The Gig—Behold the Jazzbro

Like it or not, he speaks for you. Wooo!

One night this spring I was sitting happily at the Falcon, a music haven in a bucolic corner of New York’s Hudson Valley, when I heard the call of an invasive species. It happened a song or two into a set by Boom Tic Boom, the ruggedly intuitive band led by drummer Allison Miller, with Myra Melford on piano, Todd Sickafoose on bass and Kirk Knuffke on cornet. The noise that caught my ear was a conversational rumble of “Oh man!” and “Woooo...,” punctuated by a “Check that shit out,” and the clincher, “She’s such a badass.” I cracked a tight smile and glanced over my right shoulder to confirm what I already knew: There, just a few feet away, sat a table full of jazzbros.

You may not know the word, but you surely know the type. A jazzbro—not to be confused with a jazzbo, its older taxonomical cousin—is a self-styled jazz aficionado, overwhelmingly male and usually a musician in training himself, who expresses a handful of determinative social behaviors. Among these are a migratory pattern from the practice room, where they often nest alone, to the jazz club, where they travel in packs; a compulsion to signal the awareness of any mildly startling musical detail, with muttered exclamations like the aforementioned “Woooo”; the emphatic adjectival use of the word “killing,” as in “that solo was killing”; and the exploitation of jazz knowledge as a private commodity selectively put on public display. Easily mocked but only partly understood, the jazzbro should be an object of concern for anyone who claims to care about outside perceptions of jazz. Because like it or not, the jazzbro speaks for you.

I’ve been discussing jazzbros as a species, but they’re really the product of elective affinities: In other words, they’re made, not born. And in the spirit of truth and goodwill, I’ll reluctantly note that I once numbered among their ranks. Even now, I’ll sometimes catch myself greeting a jazz musician with a “killing, man” and a complicated handshake, and realize that I still vaguely match the phenotype. But the true jazzbro prevailingly falls somewhere within the 18-to-34-year-old demographic, which I outgrew a few years ago. I’ll also happily note that self-awareness is by far the best defense against jazzbro tendencies. The first step is admitting that you have a problem.

Let’s step back for a moment and acknowledge that “jazzbro,” as a label, still hasn’t entered our common vernacular. A web search conducted in preparation for this column turned up little more than a former bar in Oak Creek, Wis., called Jazzbro’s Sports Zone. (It went out of business in 2011 and was subsequently set ablaze in a training exercise for the town’s fire department. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.)

More to the point, I came across an entry in the Urban Dictionary, the web’s best source for shady lexicographical innovation. A Jazz Bro, as that definition has it, is a college jazz musician who happens to be a bro. (If you need to ask what a bro is, take a fortifying breath and head toward your local frat house, CrossFit gym or Buffalo Wild Wings franchise.) The entry provides some additional context: “Usually socially adept, a jazz bro attends parties, drinks beer, plays beer pong and partakes in the usual bro activities, but listens to and plays jazz music. Some can be socially inept however, and can be extremely biased when it comes to music, displaying elitist qualities.” Then we’re further advised that the Jazz Bro can often be identified by his soul patch. Helpful!

At this point it seems important to draw the line between a jazzbro and a jazz nerd, whose enthusiasms are more earnest and inward seeking. A newish blog called So Killing, Man!—run by three young musicians in the Upper Midwest—bears a jazzbro name but serves more of a jazz-nerd function, posting transcriptions of improvised solos for close study and analysis.

Nor should the jazzbro of our time be confused with the hipster of yesteryear. Like the Cold War hipster, the contemporary jazzbro is utterly convinced of both the superiority of his taste and the marginalization of his ideas. But whereas the hipster derived his spirit of alienation from a kind of psychopathic unease—having “absorbed the existential synapses of the Negro,” as Norman Mailer provocatively put it in 1957—the jazzbro sees himself as a contributing member of society. It’s just that society, as he knows it, can no longer be understood as a solid mass: Culture at large has been fragmented and micro-tagged. Yet jazzbros seek communion. It’s one reason they flock to music school and ritually converge anytime Chris Potter is in town with his Underground band.

