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Mayday for the music too

Like New Orleans, with which it's linked, jazz is in crisis. The art form deserves a bailout from a sagging, often parodied public image.

November 06, 2005|Paul de Barros | Special to The Times

WITH all the disturbing images of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, it's been gratifying to watch the Crescent City's traditional identity as the birthplace of jazz seep back into the coverage.

Jazz is nothing if not a music that looks trouble in the eye -- and celebrates -- as New Orleanians have been doing for a century at funerals. Not long after the tragedy struck, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival announced that the 2006 event would go on -- somewhere, sometime, somehow.

As it happens, New Orleans -- and images of jazz -- had been on my mind even before the hurricane. On a musician's recommendation, I rented a film set in the Crescent City, "Tune In Tomorrow" (1990), starring Peter Falk as an unctuous hack who writes radio soap operas that gradually become a bit too true to life. A young Wynton Marsalis, who wrote the score, plays trumpet with his band in several lively scenes.

Needless to say, "Tune In Tomorrow's" sumptuous sunlit images of French Quarter nightclubs, Garden District mansions and aboveground cemeteries took on new poignancy over the next week, as New Orleans drowned in the storm.

Beyond deepening the sadness of all that was suddenly lost, the film also got me thinking. "Tune In Tomorrow" presents jazz as a joyous, celebratory, expressive and communal backdrop for the pageant of life, from birth to death.

But as images of jazz in mass media go, it's a real exception. Most films and TV shows today portray jazz as an overintellectualized, remote, abrasive music popular only with loners, hipsters and losers.

In his eloquent announcement last month for "Higher Ground," a New York benefit for hurricane victims, Marsalis, a New Orleans native and the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, declared, as he often has, that jazz "is important because it's the only art form that objectifies the fundamental principles of American democracy. That's why it swept the country and the world representing the best of the United States."

When Marsalis said jazz "objectifies" democracy, he was merely pointing out the obvious -- that jazz allows each player to have a say (a solo), while also working with the group (the tune). This uniquely American negotiation between the individual and the community has also encompassed several "collisions" between cultures, including the one in New Orleans among Spanish, French, British, West African and American that resulted in jazz. Other cultural blends have followed, including Afro-Cuban jazz, Brazilian jazz and, more recently, alto saxophonist John Zorn's braiding of jazz and Eastern European melodies into what he calls Radical Jewish Music.

It seems reasonable to ask, given the rich variety of jazz over the years, why the music gets such a generally negative rap in mass media.

'All over the place'

YOU don't have to search far to find these demeaning, dismissive images. They're everywhere.

Take that episode in Season Four of "Sex and the City," when Carrie Bradshaw dates a goofy jazz bass player named Ray King.

"This might be a good time to tell you," Carrie confesses, "I don't like jazz. You can't follow it. There's no melody. And it's just like" -- she throws up her palms, squealing -- "all over the place."

King (played opposite Sarah Jessica Parker with subtlety by Craig Bierko) isn't the finger-popping, bongo-slapping solipsist who occasionally turns up on TV as a caricature of a "jazz musician," but he's not exactly a catch, either.

Ray moves in a frenzy from one infatuation to the next, madly chopping vegetables, pointing out a walking bass line on an LP -- "this lick right here, man! ... How about that! ... Jesus, that's sweet" -- unable to focus on anything but the sensual present.

"Do you play all those instruments?" Carrie asks, impressed by his collection. " 'Play' is a little strong," he answers. "I learn to play a few notes. When I get bored, I move on."

Though sex with Ray is fantastic -- Hey, why not? Isn't "jazz" a slang word for sex? -- when she wakes up in an empty bed listening to him finger-picking a banjo in the next room, she concludes that Ray, like jazz, doesn't quite live up to the vaunted promise of being "spontaneous and unpredictable and thrilling." He's "just a guy with ADD."

Alone again, she passes a sidewalk tenor saxophonist at the foot of the Queensborough Bridge (wrong bridge, but a clever allusion, nevertheless, to Sonny Rollins' 1959 sabbatical practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge), then confesses in the voice-over, "I still like a song with a melody I can sing to."

But Carrie's critique of jazz is gentle compared with the devastating portrayal in the 1996 Cameron Crowe film "Jerry Maguire." In that romantic comedy, Tom Cruise plays a sports agent who falls in love with a single mom, Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger), whose protective male nanny, Chad (Todd Louiso), offers a vicious parody of a spacey jazz fanatic.

When Jerry gets lucky with Dorothy on their first date, there is a comic scene on the porch between Chad and Jerry.

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