, so easily, into this chest-bumping, “I am more serious and pure than you…” stuff?

    I like Adam’s approach, just above. Now, like any person, there is some stuff I would rather not listen to. But to jump an excellent dj because he stuck a little something in that I wouldn’t choose myself is… a little bit tight-ass.

    It seems to me that the best jazz is always stretching, experimenting, poking in the crannies and reaching for the new. If that’s the jazz attitude, why would we want to be closed off to any musical element?

  9. I agree with Tom too. (And I like Spike Jones!)

    Music (one of the most social art forms if you ask me) thrives on cross-pollination and hybridization. What we call “American music” today would not exist if previous advocates of musical purity had had their way. I suspect that, a hundred years ago, your critic would have most likely been working to *prevent the development of jazz in the first place*. Oh, the irony!

    Often people who take the purist view feel they are defending something that is in danger of disappearing. So your critic may be worried that “traditional” or “classic” jazz is dying, and that a DJ’s gesture of eclecticism (whatever its motivation) only makes that death more imminent. However, with our increasingly niche-driven culture, in which digital technology and social networking make it possible for fans of even the most obscure art form to connect and celebrate it, this seems to me to be a less and less sustainable argument. Sure, there may never be as many “pure” jazz fans as there are Steely Dan fans (though who knows?), but the audience for the former will never disappear.

    Peeling away the layers, I personally think your critic’s comments have very little to do with music per se. He / she has gone way beyond simply marveling at the wonderful variety of human taste, and being mildly inconvenienced by that variety for a few minutes. Instead, he / she seems driven by a (alas, very human) need to proclaim membership in a given club. It almost doesn’t matter what the club is *for*…

  10. Excuse me for living but improvization in late 1960s and 1970s rock music is probably one of two things that led me toward jazz. The other is probably growing up with a mother who enjoyed classical music.

    I’m not saying that all recorded rock improvization was good. However, when it started to disappear from rock radio in the 1980s, I started searching for it and found it in jazz. Today and probably for the past 25 years, mainstream jazz is my main “listen”.

    I upgraded my home system to include a SONOS to bring Internet radio to me in my living room, back in 2007. Prior to that, it was the home computer upstairs in my home office at a louder volume. I spent a lot of time that year checking out mainstream jazz radio from the Internet. Today my listening comes down to 5 stations in the US and Canada, with both KPLU and Jazz 24 being 2 of them.

    KPLU and Jazz 24 probably have the widest spectrum of jazz to offer, of the 5. This is a good thing!! The other three stations probably get down deeper in mainstream. BOTH MEET MY MUSICAL NEEDS.

    If Jazz purists feel their music is dying, so be it. Remember that both rock and jazz are rooted in the blues so why not cross paths. We as a people cross paths every day. Ever heard of “life”.

    Kevin, please keep on playing Aja and tracks of similar question. Aja is a great song and musical piece. from a great album.

  11. Kevin, I’m sure that listener will be listening to your show tonight, tomorrow or next week. To get such a strong reaction from someone means that he/she wants to be involved in the transmission of the show.

    Jazz has seen a rebirth in the past few years. Performers have adapted virtually every format of music to fit their own voices. You need only to look at the many local jazz artists to see evidence of this, and to realize the audience is adapting, too.

    That’s what’s been so great about the evolution of KPLU’s jazz programming in the past couple years. Adding electric jazz tunes, diversifying the playlist, notching out sounds of particular programs, recording and airing more live studio sessions, and keeping listeners entertained. There are so many intangible qualities in the music that can’t be classified, and defy explanation, but it seems to satisfy the soul. Getting beyond a pure classification of categories is the challenge Mr. Francis seems to have taken on at KPLU, and I encourage you, Kevin, and Nick, to keep plugging away.

    In the age of iPod, the only way terrestrial radio can stay relevant is by offering unique content, and extending it to websites, downloads, and discussion boards like this. Stations that don’t do this will go away.

  12. I think SD would fit in very nicely on a “Smooth Jazz” format. No so much on a station like ours that concentrates more on Traditional Straight Ahead Jazz and Standards. Can I explain this to you in academic terms? No, it’s just an ear thing.

    By the way, I think SD is/was one of the great bands in Rock history and do appreciate the fact that they cut their teeth on Jazz in their formative years. In a decade of some pretty lousy music, the 1970s, they were one of the few things worth listening to.

    As far as musicians appearing on albums. You can’t use that to classify the music because, let’s face it, most musicians (understandably) will play whatever is put in front of them if the bread is there. A lot of very good players appeared with Lawrence Welk over the years!

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