Jazz Robots go Mr. Roboto: When Cats start Copying

A recent Xtranormal video has gone viral in the jazz community (which means all 64,270 of us in the world have watched it). The original, Jazz Robots, is funny and clever, making fun of the non-judgmental, insincere, praise-reflecting (and yet hyper complimentary) contemporary jazz lingo that mixes uncomfortably with the old ’50s hipster talk in a way that is both dated and humorous, modern and cynical, much like current jazz postures and attitudes. As such, it’s a great parody by Joe Hundertmark, a talented guitarist and composer who crosses boundaries with ease, authenticity and a genuine understanding of the various styles in which he is active.

What’s happened since then is interesting and perhaps telling about the jazz community. Quite a few videos have been posted that ape Hundertmark’s style almost exactly–similar robots, same background, similar dialogue, and a pathetic use of swearing and gay bashing to garner attention. They all attempt to parody jazz lingo and situations, but mostly fall flat. Who has time for this stuff in the first place? But it must be serving some purpose for the writers and the audience. It’s as if jazz musicians are both disenchanted and infatuated at the same time–disenchanted with their career opportunities, so they have to make fun of themselves while quixotically continuing on the same path, and infatuated with transcription, slavishly copying someone who did something original that garnered at least some measure of attention.

Transcription has its place, but no one wants to hear transcriptions, much less to hear them as if they are original pieces. Similarly, transcriptions do not work when they are performed as an homage to an original (Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s performances of Bill Evans’ transcriptions are a supreme example of this annoying brand of hubris). This can only come off as a sad attempt to piggyback on the shoulders of giants.

But the jazz robot videos keep coming. And they keep getting more specific, ornate, and therefore less amusing.

You don’t have to be Greil Marcus to unpack this phenomenon. Jazz involves an enormous investment of time and energy, and jazz musicians erroneously equate effort with monetary reward. When such is not forthcoming, the only viable, affordable, and non-felonious outlet is to lash out in cartoon videos on YouTube. It’s funny, but also sad and predictable; yet another example of how the fallen aren’t mighty.

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