Worse than Asparagus: Charlie Lehardy on Jazz

Charlie Lehardy thinks jazz is (gasp!) worse than asparagus:

Jazz may be worse than asparagus.

As a musician, I have great respect for the virtuosity of jazz artists, most of whom are masters of their instruments. I can relate to the desire to do something novel and unconventional. But deep down in the musical recesses of my soul, jazz kills whatever is blooming there. And actually, I think that’s the point.

Jazz is the anti-music.

If that’s not strong enough for you, try this:

If art has any weakness, it’s in the way it is ultimately a reflection of its culture and times. As our culture has become more narcissistic, art, too, has fallen in love with itself. It has become so unconventional and self-referential that only insiders can appreciate it. Art of all stripes — the fine arts, music, literature, architecture — has exchanged objective/traditional measures of beauty for the knowing winks and nods of the self-congratulating art community itself.

It’s hard to know where art might go next. Unconventionality itself has now become conventional — and boring. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (a urinal) has had a thousand imitators, each less interesting (and less provocative) than the last.

Likewise, jazz has become conventional in its desperate search for edginess. The earliest jazz virtuosos were looking for something new, something fresh. At first, what they were attempting seemed like the discovery of fire all over again. Now, decades later, every blaring trumpet and squealing saxophone sounds like the last. We’re stuck in a musical rut.

This, of course, is the danger of a musical tradition that sees ‘rule breaking’ as an important artistic element (the tradition, of course, stretches back to Mozart, at least).  It will always run the risk of becoming anti-tradition and anti-form.

Whether Charlie’s analysis of art is correct is, of course, debatable (though he does have Bloom on his side, I think!).  But the deeper point about the self-destructive nature of ‘pushing the limits’ to the point where they no longer exist is, I think, exactly right.*

*It’s worth pointing out (again!) that Charlie is one of the blogosphere’s best-kept secrets.  If you’re looking for good prose to imitate, read him.  He knows how to turn a phrase with the best of them.

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  • http://www.anotherthink.com AZChas

    Thank you for the link and the kind words, Matthew. Art faces the same dilemma that all human endeavors face. We push the limits as part of the creative urge that I think we have inherited from God, and yet our sinfulness tempts us to push those limits in a way that rejects God, rejects beauty, rejects truth. We are always grappling with that tension between beauty and ugliness, truth and self-delusion, loving God and narcissism.

  • bmancini42

    There are three things wrong with his assessment.

    1) His characterization of jazz is too vague. Every art form contains both good and bad examples of its execution. For all he knows, he’s only heard the awful part, and even if not, it doesn’t seem like he’s put in the work required to appreciate it … a person who saw half an hour of “Pride and Prejudice” on TV might have an opinion of Jane Austen’s work, themes, and skill as a writer, but it would hardly be authoritative.

    2) Pushing the boundaries is necessary to art. Schoenberg may never be part of the mainstream, but without him you would not, for instance, have most of the epic movie soundtracks of the last 20 years. If any art form does not change, it stagnates and becomes irrelevant. When the emotions and ideas of an age change, art must adapt to reflect it or become merely formal.

    3) Beauty is at least partially subjective. What would you think of a person who said, “American food is the best. All that foreign stuff is disgusting.” They may have tried other foods, but their dislike does not reflect the true nature of foreign cuisine. In the same way, to say “pushing the boundaries rejects truth and beauty” is to discard every misunderstood innovator from Bach to Miles Davis and beyond. To dismiss what you do not understand is ignorance.

    Then again, I love asparagus.

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Ben,

    Good thoughts. I’m not Charlie, but I’ll chime in with my own reply all the same! : )

    It’s difficult to offer characterizations of a genre (I’ve tried myself). But I think it’s possible–might we say that there are hidden gems (as there are among modern painters), but that on the whole the movement is stale?

    Also, the majesty of most high art is that it’s offers a certain amount of pleasure without any work, but the finer joys are reserved for those who do get deep into the subject. It strikes me (intuitively) as problematic that modern jazz/art is pleasurable only to the few elites who “speak the language. That sort of isolationism from the broader culture doesn’t bode well, I think, for the tradition.

    I agree that experimentation and innovation has made some excellent advances (though I don’t know that epic movie soundtracks depend upon Schoenberg–they seem to depend on pre-modern understandings of music, as they are more formalized and structured). However, the romantic aesthetic has moved that experimentation to the center, such that there are no such things as limits before. That’s the move that is, I think, an artistic party foul that will inevitably kill the tradition. I agree with Chesterton’s analysis (in Orthodoxy) that art depends upon limits (the frame).

    As for whether beauty is somewhat subjective, I think there is such a thing as taste that is subjective. However, I don’t think that beauty is subjective at all. In your example, I might ask that person what he means when he says “American food is the best.” Best in what way? That introduces a criterion, and the criterion presumes an answer. After all, we give away degrees to people who can taste food really, really well–it seems like it’s a branch of knowledge, not simply a realm of opinion.

    That said, you’re right about the importance of understanding artworks. We can only criticize it if we have first listened and tried to understand it. Both you and Charlie know music way better than I, so I’ll let you two hash out what is actually going on in modern jazz.

  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson

    Since when does jazz, or any kind of art for that matter, have an obligation to be accessible? Maybe it’s Jesus jazz: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, / and ever hearing but never understanding.’”

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Jim,

    I state pretty clearly that it’s an intuition. That’s clearly more tentative than your (mis)characterization.

