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An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

August 31, 2006 Jazz Blog 2 Comments

Why jazz is big in Japan

tokyoDan Jacobs, a professional trumpeter and frequent commenter on this site, recently featured and article by Dyske Suematsu on his site. In the article, Suematsu, a Japanese-born writer, discusses his thoughts about why jazz is more popular in Japan than it is here in America.

Suematsu argues that Japanese people (and other non-English speaking people) have become conditioned to listen to, and to appreciate, the instrumental/melodic side of music because they routinely listen to music in other languages (e.g. American Pop music). Unable to understand the lyrics, the instrumental side naturally takes center stage. Americans, on the other hand, typically listen to English-speaking music and are more likely to gravitate to the lyrics. For many, the lyrics become the most important part of music, making it difficult to relate to music WITHOUT lyrics. That being the case, jazz doesn't stand a chance. It's just a bunch of random noise...

You can read the original article here, or here. It's an interesting view that I hadn't considered before, but now that I've read it, it makes a lot of sense. By the way, I disagree with Suematsu's last paragraph. I'm not exactly sure what Suematsu is trying to say about the death of "Jazz", but to compare it to a Civil War reenactment doesn't jive with me. A Civil War reenactment, by definition, is intentionally NOT creative. It strictly adheres to previous events, reproducing them as closely as possible without deviation. Any form of jazz improvisation, however, is creative by nature and intention. While it may not always be innovative, it is at least a personal expression of creativity.

While popular music has catchy rhythms and lyrics that anyone can understand, I think that music minus the lyrics is a deeper form of artistic expression. I could write lyrics in about 5 minutes that would probably be the same quality as those found in a pop song, covering the same typical topics that have been recycled since the birth of rock. The lyrics are only worth listening to if they were written by a true poet, someone such as Bob Dylan.

John Coltrane used to say how he believed music could be used to transfer any emotion to another person, make them feel what you are feeling, and that people could be cured with music. I think that when a jazzer really has "IT" (read Kerouc's "On the Road"), you connect with the music on some higher level which triggers certain feelings or emotions simply through the instrument, and the player's improvisational playing, coming straight from the subconscious. Jazz truely requires the motivation to REALLY listen, understand, and perceive, all that is going on with the sound, and maybe inside the mind of the guy who is playing, maybe even inside your own mind. This is the nature of music and thought when it is not restricted by simplistic boundaries. Sure, pop music is great for blasting a catchy tune or beat while cruising in the car, but when you really want a musical experience, when you really want to listen to real art in the making, the subconscious mind, nirvana, etc, jazz is IT.

Comment by jason schwager

Dean's on it. I thank Suematsu for his observations. Like most things there are pearls in the drek. Extract the pearls and you have, well a pearl. Suematsu's obervation about lyrics strikes me as one of those pearls. The silly business about jazz is dead,however, is mental waste.

Jazz never was static. To claim it's dead is as absurd as saying it isn't what it used to be so it's dead. The dynamism of jazz, or any art, is the incessant adventure to new ground. Jazz has always done that -- sometimes faster, sometimes slower -- and it continues to do that today. Anything that slows down enough, stops, and then cannot move dies like an abandoned car at the side of the road. Some people like to restore them. Fine. But it isn't jazz today, it's history. So jazz lives and when someone says it's dead it is because they are unable to hear it when they encounter it.

A sad moment of prayer for those whose ears failed them.

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