Why I don’t like “Why Americans Don’t Like Jazz”

There’s an article by a gentleman named Dyske Suematsu making the rounds at the moment. It’s largely the usual sort of American-bashing but there are other elements to it that have been bothering me.

The thesis is, put very simply, that the American listener is getting progressively lazier and thus jazz is dying out. Now, both of these things are basically true; that’s not the problem I have with the article. The problem is, a number of highly questionable assumptions are made, about the nature of music and what dictates quality (or lack thereof) – and stated as fact. If the point of the article weren’t so valid it wouldn’t bother me – but I actually agree with it, to an extent – and I hate to see it so poorly argued.

Mr. Suematsu is clearly an avid listener (at least to some kinds of music) – but not a musician himself; he makes no bones about his indifference to lyrics. Fair enough; I tend to pay more attention to the instrumental aspects of music myself. Over the course of a couple paragraphs, though, he moves from describing his personal stance to making some rather more adventurous statements.
Bear with me here: his reasoning is that Japanese listeners (including himself) are more attuned to instrumental music because of the omnipresence of American music in Japan; since the lyrics are – for Japanese listeners – largely incomprehensible, they hear the music primarily as instrumental, thus explaining the continued popularity of jazz in Japan.
Now, quite a lot of jazz has always been vocal and the popularity of jazz in Japan stems from a time when American music was (I suspect) not so prevalent there – but we’ll let that go for now.

He goes on to claim that instrumental music is more abstract than vocal music (what, then, of centuries-old instrumental folk music traditions? Or, if you prefer to look at it from the other side, the songs of Anton Webern?). Then the following:

“For Americans, music is a background element, a mere side dish to be served with the main course. If they are forced to listen to a piece of instrumental music without any visuals, they don’t know what to do with their eyes, much like the way a nervous speaker standing in front of a large audience struggles to figure out what to do with his hands.”

Um. I guess my man’s never been to a club where people habitually listen and dance to music – sometimes completely without visual aids! Also, the pen-in-hand simile would seem here to be poorly chosen, since sensory input to the brain on two channels is difficult to compare with the venting of nervous energy. I grant that human culture (calling this a strictly American phenomenon is disingenuous) is predominantly visual – but what of it? I’m not sure that’s a product of “our times” and this statement certainly hasn’t convinced me of it.

A few more sweeping generalizations follow, such as: “Most Americans do not know what to do with abstraction in general,” illustrated with the age-old complaints about Philistines in a modern art museum. He asserts that people “…are unable to let the abstraction affect their emotions directly; their experience must be filtered through interpretations.” This may be true, if entirely subjective – but are we not all to a very great extent the sum of our life experience, do we not filter everything through that prism?

But then comes the bomb:

This is why songs with lyrics in your own language and paintings with recognizable objects are easier for most people to appreciate. They give their minds something to do. It is like holding a pen in your hand when you are speaking in front of a large audience; you become less nervous because your hands have something to do.

OK. Lyrics, then, are simply something to occupy your (metaphorical) hands, not an integral part of music. We’re obviously not a fan of Dylan, or of any poetry ever set to music: language, it would seem, is separate from – and inferior to – music. It simply interferes with the “pure absorption” of it by our restless brains. It gets better: “If the song has any musical substance, it can be played on a piano alone.” There goes all percussion music – in fact, there goes everything not based on the Western tonal system, including Japanese folk music. And most of 20th century Western art music. (I realize I’m waxing a bit rhetorical but in comparison to these wild flights of unsupported bombast – fair’s fair.)

He goes on to advocate the teaching of more instrumental music in schools and other such measures. Great! But unfortunately he’s long since lost any credibility for me. He winds up on a dire note:

The dominance of words and visuals in the American culture has lead people to believe that listening to Rap or watching music videos is the full extent of what music has to offer. If this goes on, they’ll be missing a huge chunk of what life has to offer.

Well . . . the immense popularity of iPods and other devices which only play music would seem to call this into question. On the other hand: music, as far as we can reconstruct, has always been a part of ritual, always been coupled with other media. Text, to be sure – but also dance, theater and anything else you can pack into a ritual. It’s the nature of the thing. And on the other other hand – anyone claiming to distinguish between “high” and “popular” art automatically sets themselves up as an authority of which is which – and ignores the very long history of the latter turning into the former. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I wouldn’t presume.