Culture Jim Gala

Baby Boomers and the Death of Jazz

Contemporary music lacks the conscience, nuance and soul of jazz, an absence that has had a profound effect on American culture.
Miles Davis performing in France in 1963.
Miles Davis performs in July 1963 in Antibes, France, accompanied by Ron Carter (left) and Tony Williams (right). (Wikimedia Commons)

By Jim Gala / The Gala Report

“Jazz is the big brother of Revolution.  Revolution follows it around.” —Miles Davis

“Jazz is not just music, it’s a way of life, it’s a way of being, a way of thinking.” —Nina Simone.

A young modern jazz dancer once remarked to me, “You baby boomers were the death of art.”  When I asked what she meant, she compared America’s baby boomers to China’s youth during the “Cultural Revolution” led by Mao Zedong, who mobilized China’s youth by forming “Red Guard” youth groups throughout China.  That movement led to a mass purge of intellectuals, artists, musicians and university professors.  Millions suffered public humiliation, imprisonment, torture and even execution.  Part of Mao’s dogma was that no one could prove that revered works of art, literature and music were superior to what China’s youth could create themselves.

She said that like Mao’s Red Guard, America’s baby boomers turned their backs on acknowledged great artists and replaced them with their own icons. For example, instead of regarding The Beatles as an exceptional pop rock band, they were elevated above jazz greats such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane — the music she danced to. 

Respected authors, journalists and social activists such as Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and Ralph Nader were banned from The New York Times, Washington Post, and the broadcast media. Contemporary journalists such as Chris Hedges, Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi now share the same fate.

Self-help books replaced Sartre, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, et al.  The few movies that depicted the psychopathy and insanity of war, such as “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Dr. Strangelove,” were replaced by a deluge of “patriotic” movies such as “Rambo”, “Black Hawk Down” and “American Sniper,” which glorified war and the U.S. military.

Few “boomers” know that the civil rights and anti-war movements were inspired by and preceded by jazz greats such as Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Miles Davis. No less than Martin Luther King spoke of this in 1964 at the Berlin Jazz Festival:

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.

Modern Jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls. Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down. And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man.

Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In this broad category called ‘Jazz’, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.

The civil rights and anti-war movements created a widespread public intellectual awakening and were anti-”consumerism;” this frightened corporate and military elites and the media they own. Around 1967 media conglomerates all but stopped promoting jazz. Simplistic rock, heavy metal and rap replaced modern jazz, which was formerly enjoyed by college students, university professors and civil rights activists. Previously thriving jazz clubs became half-empty, and jazz musicians were forced to go “electric” in order to survive financially. Although “jazz/rock,” “funk” and “fusion” is superior to rock musically, in my opinion jazz lost much of it’s humanity, intelligence and depth, which was at its peak in the early ’60s (e.g. Miles Davis’ “Kinda Blue” (1959) and Bill Evans, “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” (1961).

It’s interesting to observe the contrast between jazz clubs, which are usually small, intimate, quiet and provide an environment for “individualism,” and stadiums that seat thousands filled by a uniform mob listening to electronic rock music played at eardrum-damaging volume levels. (In fact, helicopters blasting rock music were used to demoralize the populations of villages during the Vietnam War.) In short, “rock” desensitizes and jazz sensitizes; they’re social, political and intellectual, as well as musical, opposites. The “power” and “sexuality” attributed to rock is based solely on its extreme volume levels; turn off their amplifiers, and a rock band sounds anemic and sexless compared to a good jazz band.

Unlike boomers, jazz musicians don’t play “the music of their youth;” they play beautifully written songs mostly from “The Great American Songbook,” early 20th-century American jazz standardspopular songs and show tunes, that have stood the test of time, often referred to as “America’s Classical Music.” The almost complete absence of tenderness, contemplation, subtlety, wit, and love based on admiration present in those songs, which most jazz musicians include in their repertoire, is absent in rock, rap and “heavy metal,” and this had a profound effect on American culture.

The dumbing down of American culture by the banality of popular music, books, TV shows and movies by the corporate media was a deliberate campaign to negate the widespread intellectual foment and justified political criticism inspired by the civil rights movement and Vietnam anti-war protests, which frightened multinational corporations and elites.  In its place they wished to create an uncritical and compliant population they could convert into rabid consumers who would accept without critique racial injustice, police brutality, extreme wealth inequality and genocidal “interventionist” wars.

This media campaign, led just as much by the so-called liberal media as well as the right-wing burlesque of Fox News, produced the anti-intellectual mindset of the now elderly baby boomers and their progeny, as though critical thinking was “radical” and perhaps even unpatriotic.  They were encouraged to listen to “the music of their youth,” watch superhero and “patriotic” war movies designed for teenagers, and receive their news from the U.S. propaganda spewing corporate media conglomerates right at a time when the infirmities of aging could be somewhat offset by a more sophisticated and enlightened understanding of the world we inhabit. 

Although as a jazz musician I have an obvious bias, I don’t believe this is a simply a matter of my personal musical and political tastes.  Our tastes are cultivated in large measure by the news, music and entertainment we’re exposed to and that’s controlled by a few huge media corporations that have all but banned political dissent, jazz and intelligent entertainment.  It’s a media-created cultural and political narrative that encouraged the boomer generation to retain the naiveté of their youth by insinuating that this would keep them ‘young’ and ignore the unspeakable carnage of our endless wars abroad and the deteriorating standard of living, lack of basic social programs, and brutal policing experienced by the majority of citizens at home. 

The arts describe the world we inhabit, and they’ve been appropriated by powerful corporations whose agenda is to stifle political dissent, promote consumerism and fabricate “enemies” for us to fear in service of the national security state and its defense contractors.

Like literature, various styles of jazz contain different levels of sophistication, depth, intelligence, and humanity.  Jazz—at its best—is just too intimate, sophisticated, adult and intelligent to advance the sociopathic agenda of multinational corporations, oligarchs and the national security state.

The “new conformity” of corporate Democrats and the faux liberal media derailed Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, produced President Donald Trump and now Joe Biden, an arch-conservative Democrat who authored the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill that exploded our prison population and who supported every war from Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria—which he bombed immediately after his election to demonstrate to the world that “America is back!”

U.S. presidents never present jazz, often heralded as “America’s original art form,” at their inaugurations.  Jazz is just too authentic, adult, and emotionally honest for politicians.  The banality of the pop music they choose matches the banality of the clichés in their speeches.  Democracy at its core is love and respect for one another, and politicians simply “Don’t Know What Love Is.”

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments