Musical Deplorables: Notes on Neoliberalism, Jazz Purism and Kenny G.

A few weeks ago, an off duty flight attendant discovered that her neighbor on a Tampa to Los Angeles flight was a musical celebrity. Having recently lost her daughter to brain cancer, she suggested an impromptu performance to raise money to for cancer research. The request was immediately agreed to, resulting in the artist strolling down the aisles with his instrument, passing the hat for donations which quickly exceeded the $1,000 goal.

All that would seem innocuous enough. But as might be expected within some corners of the internet, what was an anodyne act of charity became the grounds for opening the floodgates of abuse.

Why this was the case will make sense when name of the musician is revealed, a figure so universally reviled that to utter a word in his defense is to invite social ostracism, namely “the weasel-toned saxophonist,” as he was referred to by the New York Times, Kenny Gorelick, or Kenny G, as he is known to his fans. So toxic are the sounds he emits that an encounter with them constitutes “torture”-the aural equivalent of the United Airlines assault of one of its passengers, which had occurred only a few days before.

At least, such was the perception of the cross section of the left/liberal consensus which appears on my twitterfeed.

As was often the case within this sector, the apparent fact of the matter was something other than what was imagined. According to reports, many passengers on the flight found it the exact opposite having reveled in “the show of a lifetime.”

But these expressions of enthusiasm were easily written off. They were, after all, deriving from a “large crowd” whose “basest impulses” manifest “callous disregard for the larger issues . . .marking a new low point in modern culture – something that we all should be totally embarrassed about – and afraid of.” All this “we ignore. . . at our own peril.”

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Before revealing the source of these descriptions, it is worth pointing out what should be obvious, namely that, with a few substitutions, the passage could have occurred in any number of alarmed New York Times, or Washington Post op-eds in the months and weeks before the election, one of which mirrored the concluding phrase above in bearing the headline “We Ignore Trump at our Peril.” In fact, they could have emanated from the Democratic nominee herself who described her opponent as “the most dangerous candidate in history”, his supporters, notoriously, an “irredeemable basket of deplorables” impelled by a “negative, dark, divisive, dangerous vision.”

To answer the question left hanging, we owe the enumeration of the “dangers” of Kenny G. to guitarist Pat Metheny in a blog posting from some years back, one which is routinely resurrected and brandished as a club when a new round of Kenny’s G. bashing is initiated as it was last month.

What makes those forwarding this document conspicuous is not just the high dudgeon, but their self-righteousness. The latter is evidently grounded in their certainty that Metheny’s critique transcends subjective opinion in being based on objective music/theoretical fact. Thus, Kenny G’s “harmonic and melodic vocabulary . . . . limited, mostly to pentatonic based and blues-lick derived patterns,” his “out-of-tune, noodlings” suffused with “wrong notes” and “harmonic clams” are all assumed to be data points providing the empirical basis for a unique conclusion: abject musical incompetence. This, presumably, in distinction to canonic jazz icons whose mastery is empirically demonstrable by means of technical musical analysis.

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It is at this point that those with professional expertise in music theory need to intervene to note that what is being played as a trump card here is in fact a bluff. Music theory can, of course, identify many significant aspects of musical structure-why composers chose the notes they did. What it can’t do, and what any minimally honest practitioner of the discipline will immediate concede that it can’t, is predict why a particular piece of music is regarded as good, bad, indifferent or deplorable.

For those in musical scholarship, this is all familiar ground explored, most notably, in Joseph Kerman’s classic (1980) essay “How We Got into Analysis and How to Get Out.” This appeared at the peak of influence of certain triumphalist variants of music theory which, in their most extreme form, tended to equate what Kerman called musical criticism (the evaluation of a work’s aesthetic merits) with analysis (the formal description of its structure). The latter, as would be noted by subsequent generations of musical scholars, was inferred to provide an objective basis for the claims for transcendent greatness of what was being analyzed, namely, canonic masterworks deriving from white, European, males. Relatively soon, all this would be exposed and criticized as cultural chauvinism at best white supremacy masquerading as objective scholarship at worst.

Metheny and those who cite him have evidently failed to learn the underlying lesson from the collapse of these defenses of the traditional canon. For it will be apparent that their criticisms amounts to little more than retrofitting the discredited assumptions of the old musicology to defend a post modern “high/low” distinction. The only difference is that pure jazz now occupies the summit (1) with the debased form represented by Kenny G and others viewed as fundamentally unserious and beneath discussion. The grounds on which this is claimed to be so is just as was the case in the benighted past: some analytic characteristic is shown to be present or absent in the objective structure of the music and taken to be a proxy for aesthetic merit, artistic seriousness of purpose or the lack of it based on the assumption the there is a necessary connection. But that matters are not so simple, while taken for granted within what was formerly known as “classical” music, has evidently yet to register with those who concerned with policing the boundaries of jazz.

For example, for them, G making use of a “limited vocabulary” constitutes a de facto criticism. It is, however, obvious that this is not the case and that Metheny himself doesn’t believe that it is: for if any composer can be described a making use of a “limited harmonic and melodic vocabulary” it is Steve Reich, whose Electric Counterpoint Metheny himself commissioned and presumably admires. What is the difference between the “minimalism” of Kenny G and that of Reich? Showing that there is one is not so trivial. But even if we could determine what it is, it would not answer the question why “we” (those claiming to have acculturated and informed musical tastes) tend to value the music of Reich above Gorelick.

Or, moving closer to Kenny G’s soul/pop/jazz idiom, if a “limited” harmonic and melodic vocabulary is a fatal flaw, what to make of the blues? Yes, one finds objectively less chromaticism in B.B. King, Muddy Waters or Albert Collins than in Wagner or William Byrd. But only a pedant or a chauvinist would suggest that this, or any “limitation” unearthed via a music theoretical analysis should take precedence over the visceral experience evoked by the blues.

A slightly more subtle issue is at stake in what Metheny characterizes as G’s “harmonic clams” or “wrong notes.” What is being referenced is what music theorists would refer to as unresolved, or inappropriately resolved dissonance. Here the problem is that the supposedly objective data is contested with even the most unambiguously tonal works many of which present numerous puzzles to the most sophisticated analysts. Perhaps Kenny G’s choice of pitches are, in some absolute aesthetic sense, “wrong”, but given there is no agreement on the distinction between consonance and dissonance within a Bach Two Part Invention or Chopin Prelude there’s no justification for deploying it as a weapon to attack any music or musician, unless doing so is nothing more than a rationalization for pre-existing aesthetic bias.

Finally, the problematic subject of “wrong notes” is perhaps best exemplified by the work of Eric Dolphy which consists almost entirely of “wrong notes”, insofar as the term has any meaning. But what makes Dolphy’s wrong notes “right,” as any minimally literate jazz fan knows, and Kenny G’s “wrong”? At this point, the question can only be answered by some variant of “because I said so”, an appeal to bien pensant consensus with respect to who belongs within the walls of an increasingly sanctified canon.

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At this point some readers are probably wondering why I devoted 1300 words to meta-theoretical questions provoked by the music of Kenny G-probably 1300 words more than any previous discussion of the subject.

I should make clear that, appearances aside, it is not my intention to defend Kenny G or his music for which I have as little intellectual and temperamental affinity as those attacking it. But while the music doesn’t require a defense, those being belittled for their musical preferences and, by implication, their lack of intelligence and sophistication do. And it is one which they deserve to have since, as was demonstrated above, the attacks on them are fundamentally fraudulent in that the supposed authority on which they are based collapses when subjected to scrutiny.

With that in mind, we can return to the comparison alluded to above: what accounts for near identical rhetoric deployed in jazz purist attacks on Kenny G and those emanating from the political establishment against Trump.

The key to answering the question involves recognizing that both, as I have pointed out, are reflections of deep-seated conventional wisdom as this is expressed by the agenda setting media, the academy and by the priorities of corporate philanthropy. Challenges to its authority, whether this takes the form of enthusiasm for the debased artistic expression of Kenny G or the debased politics of Donald Trump are viewed as heresy. More broadly, those challenging orthodoxies on free trade, permanent war or banking deregulation, were relegated to the margins just as those raising doubts about the sanctified status of jazz, as I myself discovered when I did just that in the piece linked to above. All that’s needed to dispense with them is to cut and paste from a well worn-lexicon of denunciations-“irresponsible”, “dangerous”, “uninformed” etc.-while appealing to the authority of acknowledged experts in their representation of what are claimed to be “the facts”.

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By now it is uncontroversial to identify the election of 2016 as a delegitimation crisis for this same expert class-the moment when “the twilight of the elites” turned to midnight. The public would vote based on the evidence provided by their own eyes making clear their contempt for the fairy tales of those who they regarded as frauds and mountebanks.

The unemployed steel worker working for near minimum wage at a 7/11 in a town ravaged by drug addiction, his home, and those of his neighbors, foreclosed on by banks stuffed with trillions of taxpayer dollars, now demanded that elite talking heads stop talking and begin to listen, as they have not for three decades. The Trump election was the two by four administered to the head of the neoliberal mule to get its attention. Reasoning with it, as the joke goes, which is to say development of actual progressive legislation responding to the immense suffering apparent everywhere will need to come later: after the catastrophe of the Trump/Pence administration is brought to an end.

It is at this point that the analogy between the admirers of Kenny G and Trump breaks down: I know of no instance where Kenny G’s fans have lashed out against at those who routinely make punching bags of them for the crime of enjoying simple bluesy tunes in high gloss professional arrangements. Rather they vote with their feet filling stadiums or opening their wallets when they are requested by him to throw a few bucks in a hat for a charity.

But that doesn’t mean that they don’t harbor plenty of simmering resentment towards those ridiculing them for their coarse and degraded musical tastes while patting themselves on the back for their sensitivity and refinement. The value of these and other purely cultural antipathies have, for years, been recognized by right organizers such as Grover Norquist whose electoral strategy, as he recently revealed, relies crucially on “changing the tone . . . towards bitter nastiness.”

That our own attitudes help pave the way for this tone to be established and thereby the success of the right raises a fundamental question for those of us whose lives have revolved around a passionate investment in forms of musical high culture, however we define it. How do we respond to artistic tastes which seem to represent an affront to our cherished aesthetic values, just as much as support for Trump seems to represent an attack on our core political and moral sensibilities.

How we resolve this is an individual matter, but one guideline should be clear: While we should make clear that while we regard their views as misguided, maybe even profoundly so, we harbor no ill will towards Trump supporters as individuals.

When it comes to those with an affection for Kenny G or any other artist for whom visceral contempt seems de rigueur it would seem that more is required of us. Namely, we need to take a step beyond tolerance by applying the kindergarten adage to either say something nice or nothing at all about the music people like, the cars they drive or the foods they eat. Doing so won’t by itself prevent a repetition of the electoral disaster of 2016 or install socialists at the helm of state power. But if we can our curb our reflexive pleasure in lampooning the bad taste of others, it will make it the longstanding project of the right to construct walls which divide us that much harder. And in so doing, we make our job to build bridges connecting us that much easier.

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(1) See my widely derided Jazz After Politics for arguments along these lines.

(2) Oddly, Metheny claims Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” as embodying the supposed virtues of jazz under attack from the debased idiom of Kenny G.

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