All art suffers from classification problems, and music, especially generic categories, can quickly grow baggy and indistinct, or splinter and subdivide. Consider: the Wikipedia entry for “Heavy Metal” lists forty-nine different subgenres and sub-subgenres, each trying to stake out some territory, to insist “this is what we’re all about.” Or there’s “Classical,” somehow home to both John Williams and John Cage in the twentieth century and all the Johans of the previous three.
Perhaps we should call this an obituary, because Jazz is in terminal condition—it is a genre whose very core has been hollowed out. Few have tested the limits of generic integrity like Jazz, and like many of its great practitioners, Jazz has fallen prey to its own success, a victim of its own influence: the rhythmic and improvisational freedom that once were its defining elements and made it perhaps the most revolutionary and controversial art form of the twentieth century are now standard elements of … well, of music. Every guitar solo—sliding around the melody, stretching the beat—drains a little more of Jazz’s lifeblood.
With no essential musical properties to call its own anymore, Jazz has morphed into “Jazz,” a parody of itself: a hip cat in black beret and dark glasses, taking the bass line for a walk in a room full of blue cigarette smoke; or a muted trumpet announcing the arrival of yet another dame in a painted-on red dress. Some of Wikipedia’s 54 adjective+jazz variations will surely live on a while yet, but capital “j” Jazz? Bowing out now may be the only dignified course of action. Because when Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy dances across the nightclub tables, spitting fire out of his yazz flute, he’s not making fun of Jazz—that’s what “Jazz” is.