But have there been jazzbros throughout jazz history? Sure. You’ll find traces of the type in the 1920s exploits of the Austin High Gang, and in the slangy collegiality of Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden. The “Four Brothers” in Woody Herman’s Second Herd—saxophonists Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Stewart and Serge Chaloff—were clearly jazzbros for a time. And lest this begin to seem like a strictly white phenomenon, I’ll point you toward Jonah Jones, the swing-era trumpeter whose errant spitball caused the rift between Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie; trumpeter Lee Morgan, at least in the Tom Cat era; and bassist Stanley Clarke, whose defining solo album, School Days, literally shows him spray-painting musical graffiti on a subway wall.

Every subculture polices its own boundaries, and what seems staunchest about jazzbros is their irrefutable dudeness. Which may be one reason I was primed to notice the commentary at that Allison Miller gig. I’m guessing Miller noticed it too, but as a musician who has endured her share of backhanded praise—“You don’t play like a girl,” as she once characterized it—she chose to stay strictly focused on the music. Your average jazzbro could stand to learn from her example.

Originally published in July/August 2013

12 Comments

  • Jul 18, 2013 at 10:26AM carllimbacher

    I'm a giant fan of Mr. Chinen's work but I can't really wrap my head around the purpose of this article - and I seem to be in the minority considering the reactions I see on twitter already.

    Is your biggest problem really that there are young people coming to shows, getting excited about the music, and exclaiming when they're so moved by the music? I do that, my friends do that, and the musicians they come to see do that as well (a wonderful example is during Walter Smith III's solo on Ambrose Akinmusire's "Confessions to My Unborn Daughter" on "When the Heart Emerges Glistening").

    As a performer, I absolutely love when somebody enjoys what we're doing on the bandstand so much that they cheer us on. That's why we're there - to play music we love for people who are paying to come see us and have a great time doing it. Sometimes, an audience member wants to do more than sit quietly with folded hands on lap for 50 minutes and shuffle out after two martinis. I fail to see why that is problematic.

    And why the attribution of sexism of the last graf, when literally nothing has been said of Allison Miller's gender besides using the pronoun "she"? Maybe an anecdote was edited out? Are you just attributing sexism to them because you think that's a quality that "dudes" have?

    Honestly, I understand the person you are describing. And I might have some of those qualities myself. As a musician, just as an author, you are going to rely on the financial support of people you don't necessarily agree with or would want to hang out with for more than 5 minutes after a gig. Maybe when album sales of jazz are tanking, plummeting below the 3% of all music sales per year, and some of our beloved masters are playing small rooms of 10 people, we should be a little less eager than to write an piece insulting a portion of those fans.

    Thank you.

  • Jul 18, 2013 at 11:21AM Darren Brierton

    I’m inclined to agree with carllimbacher above. I think the main consequence of reading this article will be to make me feel self-conscious about cheering the musicians I love to see perform. Was that really the intention?

  • Jul 18, 2013 at 03:52PM Scott Albin

    I assume that the jazzbros Chinen overheard were not talking DURING the performance, but rather between tunes. I'll take the jazz nerds every time--they are quieter and less obnoxious.

  • Jul 18, 2013 at 06:41PM SlipKid

    Nate, I used to think you were cool. I was thinking the last time I went to a Jazz show how I wished the audience would just show a little more passion for the music. Egg the musicians on a bit...you know? Like Cannonball Adderley's "live at the club" or like Blakey used to do with EVERY soloist in the band. What's missing from Jazz is the visceral nature of the music. The emotion. I read this and I think you just want to sit in silence and let the music just wash over you. If I were a musician, I'd relish that people dug what I was doing enough to shout out with joy. Who wouldn't?

    Unfortunately, what you're doing here is making Jazz seem much less interesting/inviting...especially to any new fans who might be thinking of going to a show. "Geez, if I go...I better be sure not to make any noise." One might think "Boy, it seems like you're supposed to get there and sit in silence. I better be careful not to nod my head to hard."

    Nate, you've been in this business for a while...but I'm afraid you're now to close to Jazz for it's own good. In writing a column like this, you've done damage. Jazz needs to be more inclusive, less exclusive. And if you're not down for that cause, you can continue to sit there and watch the audiences dwindle.

  • Jul 19, 2013 at 12:49PM roscoe blundershafter

    Hey you kids! Get off my lawn!

