Things called jazz that are not jazz…but are ‘jazz’

Last year I came across a Tumblr: Things called jazz that are not jazz. It’s a collection of items that are branded jazz, but according to the site’s owner Russell Finch ‘are not jazz’. There’s also an associated BBC Radio programme on it where he investigates this phenomenon and poses the question: “Why are there so many completely unrelated products named after this one music genre?” [emphasis mine]

And that’s your first mistake…Presuming that the items branded ‘jazz’ are directly or indirectly to the music.

The radio programme is somewhat humorous, but I felt that it’s a bit superior- ‘oh ho, ho, ho, how silly of these people to call these things jazz when it’s clearly not the music!’ And while Finch and his participants were asking interesting questions…they weren’t really getting to the right questions to ask because of the narrow assumption that jazz was, and is, and only could be music. Interestingly they were using the terms jazz and jazzy in the colloquial sense that have little relationship to the music (and have never had a strong relationship to the music). In fact the only time that this documentary gets close to the heart of this matter is the couple of minutes that Finch spoke to Mark Laver the author of ‘Jazz Sells: Music, Marketing, and Meaning’ (Routledge Transnational Studies in Jazz 2015). It was frustrating because it was essentially a sound bite that only touches on the wide variety of reasoning behind using ‘jazz’ as a touchstone across the 20th and now 21st century, only touching on jazz advertising from about the 1930s or 1940s onwards (hard to tell) and seemed edited towards the idea that only music can be jazz. And despite the presence of two historians and an etymologist there was remarkably little investigation into the history of this usage, probably leaving the average non-jazz-historian listener a bit bemused about what this was really all about, and why it was supposed to be important.

Finch concludes that “nowadays the word has floated entirely free of the music”, but I would argue that it has never been entirely tied to the music. While the term jazz is now overwhelmingly associated with the genre of music (which is also somewhat problematic to some sections of the musical community), it had a life before it was associated music (about 1915) and it has had a parallel life since the music took on the term. The first most obvious secondary relationship is with dance (in fact you can see on the Tumblr an erroneous entry regarding jazz boots- not branding, but made for use in the style of dance). From the social dancing and vaudeville of the 1920s to Hollywood musicals and today’s musical theatre jazz has had this parallel existence that many music historians prefer to forget (it rather destroys the whole jazz music is art trope).

In the 1920s, especially, the term jazz had a vigorous life in the non-musical sphere. As I’ve written here previously, New Zealanders in the 1920s were obsessed with the idea of jazz. This idea wasn’t just music or dance, but a way of life, a way to make your life more glamorous for both women and men. For New Zealanders the idea of jazz was a way of being a little bit more cosmopolitan, a bit more connected with the world and its trends. All of this had very little to do with the music except that it was the popular music of the day, and it was what you heard when you went out dancing. What jazz was or was not seemed to matter very little in the 1920s especially when you can have “jazzing and confetti fighting” (still haven’t figured out what confetti fighting entails exactly, but it sure sounds fun).

This idea of things that are not jazz but are ‘jazz’ is one I’ll be exploring more this year in relation to New Zealand’s jazz age. Jazz as an elusive exotic object (in other words not music, not dance, related to consumer items, but not necessarily items themselves) is an integral part of how jazz was perceived and received in 1920s New Zealand, and integral to the explosion of the Jazz Age.


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