Bill Cosby was beside himself, grinning, dancing, mugging for the camera. He was the host of some "tribute to American music" and was boogieing away as an assortment of musicians took the stage for the finale.
Make that an assortment of jazz musicians. That's the only music viewers had a chance to hear in this hourlong "tribute to American music." Where were the country and western, blues, rhythm and blues, gospel and rock artists?
Absent. Jazz aficionados have long contended that jazz is America's only original musical art form. Exactly who started this dogma is not clear -- I suspect some foreigner -- but it's truly sad that so many jazz fans believe this delusion.
Jazz is not as popular as country and western, blues, rhythm and blues and rock. Hence, the thinking probably goes, jazz is genuine art. The other stuff, because ordinary, working-class people like it, may be music, but it's certainly not art.
Here's an alternative theory. Most folks listen to music for one of three reasons: to dance to it, to sing along with it or both. Jazz, during its early days and on up through the swing era, allowed people to do this. But then it became art. Jazz musicians no longer played for the masses. They played for themselves and to please American and European music critics. The result may have been art, but it wasn't necessarily appealing.
Thus did jazz begin a steady -- and well-deserved -- decline in popularity. Television host Larry King, appearing on Cosby's "tribute," made a remark that best explains jazz's dilemma. Referring to the music of the incomparable Dave Brubeck, King remarked that the renowned jazz artist's music "appealed to our heads, not to our feet."
That is precisely what is wrong with jazz. If we want something to appeal to our heads we should study quantum physics. Music ital should appeal to the feet. In fact, Brubeck's exquisite "Take Five" does just that. But there are, indeed, jazz artists who try to appeal to our heads. It's a wonder they're not starving.
Such is inevitable when a music genre becomes an art form. How have other music genres -- the nonart forms, if we are to believe Cosby and other jazz fans -- fared?
Country and western music has gone from being ridiculed as hillbilly music to becoming one of the most popular genres in the world. In the early 1990s, country and western music stations sprang up all over the nation.
Rock began in the 1950s as rock 'n' roll. It's still going strong today and, like country and western, enjoys worldwide popularity.
Rhythm and blues evolved into hip-hop and rap. The latter genre has its critics among jazz, country and western, and rhythm and blues fans. They all agree rap is "not music." But Quincy Jones, recipient of over 80 Grammy nominations, has used rap artists on a couple of his albums. If Jones thinks rap is a valid music genre, that's good enough for me. Anyone wishing to convince me otherwise will have to get at least 80 Grammy nominations under his belt before I'll even consider listening to him.
And what of that other nonart musical genre, the blues? It spawned the rock 'n' roll revolution. Some British lads named John, Paul, George and Ringo listened to the stylings of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howling Wolf and went on to make some revolutionary music themselves. So did another British lad named Mick Jagger. Soon, hordes of British rock groups were making music inspired by Americans. The music swept the world. The inspiration was the nonart form of the blues, as opposed to the art form of jazz. Not bad for a music form that wasn't art.
Blues, country and western and rock have their roots in $l America's common folks. It comes as no surprise that country and western star Travis Tritt appears in the movie "Blues Brothers 2000" jamming with the likes of B. B. King, Bo Diddley, Dr. John, Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton. It's been said that Mark Twain gave us an American literary art form with "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," because he wrote in the language of the common American. Blues and country artists have done us a similar favor with their music.
All American musical genres are art forms. That's why Americans don't rock to the world's beat. The world rocks to ours.
Pub Date: 2/21/98