  • Jul 19, 2013 at 12:52PM roscoe blundershafter

    Hey you whippersnappers! Stop having all that FUN! Can't you see I'm listening to JAZZ! Fun is for Katy Perry fans, and the young people with their crazy iPads, and the Angry Birds and the loud noises that confuse and startle me! I just want to listen to my JAZZ and watch Matlock in peace and quiet!
    i'

  • Jul 19, 2013 at 03:58PM MSmall

    Your column reminded me of a bit in this Gerry Mulligan/Bob Brookmeyer recording where there's a guy who keeps whistling. At one point, Mulligan finally stops and threatens to take him outside. Extreme example but it makes me think of all the times I've gone to see a show and the audience has turned me off to the music. People who are having a true experience at a show don't make predictable, scene related banter when they're feeling it. When the audience is so in shock at a Shorter/Hancock show that it takes them a while to remember the social norm of clapping, that's when it's sincere. When the word killing rolls off the tongue for everything, it makes the whole genre seem silly (far sillier than someone creaming at a Katy Perry concert). I just think the distinction needs to be made between utterances that are uncontrolled appreciation for a deep experience (as in the crowds emotion at a Cannonball or Blakey show) and the posturing of elitist musicians who speak in the 'jazz code'. Do take it easy on them, they're probably just young/eager but someone needs to let them know that it just seems insincere to a non-jazz audience.

  • Jul 19, 2013 at 05:25PM CommanderCody

    a few things:

    1. This is one of "jazz journalism’s brightest young talents"? Dude's gotta be well over 40. Beyond that, Jazz Journalism just seems to be an insular group of writers from New York that don't pay attention to much that happens outside of that city.
    2. This reads like he had a bad day. Probably would have been good to do an "Abraham Lincoln" with this column and throw it away rather than publish it.
    3. Really? These guys speak for Jazz fans? I think the bigger problem is the staunchly old white guys who are still pissed off that Miles made Bitches Brew....THOSE GUYS speak for Jazz fans waaaay more than some young people getting excited about music at a club. And they ain't sayin' nothin' good. Go after them...they're your problem.
    4. Wait a minute. You're telling me young people like Jazz? Seriously? Holy crap! We did it, we really did it!!! Oh wait, you just ticked them all off with this column. Now they hate Jazz, because the tastemakers are people like, well, you.
    5. Hit me up. I'd love to take you out to see a KIng Tuff show. It would do you good to be reminded of what music with energy sounds like and how an audience responds to it. Spoiler alert: lot's of "wooo's."
    6. Now take a lap. Do something better. Or go write another column about Smooth Jazz Cruises for the Times, I don't really care.

  • Jul 20, 2013 at 10:53AM jeffalbert

    I thought it was a witty article, the intention of which was not entirely serious (although not 100% satire either).

    Re: killing as an adjective for feats of jazz greatness... with all of the needless violence in our society, we have to find a better adjective. Might I suggest: beautiful, wonderful, or great, or for us former jazzbros formed in the 80's, awesome or bitchen.

  • Jul 20, 2013 at 04:29PM juansolo

    The author has a point. And that point is that the audience members he is describing want every other audience member to know that they can identify a cool lick or phrase, etc. and therefore be looked at like they too are also a 'killing' jazzer and are a part of some 'club' of jazzers who 'know' the music better than others. Give it a rest!!! And if the music moves you to make noise or dance, well then do it. But seriously, you can tell a jazzbro from someone who is truly moved VERY easily.

  • Aug 16, 2013 at 11:07AM James_Keepnews

    I was at this same gig as Nate (and sat _in front_ of him, ahem...) and, on my jazzbro honor, I never thought for a moment those numbskulls at that back table coughing out "whoop!"s every two bars were "jazz"-anythings -- it more likely seemed like they made a wrong turn before reaching some jam-band bar in New Paltz and decided, to several attendees' dismay, to get liquored up at Boom Tic Boom's otherwise superb sets. I'm as guilty as anyone for giving my enthusiasm voice during a killer set as and when it seems warranted -- the club is indeed a church and the congregation has the fundamental right if not duty to testify. And it may be I attend different gigs than Nate so I'm not as regularly subjected to such thorough-going douchebaggery as what went down that night at the marvelous Falcon, but what those loudmouths engaged in was not some mere "you kids keep it down" rambunctiousness but peculiarly stinky breed of pure, self-regarding exhibitionism, at volume. As I even say to myself sometimes when my will to cheerlead takes the reins: if you like the music so much, shut up and listen to it.

  • Aug 20, 2013 at 02:40PM Christian Hertzog

    Cf. Dave Frishberg's "I'm Hip"
    http://youtu.be/FYdoskNC_eI

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