To Dance or to Listen

By: Corey Distler

Styles get stale. Especially with our ever-changing environment. New products need new consumers. Old products need new packaging to appeal to new consumers. Our tastes are changing as fast as new products spring out of the factories in Taiwan. Look at our preference of musical styles for example. It is an exponentially growing collage of all mixes and matches of all styles. There’s jazz, there’s rock, there’s fusion, there’s funk and hip-hop and metal and reggae and classical and electronic etc. It seems as though universal pop music, as in one style ruling all others has almost died, but there was a time when you listened to almost entirely classical and at another you listened to only jazz.

Billboard Chart from July, 1940 (Entirely Jazz):

As a jazz student, I have learned to appreciate the dissonance and complexity of the music that most people find difficult to connect with emotionally. It is incredibly interesting to me that this slowly dying art form was once mainstream and listened to by a large majority of Americans. The same goes for classical music, but I feel that it has found a niche in film that jazz has not. Why is it that jazz was all the rage 50 to 60 years ago, but now has become a relatively exclusive art form?

One theory is that as our lives have become more complex, busy and filled with over-stimulation, our ability to listen and process complex music like classical or jazz has diminished. It is not the fact that jazz and classical are not being created or distributed, but instead that our musical desires have changed to compliment our fast-moving lifestyles.

Was this by choice? The diminishing taste for classical could be attributed to jazz which was danceable, loud, spontaneous and fast moving compared to classical. The decline of jazz could be attributed to the rise of Rock n’ Roll in the 50’s and 60’s. Rock was simpler than jazz and more based on the timbre of the instruments and recording techniques than the abilities of the musicians. This is not to say that there are not rock musician’s who are extremely talented (some of which mixed in aspects of jazz), but to point out the change from art music to pop music. It is interesting to note that this spotlight shift coincided with T.V.s becoming widespread in the 40’s and 50’s. Shows like Ed Sulivan and American Bandstand played a huge role in catapulting now famous bands to stardom and pop culture status.

The infamous umbrella term “the British invasion” refers to European bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin whom took the American youth by storm in the 60’s. This group of bands were ironically rooted in the same style of music as jazz, which they were essentially killing. At the root of both is the blues; a repetitive style of music that revolves around a simple harmonic structure, leaving lots of room for improvisation. As far as interpretation, jazz took blues’ structure and melodies to the farthest reaches of space, while rock n’ roll kept the structure the same but took the sound of the instrumental and vocals to the extreme.

There are aspects of all types of music that are universal. Chord progressions, melodic movement, dynamics, tension and release, as well as tempo changes all exist because they are universally accepted as aspects of music that provide satisfaction to the performer and the listener. The concept of music itself is a perfect example of pop culture in that we as humans (maybe more accurately as individual nations) came to a consensus on which specific pitches and rhythms sound good combined with other certain pitches and rhythms. Maybe the reason jazz has lost it’s fire is because it began to push the boundaries of our universal definitions of what music should be, when all people wanted was to dance away all their troubles from the busy day.

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