Geoff Dyer’s “Is Jazz Dead?”

Geoff Dyer deserves all the attention he’s gotten as a writer. He gets a top-heavy ton in some quarters: There are academic conferences dedicated to him—conferences that he himself cheekily proposes and then attends in a gentlemanly but “meta” way (“Geoff Dyer: There Should Be an Annual Festival Dedicated to Me”); fan websites, of course; anthologies, dissertations, editorships.

Essays that rhapsodize about his “genre-bending”, “uncategorizability”, and near single-handed “renovation of contemporary nonfiction” are part of a ream of adulatory critical writing. For all that, and despite the very personal and sometimes deeply moving works themselves, he remains a bit of a “writers’ writer”, a bit unknown.

I love him. I think all the hype about his single-handedness is true. For me, the piece “Is Jazz Dead?”, which appears in the collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, exemplifies what is best about his writing: The essay is earnest but a little rambling. Informal and conversational in shape but deep in its erudition and obvious love for its subject. Wide and deep, you might say.

Jazz is just one of a series of very wide-ranging subjects of his: An essay on Coletrane’s “My Favorite Things” appears in this same collection, but then so does “Def Leppard and the Anthropology of Supermodernity,” an appreciation of the photographer Enrique Metinides, essays on comics, writers, clothes, the Olympics. But Dyer is a real jazz lover 1. In “Is Jazz Dead?”, he’s not actually worrying about the fate of jazz so much as taking a closer look at the kind of hand-wringing critics do all the time around musical forms: Is jazz a discrete genre of music that can be superannuated by new genres? What about Latin jazz, then, or jazz fusion? World music? Happy-crappy “smooth jazz”? Does jazz come from a particular combination of instruments, like: jazz is a quartet with the melody in a horn, a piano?

For Dyer, jazz obviously isn’t a genre but something more like musical innovation itself. It is a “dynamic” between a musical form and its restless, artistic interpreters—like Lester Young and popular dance music from the 40s. (But like a lot of other examples besides; let’s please not get stuck in Swing or Bebop). “Change is immanent to jazz”, Dyer writes. “[L]ike Woody Allen’s shark it has to keep moving, going forward, otherwise it dies.”

“Jazz as jazz died” before the twentieth century was out, Dyer writes, at which point paeans to Bebop like the movies “‘Round Midnight” and “Bird” quickly “acquired the patina of period pieces or costume dramas”. This kind of commentary about jazz is not new, of course, but Dyer is very good at it. He listens to and loves a lot of different jazz. And contrasts it eloquently with other forms:

The Who can play ‘Won’t Get Fooled Against’ again and again, forever and a day, without undermining the song’s credibility. Every rock song aspires to the status of an anthem. But as soon as a jazz tune becomes anthemic it is no longer jazz—it’s elevator music. (Yes, “A Love Supreme” is played in elevators.)

The knowingness and bathos and humor in passages like this are, for me, delightful. And amazing.

What I also like is that he includes newer musical forms like dance music and electronica in his ecumenical list of forms-where-jazz-lives, describing innovative (genre-bending?) players like Jan Garbarek and Nils Molvaer, remasterings like Bill Laswell’s of Miles Davis (Bill Laswell: Reshaping the music of Miles Davis). For all the openness that jazz musicians profess to have to music, there’s a tendency to exclude electronica. Maybe it’s a hangover from the jazz-fusion cheeze of the seventies. I love electronica—trip hop and downtempo, etc.—and have always thought of that as a separate musical compartment of my brain. But reading about Dyer’s jazz innovators and his “embarrassingly late” embrace of dance and electronic music, I can see new intersections running between, and begin to confront old discriminations I may still have.

Essays like this are rambling, but when you’re as good a writer as Dyer, the different lines come back together (yes, yes, like jazz lines), and seem necessary. And more important they move around like real thought, like step-by-step analysis of one’s own opinions and intuitions, like a mustering of one’s stored evidence (Lester Bowie’s rebuttal to Wynton Marsalis’s slightly ossified, “period piece” conception of jazz). Readers may find some of Dyer’s work too erudite as well, but in my view Dyer has a voice and has found a,…well, a new genre of his own that like a superheavy element can store more erudition than you might have thought you had the ear for, just as his sense of jazz comprises more diversity and good music than you’ve ever heard of.


  1. See his book But Beautiful for a totally different, Dyer-esque angle on jazz, this one a series of made-up, music-heavy biographical sketches of some of jazz’s haunted giants, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, others.

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