A friend of mine sent me a New York Times article by Ben Ratliff from 2009 entitled Jazz and Metal, Riffs in Arms. I read it, and told my friend that I found it “strange” to which he responded “what’s strange about this?” Ratliff is a noted jazz writer, critic, and historian, so I was confused by this article and decided to take a closer look.
Ben Ratliff: JAZZ is metal.
FraKathustra: OK, got it, jazz is metal, or metal-ish maybe. Now I’m intrigued. This will be cool. Ratliff will now provide his arguments and evidence in support of this wild assertion.
BR: Well, of course it isn’t, really.
F: Come on Ben, that’s not fair. First, you said it was, then you said it wasn’t, but then you qualified that and hedged by adding “really” at the end. Which is it?
BR: It is both. Or neither. And both. (Sorry, that’s not Ben Ratliff, that’s Yoda, or one of those people who wrote one of those Zen books about X and the art of Something or Other.)
First, there’s the subheading “Where Pat Metheny and Nachtmystium Overlap” which is telling in and of itself. Pat Metheny (quite sure this is the name on his birth certificate) is a well known jazz artist. Nachtmystium is a metal band, not very well known, whose vocalist/guitarist is Azentrius–aka Blake Judd (not sure if this is his real name, but I doubt it) and whose bassist is Jon Necromancer (quite sure this is not his real name).
And then there’s the mashed up German/pseudo Latin name Nachtmystium. Nacht (German for “night”) and mystium (fake Latin for “something mystical, ancient, Roman, and therefore scary”) so this translates as “Nighttime Mystical Scary German Latin Stuff That You Do Not, I repeat DO NOT want to mess with.” And let’s not even try to decipher “Azentrius” which was Jake Blood’s original fake name. (Jake Blood or Blake Judd? We report, you decide. I’m guessing Blake Judd is his clever pseudonym to hide his Twilight inspired vampire roots, or perhaps he’s the long lost dyslexic bastard son/brother of the Judds).
According to Ratliff, there are some strong similarities between jazz and metal. The genres have become “harder to reduce and easier to like, in a sum-total kind of way.” (Both “harder” and “easier” in the same sentence is irresistible–I’m sold on this!) But that’s not all because “…in the process they’ve generated more and more points of comparison.” So, in addition to everything else, there are “more and more points of comparison.” See? It’s self-evident, for those with eyes to see.
Let’s look at what Ratliff identifies as similarities:
1. Jazz and Metal are “brainy and cabalistic, with a hint of a smile.”
“Brainy” I understand, but cabalistic? Are there occult secrets hiding in the jazz vault somewhere? (I think that Miles Runs the Voodoo Down was just a clever turn of phrase.) And what is this “a hint of a smile” supposed to mean? There’s more than a “hint” of a smile that we get from Duke Ellington, but there’s no smiles from Miles and no chuckles from Coltrane. This is nothing but trendy rhetoric (Madonna’s fascination with Kabbalah mysticism resulted in some pop culture notoriety several years ago) in place of real evidence and analysis. Still, I can see calling Metal bands “cabalistic” since most go to great lengths to create the mystery and B movie horror film theatrics that are often so much a part of their aesthetic. (See commentary above regarding Blake Judd, Jake Blood, Mr. Necromancer, and the laughable group name itself.) Cabalistic fits metal, but it does not fit with jazz at all.
2. Both “increasingly depend on educated virtuosos.”
Jazz musicians have always been virtuosos on their instruments, and jazz musicians in the past could hardly be called “uneducated.” Perhaps Ratliff means a formal education, which is certainly true for jazz musicians prior to the 1980s, but even then, many did go to college. For example, Bill Evans had a bachelor’s degree in piano performance from Southeastern Louisiana State University, and Miles Davis attended Julliard. Others studied in an informal but nonetheless rigorous manner. (Is there any doubt that Charlie Parker’s study of Stravinsky or Coltrane’s study of Slonimsky and traditional music theory was anything other than robust, deep, and meaningful?)