    I’m no art expert. But there’s something truly excellent (again, an intuition) about Shakespeare, for instance, which is clearly able to stand up to intense criticism and thought, and yet is also popularly accessible. Hence, when I said that the elitism of modern art is problematic, I mean that it may be an indication of its lack of excellence.

    But again, it posited it as a hypothesis, not an argument.

  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson

    I think it’s a safe bet that anyone who uses the phrase “Jesus jazz” isn’t being terribly serious.

    Anyhow, as Louis Armstrong said, when quizzed on the definition of jazz, “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”

  • http://www.anotherthink.com AZChas

    Good comments, all. Since Matthew was kind enough to link to my post, I should probably jump in to this sword fight and parry a bit myself.

    Many have made a sport of dissing CCM as a musical genre, calling it such things as insipid, imitative, and schmaltzy. Justifiably, in my opinion. And yet, there are gems there. I know of and appreciate a number of CCM artists who write real music.

    Many have also said there is nothing worth eating in the British Isles, and as one who has toured both England and France, I would agree that the Brits, bless them, do many things well, but cooking is not among them.

    I love Jane Austen, and my musical tastes are more at home in the Renaissance than modern times — let me admit that bias. But while I have indeed found some jazz gems (and I often enjoy listening to my good friend Sly who plays tuba professionally in a jazz band here), as a musical genre I think jazz has embraced an ethos so narcissistic that it fails to be beautiful. It also fails to communicate, except to the most dedicated insiders.

    I’m pretty sure I didn’t say “pushing the boundaries rejects truth and beauty.” What I meant in my post and said in my comment here is that pushing the boundaries is necessary to the creative process, but it doesn’t always result in beauty. Sometimes, when a sculptor pushes the boundaries, he ends up smashing the piece and starting over because he realizes that his experiment was a bust (no pun intended). Which means that there is something subjective to beauty, but also something intrinsic, something that can be grasped by the disinterested and uneducated observer, because we are all made in the image of God (we know something inside of us that says, ‘a-ha!’) and all soaked in the beauty of God’s creation (we see things all around us that put us in awe).

    As a genre, I think modern jazz long ago passed that point where it should have started over again. I’m concerned that in the arts generally there seems to be a rejection of those standards of beauty we have learned from history and life for something closer to a celebration of anti-beauty.

    I know that’s a strong statement, but as a Christian it does seem to me that humans are always engaged in a struggle between rejecting and embracing God. As a Christian, I don’t believe that the rejection of God and the embrace of a secular, deterministic, humanistic world view leads one to beauty and truth.

    Modern jazz, along with the arts generally, are becoming more ugly as they put more distance between themselves and the source of all creativity, beauty and truth. That’s my beef, and my analysis.

  • bmancini42

    Hm, if that analysis was correct (arts generally are becoming ugly), wouldn’t CCM be the best, most expressive music in existence (as they lay claim to being closest to God)? Unfortunately enough, I find that those who have produced the greatest sacred music … say, for instance, Fauré, Rachmaninoff, or Vaughan Williams, were themselves quite non-religious.

    Every genre has poseurs and genuine artists, and often the chaff is not separated from the wheat until much later (or never). To you folks, modern art may seem self-indulgent, inaccessible, and ugly. I’ll admit that I don’t like it much myself, but to people who understand it (like my sister, who holds a degree in Fine Arts) it has charms that we would not understand. In the same way, most high school students would consider Shakespeare stupid and irrelevant. Their assessment says little about the nature of Shakespeare.

    There may be a sense in which beauty is absolute, but it is hubris of the worst kind that assumes a person who finds things that you think ugly to be beautiful only does so because they are (fill in the blanks: evil, ignorant, self-indulgent). There is a chance you are right, but most likely you are the one who is judging from ignorance.

    Also, if art is expression, must every emotion communicated be a positive one (what I assume you mean by beauty)? In an age of despair and of despairing persons, wouldn’t the best art communicate or at least address despair?

  • http://www.anotherthink.com AZChas

    Most people, like myself, who lament CCM’s lack of art agree that music that worships God ought to be much better than it is. It falls short for several reasons, among them: 1) Christian musicians are human and share with all artists the human limits on greatness (Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is mediocre in its earliest scenes but becomes wonderful in the last portions, because he was steadily perfecting his craft and his vision of what he wanted to create); and 2) many Christian artists are focused more on imitation than innovation.

    There is a school of thought, shared by Paul in Romans chapter 1, that suggests that in the same way that water appears blue because it reflects the sky, even those of us who reject God are capable of creative genius because we are beings created by God, who make our home in his universe. We are under his influence whether we like it or not, in the same way that I am tall and thin because my father’s genes are in my every cell. Thus, it never amazes me that great music has been created by non-religious people — it is only amazes me that they fail to recognize who is responsible for their gift.

    You’re right, though, that I would be terribly arrogant to declare my own opinions of beauty to be some universal truth — I’m arrogant, but I draw the line at calling people who disagree with me “evil, ignorant, self-indulgent.” By criticizing a musical genre, I’m more critical of the direction art is taking than the artists and fans of that art. And, I’m open to the possibility that I’m missing something, which is why these sorts of discussions are good.

    That said, there are in fact absolutes in the world, including standards of beauty. They have their definition in the character and being of God himself, who is the archetype of beauty. Since none of us knows God except as he has revealed himself, and only at some distance, we all fail to really get our minds (and hearts) around all that beauty is.

    Despite those challenges, knowing God is, I’m convinced, the only way to discover the meaning of beauty.

  • http://daretodecide.wordpress.com bmancini42

    Hm … to discover beauty does not require you to understand God, but to discover God is to discover its meaning. I can accept that.