Is 'jazz' a label that no longer works?

David Cazares
David Cazares: I have a fondness for what jazz has come to mean.
MPR Photo

David Cazares is an editor for MPR News.

I've long thought of jazz as a musical gift from African-Americans to the world.

But "jazz" is a word that many modern listeners feel no connection to. Especially young blacks, who think jazz is played out. So I'm not at all surprised that there's a movement to toss the label into history.

But is it possible that the word has done the music harm?

The debate's been going on for decades. It picked up steam in November when the New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton wrote a blog essay called "Why Jazz Isn't Cool Anymore."

Payton says the word "jazz" is a marketing ploy with racist origins that was forced on musicians. He prefers the term "Black American Music," or BAM for short.

His argument isn't only about the word. To him, people who play jazz are living in the past - and 1950s cool is no longer hip. He says "playing jazz is like using the rear-view mirror to drive your car on the freeway."

Payton objects so strongly to the term "jazz" that he has taken to calling it the J-word. He says jazz "is an oppressive colonialist slave term," and he wants no part of it.

The word is said to have emerged in the late 19th century in the brothels of New Orleans. It likely helped attract white audiences to music halls where they could hear an intense and emotional music without having to enter the world from which it sprang.

Of course, white musicians - from George Gershwin to Bill Evans and beyond -- contributed to the development of jazz. Anyone who masters the music can play it. But a number of influential musicians agree that the word should be shelved.

Among them is saxophonist Gary Bartz, who equates "jazz" with the N-word. He says it conjures images of musicians who are broke and on drugs.

Ian Carey, a trumpet player from San Francisco, says he and other white musicians must recognize that jazz arose from a community whose master musicians suffered "vicious racial animosity."

All true. But is it really a good idea to use the umbrella term BAM?

The editor in me disdains most acronyms. But I also have a fondness for what jazz has come to mean.

For many aficionados of a certain age, the word denotes sophistication and intellectual rigor. The late pianist Billy Taylor was fond of calling jazz "America's classical music." It's easy to see how that might sound pretentious or aloof.

If the solution to reconnecting people to a national treasure were as simple as changing its name, I might cast my vote today.

The problem with Payton's substitute is that there are many kinds of black American music. Marvin Gaye. James Brown. Stevie Wonder. A Tribe Called Quest. B.B. King. Mahalia Jackson.

Yes, they all spring from the same root. But shouldn't there be a name for blues-based, improvisational music with rhythm and swing that doesn't apply to other forms? That is the question.

Whatever you call our great music, it is an American phenomenon, and the musicians who play it should have a say in its name.

And if the conversation leads more people to listen to rich improvisational music, that can only be good.

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