Jazzbros: A Force for Jazzgood or Jazzevil?

Young, mostly white, and convinced of their superior taste, this breed of fan could be a sign of jazz's decline or a force for its renewal.
Jazzbros love Chris Potter. (AP / Eric Risberg)

Last month, the critic Nate Chinen wrote a column in JazzTimes that has roiled the jazz blogosphere. As soon as I started reading, I could see why it kicked up a fuss, because I felt myself reflexively assuming a defensive crouch:

A jazzbronot to be confused with a jazzbo, its older taxonomical cousin—is a self-styled jazz aficionado, overwhelmingly male and usually a musician in training himself, who expresses a handful of determinative social behaviors. Among these are a migratory pattern from the practice room, where they often nest alone, to the jazz club, where they travel in packs; a compulsion to signal the awareness of any mildly startling musical detail, with muttered exclamations like the aforementioned "Woooo"; the emphatic adjectival use of the word "killing," as in "that solo was killing"; and the exploitation of jazz knowledge as a private commodity selectively put on public display.

Elsewhere, Chinen offers some more signal traits. The jazzbro is "utterly convinced of both the superiority of his taste and the marginalization of his ideas." As with the standard bro, the jazzbro is usually between the ages of 18 and 34 and is most likely white and male, but there are black and female jazzbros, too. (Namechecked but left vague are jazz-nerds, a separate group whose main distinguishing characteristic appears to be a fondness for transcribed solos.) I'm not a musician in training, but I saw myself in almost all of the other descriptors. I'm the guy always bobbing in his seat, whether at a divey club or a concert hall. I sometimes call people "cats," and I know people who use words like "hip" and "dig" and "swinging" unselfconsciously, though there's no way the habit didn't start as affectation. I'm listening to this as I write.

So I was ready to be taken to the woodshed, and not in the jazz musician's sense of practicing. But Chinen's column, along with a follow-up on his personal blog, proved disappointing. He had an excellent conceit, and he has targets that are both juicy and deserving. His overarching point seems to be that jazzbros risk alienating non-jazzbros from the jazz audience and distracting from the music itself. More than anything, what sets Chinen off (and this is a man who writes about music for a living) is the "performative" demonstration of jazz smarts. Yet he doesn't offer any prescription except an admonition to self-awareness. That's a problem, because the hegemony of the jazzbro poses a serious challenge to jazz's ongoing health.

Chinen correctly relates the jazzbro to "The White Negro," Norman Mailer's classic 1957 essay on hipsters (the late '50s kind, not the PBR-and-mustache kind). Mailer posits the presence of a type of young white man, numbed to the world by Auschwitz and Hiroshima and put off leftist politics, which might have captured him in another time, by the brutality of the Soviet Union. With little else to hang onto, he seeks thrills and danger by roaming the streets, speaking in jazz patois, getting stoned, and emulating black jazzmenthough the pidgin and the pot are part of that mimicry. "It is no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro for he has been living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries," Mailer writes. "But the presence of Hip as a working philosophy in the sub-worlds of American life is probably due to jazz, and its knife-like entrance into culture, its subtle but so penetrating influence on an avant-garde generation." *

Parts of "The White Negro" read today as prophetic (here's the summer of love foretold a decade early: "Hip may erupt as a psychically armed rebellion whose sexual impetus may rebound against the anti-sexual foundation of every organized power in America .... A time of violence, new hysteria, confusion and rebellion will then be likely to replace the time of conformity"); others as problematic ("The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro" ); others describe a society that has hardly changed, as the Trayvon Martin trial reminds us ("Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk.")

Unlike the hipster, Chinen's jazzbro doesn't feel alienated from society or life, except aesthetically. "It's just that society, as he knows it, can no longer be understood as a solid mass: Culture at large has been fragmented and micro-tagged," he writes. "Yet jazzbros seek communion. It's one reason they flock to music school and ritually converge anytime Chris Potter is in town with his Underground band."

Chris Potter is the man! But, uh, I digress. Is the desire to flock together worthy of condemnation? And if so, why? Infuriatingly, Chinen's follow-up post only muddies the waters: "Excuse the bro-minology, but I'm really just bustin' some balls here. I kid because I care. But I also kid because, c'mon. Sometimes we can all stand to laugh at our damn selves."

One big problem with Chinen's argument is that unlike Mailer, he doesn't lay out the stakes, which is notable because there's plenty to care and worry about. Record sales are atrocious andin spite of an amazing range of new, vital music made by musicians young and oldthe music risks becoming a museum piece. Have you been to a jazz concert recently? (Odds are no!) Often the audience can be broken into three main groups: aging jazz fans; aging concertgoers (bourgeois types who subscribe to the local orchestra and care about a range of performing arts, but don't obsessively track new jazz releases); and then a bunch of what Chinen would apparently call jazzbros. There's no one else to speak of. The problem isn't that the young jazz-listening audience is dominated by a subgroup that might be identified as jazzbros. It's that the entire group is jazzbros.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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