Drink Jazz?

Jazz, the word, has defined a music that I love. But over the years, the word — not the music — has lost its meaning. In some ways, you might consider it to be evolution — a good spin. After all, if the word was to adhere its meaning to a specific sound, jazz could be synonymous with Dixieland. So as the music grew in scope, jazz became an umbrella term – music that swings, uses syncopation, and, of course, music that is improvised on the spot. We had Dixieland, swing and be-bop, avant garde, modern and contemporary, even fusion.

The generic quality of the term also speaks to an increasing penchant for homogenization. Today, the only “jazz” you hear on radio or television is “smooth jazz” – Dave Koz, Kenny G, even The Rippingtons. The only “jazz singers” recognized are Jane Monheit, Michael BublĂ©, Nora Jones…even Mindi Abair makes the wiki list.

To add insult to injury, jazz is now a soft drink. For the last week or so television has been bombarding me with an ad for Jazz – Pepsi’s new diet cola drink — likely named to counter the high visibility garnered by the coke folks in sponsoring Jazz at Lincoln Center Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola — and Pepsi’s Jazz also comes in multiple flavors such as Strawberries & Cream, Black Cherry French Vanilla…

Look, to each their own flavor. I’m not going to knock The Rippingtons (whose new anniversary CD I am enjoying), I won’t even knock those performers whose work I do not care for at all, but I do not consider it to be jazz. Similarly, I’m not sure that the music of Maria Schneider or Bob Brookmeyer — music that I DO love — is best served by being dubbed “jazz.” As a writer what disturbs me is the loss of specificity in the use of the word. The umbrella is now so large as to be unwieldy, and any real meaning has taken flight on the winds of change leaving nothing on solid ground.

We need a new word to stand for that je ne sais quoi that I hear when listening to that music that I will now call “real jazz” — just until I find a better word. At first I thought that it was a matter of old vs. new, but I put that notion to rest when I listened to Serenade as played less than six months ago by Sonny Rollins at the Cerritos Performing Arts Center in California on April 11, 2006 (in celebration of his 70th birthday a video clip was made briefly available on Sonny’s web site). Then I thought maybe it was a difference in the sensibilities of older artists vs. younger ones — but dismissed that idea by listening to Ingrid Jensen‘s rendition of “There Is No Greater Love” on her At Sea CD. What is it that best describes this visceral reaction I have, and how can I describe the music?

I’m going to give this some more thought, meanwhile, write in and tell me what words you would use. If you could rename jazz, what would you call it?