The Conversation

PREMATURE ELEGY?

In his November review of Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards, Benjamin Schwarz lamented that America’s most vibrant music has become a relic (“The End of Jazz”), prompting a flurry of arguments that jazz is in fact alive and well.

“Jazz, like the [Great American] Songbook, is a relic—and as such, in 2012 it cannot have, as Gioia wishes for it, an ‘expansive and adaptive repertoire.’ ”

That’s not a thoughtful, well-researched conclusion—it’s just an insult. Schwarz is saying to working jazz composers that they are feeble and not up to the task of creating living music. His argument insults the contemporary musicians who play older tunes: no matter how good they are at their craft, he suggests, they can’t breathe new life into the great old standards. It insults the very songbook he’s attempting to praise: the songs are still performed, improvised on, and recorded—not to mention beloved throughout the world—but the merciless steamroller of time has obliterated them, relegated them to history’s dustbin. So they didn’t endure? Huh. They must not have been that great after all.

Michael J. West
Excerpt from a Washington City Paper blog post

Thanks so much for mostly ignoring jazz for decades, then writing a long article declaring that it is a relic. It’s telling that Benjamin Schwarz did not deem it necessary to name even one jazz musician younger than 50. The omission suits his thesis nicely, but it ignores the fact that jazz has not been wholly or even mostly dependent on Great American Songbook standards since the 1960s. Beginning with Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, the music has become a wondrous, many-faceted garden of original compositional and group approaches. Its relative lack of commercial success in the America of Justin Bieber and Katy Perry says more about the music business and the stripping of music-education programs than it does about jazz itself.

Tony Alexander
Miami, Fla.

During a typical week, I receive at least 100 jazz CDs in my mailbox. I have space to run reviews of about 30 per month in DownBeat, which means that I can provide coverage to less than 10 percent of what arrives. The output is considerable for a genre that Schwarz believes is sounding its death knell (and I’m not even including download-only titles).

So it’s mystifying that Schwarz refuses to even consider many contemporary jazz artists who are creating vibrant music. The pianist Jason Moran has dreamed up new performance ideas from Fats Waller’s compositions (which negates the canard that today’s jazz musicians ignore the Songbook). The bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding is filling large concert halls. The vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz has already made his instrument sound different than any of his predecessors probably imagined. Other musicians, like the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and the saxophonist Marcus Strickland, are also original rising voices who are not listening to Schwarz’s elegy for their budding careers.

The vapid claim that jazz is “a relic” has been made all too often—when I started digging into the archives of my magazine, I saw that such statements have been uttered since the 1930s. These refrains have become relics themselves.

Aaron Cohen
Reviews Editor, DownBeat
Chicago, Ill.

Benjamin Schwarz replies:

Michael J. West read my piece with great hostility, but little care. I began by highlighting Ted Gioia’s comment that jazz no longer has an expansive repertoire. Then, drawing on the arguments and analysis of several renowned jazz critics and musicians, I appraised the ways in which so many great jazz musicians—Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, and Sonny Rollins among them—constructed their own compositions on the chord structures of the entries in the Great American Songbook.

From that evidence, I argued that the Songbook and jazz evolved symbiotically and, most important, that the Songbook was the source linking jazz to the main currents of popular culture and sentiment. I continued by saying that because the conditions that helped develop and enrich jazz and that further linked it to those main currents—an audience of musically sophisticated adults, and a popular, urbane musical and lyrical wellspring from which jazz musicians could draw to create a new repertoire—have disappeared, then jazz is, alas, a relic.

That is not to say that there are not jazz musicians—increasingly isolated in university jazz-studies programs—who are doing great work. But because that work is (again) deracinated from the main currents of popular culture, it isn’t culturally vital. The fault is with the culture, not with jazz. I therefore completely agree with the last sentence of Tony Alexander’s letter. But I cannot muster his enthusiasm for post-Monk jazz, and he has overlooked Monk’s own indebtedness to Gershwin.

As for Aaron Cohen’s list of good, bad, and indifferent musicians, I wonder: How many readers of this magazine listen to them? The answer speaks to the ancillary role jazz plays in our willfully infantile culture, and hence to its status as a relic.

GENE THIEVES

In the November issue, three co-authors—an expert in genetics and microbiology, another in global security and law enforcement, and a journalist—laid out the national-security threat posed by rapidly advancing synthetic biology (“Hacking the President’s DNA,” Andrew Hessel, Marc Goodman, and Steven Kotler).

