‘Jazzz’ – how the sound of surprise became the sound of narcotise

‘Jazzz’ – how the sound of surprise became the sound of narcotise

Jazzz with 3 zeds.  Boring, predictable. We all know what’s coming. An improvisation. What is it about improvisation anyway? It’s an ambivalent word. Improvisation implies spontaneity – in dance, drama, and some comedy.  At the same time it suggests incompletion, lack of preparation, even shoddiness.  Carrying the implication that the degree of preparation is insufficient – an improvised shelter, an improvised solution.  Guitarist Derek Bailey, summarized the critical view that music improvisation can only be only be “a completely ad hoc activity, frivolous and inconsequential, lacking in design and method”[1].

Some scenes from jazz:

1. The predictable structure of the saxophone solo in live performance:

“I’ll just sort of start slowly, make my way in….”  –  15 or 20 minutes later screaming at the top, raising it to the upper register – exploring your “harmonic facility”.

“How are we going to end the number?

I know – let swap fours.

What about the next one?

I know, let’s swap fours,.. then twos”

2. A small number of men in a dark room watching a small number of men on stage. The ill-fitting waistcoat of the tradder. An old white guy in the pub corner trying to sing like Louis Armstrong. The 35 minutes before someone in the band stumbles on something to say at this the noodle fest that is free-jazz gig today.

3. The mythic history of jazz madness and drugs, the heroin chic/sheikh of araby.

4. Cross-over and fusion – adding strings never worked.

5. “Third Stream”? The BBC Orchestra with a quintet at last years’ LJF festival. And what was in the middle between the orchestra and the quintet? An acoustic screen.

6. Even in British jazz our own “wrong end of the telescope”[2] version of the music, jazz was once capable of generating excitement. Jazz was worth fighting for, over. The Battle of Beauly at the Beauly Jazz Festival 1960 – a pitched battle between trad and modern jazzers. Birmingham Town Hall, 1953. The introduction of saxophonist Bruce Turner into Humphrey Littleton’s band was met we the banner “Go home dirty bopper”.





Let’s agree for a moment – Jazz is dead.  If Jazz died, what was the date?  Here are some suggestions:

1. Death through entrainment and an overload of technique.  In Britain, Jazz died at more-or-less, roughly, exactly the same time as it entered the music college syllabus. Discuss!

2. AMM drummer Eddie Prevost described the development of formal education courses in music colleges and universities as “The production of a new generation of musicians who are brainless clones able and content to emulate every nuance of say a Coltrane or a Parker”[3].  This analysis validates and is validated by an audience which is effectively (in Eddie Prevost’s view) a reformed lobby of former dissidents.  He continues – “the formal education of musicians in the historical techniques of performing jazz produces unthinking players who make flashy parodies of old men’s dreams and a great music’s past”.

3. Jazz died the day the United States State Department started using it for propaganda purposes during the cold war.  A headline from the NYT in 1955:  “United States has secret sonic weapon – Jazz”[4]





I asked people on social media yesterday what they thought was most boring about Jazz. One of their responses:

“There are just two many notes, and the musicians stand still all the time”.


Note: this article is an edited version of a Rant given as part of the 2015 Jazz Rants at Club Inégales on Wednesday 18 November, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.


[1] Bailey, D (1992) Improvisation: its nature and practice in music. New York: Da Capo Press

[2] Larkin, Philip (1985) All What Jazz: A Record Fiary, 1961-1971. London: Faber. Revised edition.

[3] Prévost, Edwin (1995) No Sound is Innocent (Harlow: Copula)

[4] Felix Helair, Jr (1955) “United States Has Secret Sonic Weapon – Jazz” New York Times, August 6, 1995

Related Posts

Leave A Comment