Jazz versus Pop in 21st Century South Africa. This is a question that has time and again proved to be precarious at best, in whatever discussion. Being a jazz player and a musically open-minded individual, I’m often caught between two polar ends that never seem to see eye to eye. Jazz and Pop. 

On one hand you have commercial radio blaring out the latest Top 40 electronically infused, dance floor smashing, massively downloaded Nicky Minaj hit – and on the other; you have the quaint Monday night jazz jam session. The two are world’s apart. When I worked in commercial radio, I quickly realised that the business of music has less to do with the more progressive and aesthetic sensibility; than it does with hype and clever marketing. Being a marketing graduate, I can attest.

On a trip to one of the bigger commercial radio stations a few years ago, it dawned on me that demographic analysis and social profiling has much to do with the construction of an all-consuming audience target market; and that some of the more fringe genres had somehow lost their appeal, and could no longer remain relevant. Is jazz still relevant? Before I got into jazz, I often thought of it as a style of music that was defined by its use of brass instruments and saxophone. Later; I thought it had to be any kind of instrumental music that is usually played in elevators as you stand awkwardly waiting for your floor, or when you’re watching a passionate scene in one of those cheesy B-grade movies. Years later, the mass perception remains the same. Mention jazz and you get remarks about Kenny G, Earth Wind & Fire, The Commodores, The Bee Gees, and maybe even George Benson. There is a massive misconception at work.

About a year ago; I posted a critique about a supposed jazz concert whose line-up consisted of artists like Loyiso (RnB) and Liquid Deep (House), and a few other non-jazz artists. The post ended up on radio personality Gary van Dyk’s Cape Talk/702 Koesiesta Culture Club discussion forum on Facebook, where one user lambasted the post: saying I mustn’t judge and that they’ll pray for my soul – lest I end up in the fiery pit of hell. I think that Gary agreed with my point nonetheless. The disgruntled user must have thought that Gary didn’t approve of my scepticism and was reposting my critique so that my thoughts could be scrutinized by members of the jazz forum. The user’s response was evidence enough that the perception of jazz had somehow lost a very clear-cut definition, and that it had somehow been watered down into a miniscule residual image of its former glory.

I remember listening to jazz tunes while walking down the corridor of my undergraduate department, and hearing people say things like, “That’s porno music” and “Turn it off!”. I also remember begging my peers to attend some jazz gigs I was playing, and feeling partially disheartened at the lack of turn out at said events. Time and time again, I realised that somehow the demographic I was targeting; was on the whole not interested in the service I was offering.

In other social spheres, it may be argued that jazz is still alive and well. Events are well attended – but younger demographics are not always inspired by musical virtuosity and modern progressivism. Often times I’ll be on the band stand peering into what I can barely make out as a sea of individuals aged 40 +; sipping wine and talking about politics. I’m not bitter, and by no means is this meant to bum anyone out. It just seems that a large part of the legacy of jazz is dwindling about on the periphery.

I’d like to hear your thoughts. Is jazz still alive? Or was Zim Ngqawana’s opinion that it is dead, an unsettling foreboding of what most of us jazz lovers are too proud to admit?

Here is a video by Gil Scott-Heron (an artist I really admire) called “Is that Jazz?”. I suppose his ideas preceded this discussion by a good many years, and I think this video is quite appropriate. Enjoy!




0 thoughts on “But is that Jazz?

  1. If Jimmi Hendrix’s music was regarded as Rhythm & Blues in his day …. Why on earth are these other crooning bitches regarded in the same light today??

    1. Karo, I do have an issue with these types of labels. I mean Beyonce and Neyo are also considered RnB, even though they are straight pop. So where does one draw the line?

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