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The Gig: Firing the Canon

Nate Chinen on the value of killing—or at least questioning—one's idols

Barricade Books recently unleashed Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics. A pet project of Chicago Sun-Times critic and Harp magazine columnist Jim DeRogatis, the anthology consists of commissioned essays by Gen-X rock writers, each attacking an album in the critical canon. By turns bilious, mischievous and whiny, the book serves as a reactionary measure against the dicta of older scribes—”a spirited assault on a pantheon that has been foisted upon us,” in DeRogatis’ words. From the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds to Nirvana’s Nevermind, nearly three dozen albums enter the crosshairs, some emerging more damaged than others after the smoke has cleared.

In his introductory notes, DeRogatis touches upon rock’s enshrinement by institutions, a development echoed in jazz for the past 20-odd years. Of course, there are immeasurable differences between Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, it’s a familiar sentiment when DeRogatis suggests that rock “would seem by definition to be opposed to the very notion of fixing in stone a canon.” JALC has heard that argument before, and it was the complaint most often lobbed at Ken Burns. Not that it mattered much to Burns. The problem with assaulting a canon is that you quickly come to resemble “a bratty kid wiping his snot on the blackboard,” as DeRogatis not-so-sheepishly admits.

The unmistakably juvenile thrust of Kill Your Idols makes sense, given that so many of its contributors uphold rock ‘n’ roll as a soundtrack of youthful rebellion. It’s no accident that the chief offenses cited in the book are the ostensibly middle-age trappings of preciousness, pretentiousness and torpor. “Does it rock?” is the book’s rhetorical refrain. Ironically, it’s a variation of the argument deployed by jazz’s most conservative branch: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Of course, neither the rock-crit upstarts nor the jazz traditionalists would be flattered by the comparison.

Despite its considerable faults, there’s something to be gleaned from Idols: a call to question our own Valhalla. And it’s a worthwhile endeavor, at a time when the best-selling jazz albums tend to come from the catalog. Having survived its own centennial, jazz is now ensconced in the official apparatus of our culture, from college curricula to JALC. Even among the jazz-averse, there’s some awareness of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. The problem is that the immortals can often cast a suffocating shadow over their flesh-and-blood heirs. For instance, the Ken Burns Jazz CD franchise dominated the charts long after the PBS series aired-while Wynton Marsalis, the show’s most lionized contemporary artist, experienced only a modest boost in album sales.

To quote DeRogatis, absolute faith in a canon produces audiences “nostalgic for a past they never even experienced.” As someone born well after jazz’s mid-century heyday, I can relate. So can a large sliver of the jazz populace, as evidenced by a preponderance of refurbished albums, extravagant box sets and backward-glancing tribute concerts. In such an environment, it’s no wonder that younger musicians struggle to absorb their influences without being subsumed. It’s the paradox of jazz in the new century: better access to the historical record, and more alienation from the essence.

The answer to this puzzle won’t be found in Kill Your Idols-style iconoclasm, in part because the jazz faithful have no tolerance for it. Jazz, more so than rock, is a field crowded with sacred cows; its supporters champion their icons with evangelical fervor and defend them with crusadelike zeal. If you were reading JazzTimes in 1997, you probably remember the September issue, which featured the provocative polemic “Who’s Overrated? Who’s Underrated? The Critics Sound Off.” The magazine’s regular contributors were asked to submit five artists undeserving of their accolades and five others deserving of more. “We don’t expect you to agree with the critics,” wrote then-editor Mike Joyce in an introductory disclaimer, “but after reading the following pages, we know you’ll be better informed about where our critics stand.” Where the editorial staff saw an exercise in disclosure, however, the jazz community mainly saw a treasonous and irresponsible attack.

Canons are as useful as they are fallible, and I’m not advocating the dissolution of ours. At the same time, there’s no point in a pantheon that exists under glass. There’s a reason why New York’s Village Vanguard is the ne plus ultra of jazz shrines, and it’s not just because so many great musicians have wedged themselves onto the stage; it’s that their legend commingles there with music made in the present tense. On a good night at the Vanguard, jazz history can seem almost palpable—suggesting not the cool marble of monuments, but the warmth of a living thing.

No one likes to stand idly by while someone takes a hatchet to their heroes. But even a hatchet job can serve a function—to provoke us into reevaluating our tastes. In Idols, Eric Waggoner and Bob Mehr scorch U2’s The Joshua Tree with good humor and crusadelike zeal. Reading it, I laughed out loud a half-dozen times. Then I put on the album.

Originally Published
Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).