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.