Pop Goes the Jazzbo

Pazz & Jop is the name of The Village Voice’s annual music poll, but we’ve swiped it for the headline of Bob Blumenthal’s interview with George Benson and Russell Malone on page 34. While blending and scrambling jazz and pop isn’t new, traditional jazz fans still get their britches in bunches when the balance tips to the latter—despite sometimes making pop-like demands on jazz artists, too. So, where is the line between pop and jazz?

“Over time I’ve gotten confused in my own head where you draw the line,” Blumenthal says. Blue-menthol (as pop superstar Monica called him at this year’s Grammies, where he won an award for his liner notes to The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis with John Coltrane) digs a wide-range of music, but as the jazz critic for the Boston Globe he has to sometimes draw those lines.

“There are popular things that have jazz elements. Where does Steely Dan fit into all of this?” Blumenthal wonders. “‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ blatantly stole the bass line from [Horace Silver’s] ‘Song for My Father.’ So is it jazz? ... James Brown I consider a jazz musician. His music is in the blues idiom, it’s highly rhythmic and his band improvises. They’ve recorded the same piece 10 times and it sounds different every time.

“The great American songbook stuff comes out of the big bands. R&B comes out of the big bands, too. Big bands were pop music and they were jazz, too, though a lot of people said the same thing then: big band music is not jazz, New Orleans music is jazz.”

While the line between jazz and pop may be fuzzy, Blumenthal says, “The big break with pop and jazz is, because of the improvised quality of the music, jazz is different every time. With pop, if it’s something that many people like, those people want to hear it the same way every time. This creates a conundrum for jazz musicians. There is tremendous pressure to abandon the improvisational aspect once something has become so popular.”

And even with their britches in bunches, jazz audiences will often make the same requests of jazz musicians. “Coleman Hawkins was expected to play ‘Body & Soul’ note for note the way he recorded it. The same is true with Illinois Jaquet and ‘Flying Home’ and for James Moody with ‘Moody’s Mood for Love.’ So even the sophisticated jazz audience will make that demand of something that has become popular.”

Originally published in July/August 2000

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