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 jazzbro—not 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 jazzmen—though 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 and—in spite of an amazing range of new, vital music made by musicians young and old—the 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.

As a result, the enthusiasm Chinen observes is important and praiseworthy. Jazz is lively, spontaneous music that deserves lively, spontaneous reactions. (Among the more excruciating musical experiences I've ever had was sitting through a raucous Sonny Rollins concert among politely seated and impassive guests at staid Severance Hall.)

Let's forgive jazzbros the slang, too. Mostly, they make themselves ridiculous with it, and jargon-creation is a natural phenomenon and a useful shibboleth—a way to tell whether you should engage in polite conversation with the guy at your table or if it's OK to argue the finer points of the Albert Ayler boxset. (You don't have that, bro? What are you waiting for?)

But like their Biblical namesake, shibboleths can be dangerous and exclusionary.. Jazz can ill-afford to lose any audience members, and without the Special Knowledge a concert crowd can seem unwelcoming, illegible, and a bit obnoxious.

This commercial truth is banal, but it's inextricable from the touchy matter of race, grasped by Mailer and mostly ignored by Chinen. In December 2011, the trumpeter Nicholas Payton set off an even larger jazz blogosphere firestorm when he posted a manifesto on his website about "Black American Music," which is the term he now uses to describe his music, making him the latest in a long line of jazz musicians to reject the label. ‎"'Jazz' is an oppressive colonialist slave term and I want no parts of it," he wrote. "If Jazz wasn't a slave, why did Ornette [Coleman] try to free it? When Black American Music became 'JAZZ,' it separated itself from the American popular music idiom."

I won't intervene in the BAM debate. But the point that I wish Chinen had made, which he seemed headed toward but never delivered (blame the finite space in the dead-tree JazzTimes) is this: A music based in black popular culture and shaped over the years by black musicians—with significant but on balance lesser contributions from whites—is unlikely to thrive as an artistic or commercial realm if it shrinks to become the province of white, middle-class men who went to conservatories to learn to play blues scales playing concerts attended by white, middle-class men.

I suspect many, and maybe most, jazzbros are acutely attuned to this. As a young white guy getting into jazz, you become quickly self-conscious about race, especially yours. If you're inclined to white guilt, jazz fandom makes it stronger. Even as all the great heroes of the music were black, most of the jazz musicians you're likely to see (especially below the top-tier and outside of major cities) are white. So are the people you see at shows, the high-school band director who leads the jazz band, the jazz DJ on your local NPR station, and most of the other people you know who like jazz are, too. For a long time, I reflexively prejudged any white jazz musician as likely inferior.

Chinen isn't going to convince any jazzbros that their taste is not superior, and it's objectively true that their taste is marginalized. Unlike indie-music nuts, however, for whom obscurity is a cardinal virtue, many jazzbros have an evangelical zeal about the music. But he's right that they need to be more aware of the way outsiders see them. (The same goes for you, jazz nerds.) Here's hoping that awareness can help jazzbros tone down their more obnoxious behavior and redirect their energy and passion into working to widen the music's appeal and reach. Jazz will never be America's dominant music form again, if it ever was. But there's no reason we can't have an epic jazz rager every now and then.

* The essay can be rather grandiose, which Mailer acknowledges and mocks: "What I have offered above is an hypothesis, no more, and there is not the hipster alive who is not absorbed in his own tumultuous hypotheses. Mine is interesting, mine is way out but still I am just one cat in a world of cool cats, and everything interesting is crazy, or at least so the Squares who do not know how to swing would say."