IF IT AIN’T GOT THAT SWING BY JOHN BOHLINGER
Irecently attended the 2012 New Orleans Jazz Fest where music enthusiasts were
treated to such Titans of Jazz as:
• Foo Fighters
• The Eagles
• Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
• Bruce Springsteen
• Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
• Bonnie Raitt
The fest was stacked with an impressively
long roster of top-tier rock ’n’ roll acts that
filled the 60,000-seat venues. The festival also
featured a pile of blues, gospel, and R&B acts
on smaller stages, and then a smattering of
local jazz groups in the smallest tents.
The festivities shut down each night around
7 p.m., so I spent my vampire hours stumbling
from Jackson Square to the carnage of Bourbon
Street. (Best T-shirt award: I got Bourbon-faced
on Sh*t Street.) Pre-Katrina, this square and the
area’s sweaty streets and dank clubs were full of
horns blowing Dixieland and kids tap dancing
with bottle caps screwed into their Air Jordans.
It was an amazing scene you couldn’t find anywhere else in the world.
Now it’s all strip clubs and rock bars
blaring “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Keep Your
Hands to Yourself,” and “Hard to Handle”—
basically the same set list you’d hear in any
crap gig in America. I enjoy playing these
warmed-over party anthems at clubs, but I
don’t want to hear them—especially in New
Orleans, a town known for two things:
1. Great food.
2. Inventing jazz.
The gumbo and shrimp étouffée remain
spectacular, but the jazz barely has a pulse.
Go to Hawaii and you’ll hear traditional
Hawaiian music in almost every restaurant,
bar, and hotel lobby, and tourist and locals
alike enjoy it. Unlike Hawaiian music, jazz
was once the highest-selling format in the
Western world. Louis Armstrong enjoyed
mainstream popularity, much like John
Mayer does today. How is it that New
Orleans’ once spectacularly popular music
has all but disappeared in its hometown?
Jazz died on Bourbon Street when one
club booked a dirty rock band and drunken
college kids mobbed the joint. The other
clubs had no choice but to follow suit or
go belly up. Tourists didn’t want to think,
they wanted to drink, and jazz required too
much thinking. The Jazz Fest fell into the
same marketing necessity—jazz quit putting
butts in seats, so pop and rock took over.
Louis Armstrong and The Hot Fives recorded hot, swinging music that—for many connoisseurs—represents the birth of recorded jazz. Cut in the 1920s and distributed on 78s, the tunes
capture the classic spirit and energy of New Orleans.
Jazz faced trouble when bebop adopted
the battle cry, “always evolve.” Jazz players
began to look down their noses at the music
and originators who brought their genre
popularity. Modern jazz turned music into
an intellectual muscle-flex and in doing so,
alienated its audience.
Modern jazz reminds me of those annoying
people who try to sound brainy by speaking
in complicated three- and four-syllable words
when a simple phrase would work better.
Rather than saying, “I love her, she don’t love
me, that hurts,” the jazzer might say, “The
object of my affection remains indifferent to
my beseeching confession of endearment. I
feel disconsolate by this unrequited adoration.”
Lose the message and you lose the audience.
In a way, it reminds me of ’80s shred
guitar. The big hairs kept taking it farther
until ’80s guitar compromised emotion in
the pursuit of technical difficulty. Music
fans eventually traded emotionless fast scales
and spandex for angst-ridden grunge chords
and flannel. In the ’40s, beboppers traded
swing, perfect harmony, and memorable
melodies that made people dance for the
freedom to play for themselves.
John Bohlinger is a Nashville multi-instrumentalist best known for his work in television. He
led the band for all six seasons of NBC’s hit
program Nashville Star, as well as the 2011,
2010, and 2009 CMT Music Awards and
many specials for GAC, PBS, CMT, USA,
and HDTV. Check out his performances on You Tube.