In Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, the upstanding dandy Thomas Buddenbrook dismisses his wife’s elitist devotion to music as a “rather tasteless snobbery.” Gerda remonstrates that the insipid pop ditties Thomas prefers merely requite a need for mindless gratification. No fool, he is reduced to silence, unable to “comprehend why melodies that cheered him up or moved him were cheap and worthless, or why music that seemed harsh or chaotic should be of the highest musical value.”
Mann was writing in 1900, when the Schoenberg scandal was just getting started and Buddy Bolden had yet to organize his first band. But, of course, nothing has changed. It is no fun to face the disbelief of friends, family and students when arguing the virtues of sounds that scrape against their nerves like jagged razors. Almost every jazz lover has had to confront that kind of incomprehension, whether defending against accusations of polyphonic chaos, swing-era compromise, bebop decadence or avant-garde fakery. Jazz is so isolated from the lives of most Americans that it is routinely written off as a citadel of snobbery.