Coltrane and Evans came up in an era during which a musician could not study jazz in college. By the time of Evans’ death in 1980, in the US at least, university music programs offering some level of jazz instruction were proliferating quickly, and by the 1990’s there were many that offered advanced graduate degrees in jazz performance, composition, and history. The question then, of whether jazz musicians were formally educated or not rests partially on access and opportunity as much as it does on whether the music “depended” on it. A deep practical knowledge of music theory (formally trained or not) and virtuoso (or near virtuoso) technical skills have been a requirement in jazz almost from its beginnings a century ago. To suggest that jazz is only now “increasingly [dependent] on educated virtuosos” is absurd.
3. Both can “develop curious harmonic worlds, warp the tempos, brush against folkloric or conservatory music, play many notes very speedily and engage sturdy American grooves or a more studied system of fitting odd-number beats into even-number meters.”
The same could be said of various strains of contemporary classical, minimalism, electronica, house, and probably a few more.
In “sum-total,” what Ratliff lists as evidence is not persuasive. These are all surface level characteristics that don’t clearly define jazz. The aesthetic in jazz is more than music theory, fast riffs, smooth arpeggios, and odd meters or metric modulations–those things are the means (and yes, there are some similarities with metal), but not the end. When I hear people talking about metal, the technical prowess, the means, is often the focus: “Did you hear that double bass drum? How is that humanly possible at that tempo? Check out the guitar comping here–it’s insanely fast!” Do jazz musicians talk about technique like this? Sure we do, but it’s not the focus. When we talk about Keith Jarrett’s piano wizardry, we marvel at the technique in service to the expression that Jarrett regularly achieves; conversely, when we talk about Miles Davis’ lack of virtuoso trumpet skills, we nonetheless marvel at the unsurpassed depth of expression present in his music and his playing.
The underlying impulse in jazz beckons the listener with a style that retains at least a remnant of its social, utilitarian function (dance). What that amounts to is a style that is grounded in folk traditions, and yet is also rich in expression, subtlety, and intellectual content. The folk elements are important; jazz invites the audience to come in and listen and participate. Metal, on the other hand (as Ratliff curiously also admits), assaults and threatens the listener, aspects that are indeed defining characteristics of metal. Jazz doesn’t do that. At its core, jazz is a sophisticated, refined, and measured style. It is an advanced form of artistic self-expression that operates under a strict set of self-imposed aesthetic guidelines that eschew self-aggrandizement, crudeness of expression, and vulgarity, as elements that would besmirch the nobility of the genre’s heritage and traditions. Metal, on the other hand, revels in many of these things. Metal is violent and aggressive and no amount of music theory or mixed meters will dress that up or mask it and make it “like jazz.”
Jazz was created in an era where everyone wore suits and ties when they went out. Hats, suits, polite handshakes, “yes sir, no sir, no thank you Ma’am” etc. That level of civility, dignity, courtesy and respect permeates jazz (and classical music for that matter) making the contrast between jazz and metal and the cultures that produced them extremely visible. This is one of the reasons I think that both jazz and classical music are unable to garner sustainable audiences–we are no longer civil or respectful enough to live intimately with these genres, and to listen to them is a reminder of our own shortcomings, hence, we avoid them.
And how could it be otherwise? We live in an era that glorifies the mundane (Facebook, X-Factor), and whose preferred method of communication increasingly consists (especially for the younger generation) of truncated text and tweet messages. When concrete language is dumbed down in this manner, is it any wonder that the even more abstracted languages of advanced music genres like jazz and classical (who both rely on a complex and self-referential system of musical rhetoric) will seem increasingly out of place?
To close, here’s the picture of Metheny and Blake Judd (or whatever his name is) from the Ratliff article:
Credit: Rafa Rivas/Agence France-Presse-Getty Images; Rahav Segev NYT
Metheny is seated, legs crossed, head lowered, eyes closed, lips pursed, with a pained expression that indicates humility and reverence for the musical truth that is emanating from from his instrument. Jake Blood is standing in an aggressive posture, tattoos and nonfunctional leather in full display, weight lifter’s physique on parade, screaming into the microphone with a facial expression that suggests he is about to either projectile vomit or breathe fire on the audience, both of which would be quite unpleasant.
In Ratliff suggests there are similarities here; I suggest that this picture alone tells the real story. Jazz is not metal and metal is not jazz.