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Why Do Young People Keep Telling Me That Jazz is Romantic?
I have a theory, but it's a little disturbing
I spend too much time worrying about the musical tastes of youngsters. I might as well fret about an asteroid hitting the Village Vanguard—after all, what can I do about it.
Even so, when I’m around high school or college students, I’m full of questions.
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Where do they go to hear live music—or do they? What bands are hot? Which famous artists do they ridicule? What do they think about their parents’ music? Is K-Pop really any good? Do they know about a musician named Elvis Presley? Have they ever danced to an actual band (not just a DJ)? Would they ever pay money for a physical album?
In these situations, I consider myself an anthropologist undertaking field research in a strange new land. These youngsters are my informants, and I want to extract as many details as I can from these encounters.
But my favorite question is: What do you think about jazz?
After all, I have a vested interest in their answer. If they grow up to become jazz fans, they just might buy one of my books.
Even so, I’m often sorry I asked.
Over the years I’ve heard many answers to my jazz question, and some make me cringe. I’m almost ready to engage in spontaneous Primal Scream Therapy when a youngster pipes in with: “Jazz? You mean that old kind of music.”
Or: “We studied that in our American history class.” Or: “My parents watched that Ken Burns special.” Or, worst of all: “Jazz? That’s just music for geezers.”
All this pains me because I think of jazz as eternally young. I cherish it as a style of music that is alive in the moment, completely new and spontaneous whenever played at a high level. I consider it the optimal music for visionaries and risk-takers. When I hear it described as a soundtrack for the elderly residents at a retirement home, I want to protest.
But I hold my tongue—it’s best not to upset the informants (that’s what they teach in anthropology school)—and ask more questions. I’m not sure I believe the adage that we learn from the young, but no one can say I haven’t tried.
But recently I’ve started hearing a very different assessment of jazz from young people. The first time I encountered it I was taken aback. Honestly, it was the last thing I expected.
Jazz is romantic music, a young woman told me. And others agreed to this statement. “Yeah just look at those old movies,” someone added.
If you asked me to pick an adjective to describe jazz, I’d never come up with romantic. I’d prefer it if people considered it dangerous or radical or downright nasty. Those are marks of pride in the music world.
My music is nastier than your music.
But romantic? Lovey-dovey? Smoochy and huggable? Oh, pleeeease!
The first time I heard this, I tended to dismiss it as a fluke. These kids had just watched La La Land a few times too many. But after hearing this again and again, I was forced to think long and hard about the implications. If only from a marketing perspective, the emerging consensus deserves attention.
By pure coincidence, I’m an expert in love.
No, it’s not what you’re thinking. I’m an expert in the academic subject of love because I spent ten years researching and writing a book called Love Songs, finally published in 2015 by Oxford University Press. This project forced me to study, in deep detail, the history of romance, courtship, sexuality, and other matters related to love songs.
I even give talks on the subject.
You can laugh at my expertise, but I can state with 100% honesty that my romance credentials even passed peer review. How many of you can say the same?
If you study the data on love, you learn something disturbing—although relevant to the subject at hand. We are living in an age that is starved of romance. But here’s the strangest part of the story: it’s easier than ever to find a physical connection with a partner. As they say: there’s an app for that.
As a result, it’s easier to hookup than go on a romantic date. Has that ever been true before in the history of society?
In fact, the whole timeline of love has been reversed. Let me ask you a simple question. What comes first: romantic courtship or sex? That was an easy question to answer in 1900 or 1950. But it’s a genuine head-scratcher today.
I sometimes ask young people about romance, but you have to be more careful with that topic. It’s a sensitive subject. And it’s especially sensitive when you meet someone above the age of twenty who has never gone on a single romantic date.
That’s not a small demographic. And if you probe you will hear something like this:
Oh, people don’t really date nowadays. We go out in groups.
I’m trying hard not to sound like an old fuddy-duddy here. And, honestly, I don’t have a stake in this game. I’ve been happily married for decades. I don’t date, and I don’t swipe through app profiles. So why should I care how young people connect?
But I hear the disappointment in their voice.
I worry about them, not about me. It’s not just the romance they miss, but all those rituals of courtship they have never experienced. When they see some old movie with couples dancing on dates—often to a jazz big band or some jazzy Sinatra-esque singer—they grasp that there are some things your handheld device can’t do.
The best things in life really are analog.
The jazz couples are usually dressed elegantly. They spend a whole evening out on the town. There’s obviously a sexual ingredient at work, but its embedded it a rich context of flirtation, partying, courtship, and most importantly (at least for our purposes) music.
Romance has been rationalized in our lives, much like a factory process. All the unnecessary steps get bypassed. And from a purely pragmatic point of view, swiping through profiles on a phone app seems far more efficient than a slow, ritualized process of courtship and romantic bonding.
Even so, I’m surprised more smart people—what we call our opinion leaders—haven’t explored the social consequences of this huge cultural shift.
There’s a death of enchantment in our culture—that’s the best term I can come up with for this phenomenon. That’s a huge issue, with ramifications that go far beyond dating procedures. And it’s no surprise to me that people look for music to fill the gap in their lives. After all, music is still a reliable source of enchantment, even in a digital age. If there’s an emotional abyss in our daily routine, music can’t always fill it, but you might be surprised how often it actually delivers the goods.
In this situation, jazz starts to play an unusual role. It gets associated with the last generation that did romantic body-contact dancing on a regular basis. It’s perceived as the soundtrack for the ritualized apparatus of courtship. Just hearing it magically summons a nostalgic longing for a more romantic age.
The kids aren’t wrong—at least not entirely. Miles Davis could be meaner than a junkyard dog. But, yes, he also made romantic music. The folks who tried to prohibit jazz a hundred years ago feared this music precisely for its sensual qualities. They thought it lowered inhibitions and turbocharged the libido. They feared its power to inflame passions.
Those might not be my associations with jazz—a style of music I prefer to consider edgy and subversive and smart and sophisticated. But there’s another part of me that wishes jazz could bring people something more romantic and enchanting. I like the idea of music embedded in life-affirming rituals, and don’t object if anything I do in the music world contributes to that.
Before concluding, let me return to the more practical considerations of folks who work in the music business. I note that the new jazz revival seems to be favoring young bands that play more danceable rhythms. Consider the red hot jazz scenes in London and Los Angeles for obvious examples. Also consider how Lady Gaga is marketing her jazz shows in Las Vegas, and her jazzier recordings—she clearly understands the romantic associations of this music.
Yet what I am saying here may be even more extreme: namely, that this trend will play out no matter what jazz musicians want. There’s something bigger going on in society, far beyond the problems of two people on an airfield in Morocco or even our heated genre concerns. And it will happen despite our best laid plans.
If couples want lovey-dovey jazz, nothing will stop them. Not you or me, or Kenny G.
I can hear some jazz musicians grumbling that they want nothing to do with romantic music. Hey, it could be worse. You don’t really want to play music for geezers, do you?