I am disappointed that The Atlantic would publish an article so filled with speculation. Starting a nonfiction article with a fear-laden scenario that has no basis in reality amounts to cheap tricks and inhibits people from having an intelligent conversation about the matter at hand. As seen with reporting on cyber threats, which have actually been documented (unlike the topic of this article), sensationalism does nothing to actually help the situation.

Becky Rae Watson
Columbia, Md.

This article leapfrogs from one scary scenario to another without providing any connecting tendrils, instead hoping that the reader just ignores these chasms. To give just one example: “Several viruses are already known to spark cancers. New ones could eventually be designed to infect the brain with, for instance, synthetic schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or Alzheimer’s.” Well, just how difficult is it to produce “synthetic schizophrenia”? I’m a molecular biologist by training, and I have no idea. What’s conveniently omitted is that our current knowledge of how schizophrenia naturally arises is murky at best, with perhaps hundreds of genes being involved, not to mention environmental influences. Most of the article unfortunately focuses on what could possibly happen, while ignoring whether the statistical likelihood of said events is even probable. Trends in technologies such as gene sequencing—which certainly has progressed in leaps and bounds—are mentioned in the same article with gene targeting, as if this separate technology is just as advanced. It’s not. It’s extremely hard to do mammalian gene targeting. And that is for just one site in the genome, which is not enough to distinguish between individuals. It’s the difference between using telescopes to pinpoint exactly where the planet Jupiter is located and using advanced propulsion to get there—two very different things.

If you’re not familiar with all the inherent limitations of these disparate technologies, and the limitations being conveniently glossed over or not even mentioned in the article, you may be tempted to think that all of these parts are close to coming together to form some sort of dark singularity on the horizon. My fear instead is that the president or members of Congress will read this article and as a result devote an inordinate amount of resources to curbing threats whose chances of occurrence are statistically nil, rather than more-likely threats, such as rogue nations and groups intent on enhancing known pathogens for use in a “poor man’s nuke.” These are realistic threats. Targeting the president with a custom-fitted retrovirus is not.

Oliver Medvedik
TheAtlantic.com comment

I thoroughly enjoyed this clear, informative discussion of the societal challenges posed by synthetic biology. No doubt, some knowledgeable readers may be concerned about discussions of technological possibilities that do not yet exist, and may in some cases never exist. I, however, am most appreciative of articles that flag social and ethical challenges that we need to plan for, rather than articles that only react once some harmful event has already occurred.

Wendell Wallach
Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics
Yale University Institution for Social and Policy Studies
New Haven, Conn.

Andrew Hessel, Marc Goodman, and Steven Kotler reply:

The aim of our article was to be provocative and to draw attention to the fact that genomic technologies are developing faster than most people, including many scientists, appreciate. Moreover, as biological systems become increasingly programmable (the chief goal of the fast-emerging field of synthetic biology), we foresee the well-documented dynamics observed in the cyber domain appearing in biotechnology. The reality is that (a) synthetic viruses were demonstrated more than a decade ago with synthetic polio, a virus known to be able to infect nerves and cause paralysis and other complications; (b) viruses have a wide range of biological effects in humans, some acute and some pernicious; and (c) viruses are relatively easy to engineer. The limits of synthetic biology are being pushed further out each year, and costs are falling exponentially, so we believe it is appropriate and necessary to speculate on possible futures, recognizing that errors in design or judgment will be made and that at least a few developers will be malicious. Better to discuss the risk scenarios and act with intention today than to reflexively clamp down on the technology when the (inevitable) hack comes to light tomorrow. We hope that by raising awareness and seeding discussion, we stimulate interest and investment in these technologies, including those that facilitate real-time monitoring of infectious agents, natural or engineered.

The Liveliest Conversations

The Atlantic’s e-mail inbox bulged with reader commentary in 2012, as did TheAtlantic.com’s comments section. Here are last year’s most-responded-to articles:

1. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, July/August

2. “Fear of a Black President,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, September

3. “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy,” by Kathleen McAuliffe, March

4. Tie: “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?,” by Stephen Marche, May, and “The Weaker Sex,” by Sandra Tsing Loh, October

5. “The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control),” by Jeffrey Goldberg, December

Since the January/February issue went to press, "The Case for More Guns (and More Gun Control)" has moved from fifth place to fourth place. The March Conversation will highlight responses to this article.

To contribute to The Conversation, please e-mail letters@theatlantic.com. Include your full name, city, and state.

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