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Online Exclusive: Modern Jazz’s Foray Into Alternative Rock

Why bands like Nirvana, Radiohead and Soundgarden are providing material for today's jazz artists

Radiohead
Charlie Hunter

In 1992 the King of Pop had his throne usurped from him by a flannel-clad garage band from Seattle when Nirvana’s album Nevermind surpassed Michael Jackson’s Dangerous on the Billboard charts. Though it is one of the highest selling and highest rated rock albums of all time, Nevermind somehow still fits into a rock and roll subgenre dubbed alternative rock. How can something that outsells Michael Jackson be considered an alternative? The answer lies in the treatment of the music. Rebelliousness is the central theme in alternative rock.

Alternative rock and its angry step-child, grunge, were a type of catharsis for an entire generation of suburban white kids that felt stifled by mediocrity. Newsweek captured the spirit of the music by concluding, “Grunge is what happens when children of divorce get their hands on guitars.” The success of Nirvana was more of an anomaly than calculated business move. In Kurt Cobain’s obituary, the New York Times acknowledged that his band “concocted a sound that was close to both the nihilistic fury of punk rock and the tunefulness of the Beatles. Nirvana’s popularity signaled the acceptability not only of grunge but also of many other bands once considered far too raw and scruffy for the mainstream.” This acceptance of an alternative brand of popular music opened the door for more than just a handful of bands from Seattle donning goatees. It may contradict common perceptions of the type of music that sells in high volume, but musicians managed to gain exposure to larger audiences while implementing an aura of defiance and pursuing highbrow artistic approaches. Compositional tactics that alternative rock musicians employed so as to approach pop music artfully included: romantic era melodic shape, complex harmony, non-traditional harmonic movement, and mixed rhythmic meter. Because of the defiant nature that the music celebrated, the perceived artistic quality the songs were obtaining, and the relative recognizability of the material to larger audiences, jazz musicians took notice of these alternative rockers.

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