The demise of Gilligan’s Island in 1967 left us with many questions. Most of these questions are about Ginger and Mary Ann. The rest are about the radio.

How was it that on this “uncharted desert isle,” somewhere in the middle of the Pacific or perhaps an ocean we have yet to discover, radio reception was in English and crystal-clear? How did the castaways get news reports that were relevant to them, decades before you could do that online? And where did they find that jazz station?

Forget uncharted desert isles. Whole cities don’t have jazz stations. Even here in super-enlightened Portland, Oregon, our local jazz station helps to pay the bills with programs of the blues, “roots,” and a sort of synthetic jazz-fusion that’s almost danceable. Let’s admit it: Jazz by itself is not a money-maker.

These days it’s not much of a crowd-pleaser, either. Jazz was the people’s music right through the end of World War II. One of the many things the Brits fumed about during the war was that American G.I.’s brought their jazz with them. Jazz answered an emotional need in people, but by the end of the 1950s, rock ’n’ roll had become a better answer. This was about the same time that jazz became more intellectual and more of an art form.

Joey The Lips in The Commitments put it best:

It’s anti-people music. It’s abstract….It’s got no soul. It is sound for the sake of sound. It has no meaning. It’s musical wanking, Brother…

It seems to me that jazz haters (naturally, I married one) hate jazz for two reasons:

1) Why listen to Miles Davis when you have ZZ Top? Try dancing to “’Round Midnight.” OK, stop acting like a spaz and give “Sharp Dressed Man” a try. No contest.

2) Search-and-destroy instruments.

Honk your alto sax if you love jazz
I can think of few musical works as dramatic as Charles Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song,” as gorgeous as John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” as raucous as the Rebirth Jazz Band’s “I Like It Like That,” as haunting as Upper Left Trio’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” or as soulful as Davis’ entire Kind of Blue. Where would I be without Vince Guaraldi and A Charlie Brown Christmas?

But to reach these plateaus jazz made a few alterations, the main one having to do with the melody. When the horns leave the melody line and start flying around like go-karts in your bathtub, the jazz haters change the station. My studies of jazz and jazz haters has helped me rank jazz instruments based on threat level:

Horns: Saxophones, trombones, trumpets, tubas, bugles, French horns, dirigeridoos, and anything that can play the Lone Ranger theme or “Charge!” at a baseball game. The sax is public enemy #1, the instrument most likely to blow itself out the airlock. This is fine by me but you’d be surprised how many people would rather go to Vegas and pay $200 to see Celine Dion’s tribute to Gordon Lightfoot.

Piano: Alas, too many jazz outfits follow the same format. If the sax takes a solo, the piano takes one, too. And then the trumpet takes one. Next track: Same deal. And of course the soloist is never playing what the neighbors are playing. I can see how this might prove indigestible to anyone expecting a three-minute song with a story, a hook, and a catchy lyric.

Guitar: I’m talking electric guitars here, though you could throw in banjos on principle. Guitars are a lot less likely to trip your startle reflex. They generally mind their own business, or else the guitarist pretends the guitar is an organ (see next entry). And even when a jazz guitarist hits the afterburners, he or she isn’t playing much we haven’t already heard from Queensrÿche or Korn.

Organ: On the spectrum of jazz instruments, the organ is right in the middle. Like Switzerland. The organ is pleasant to listen to but an hour later I can never remember what I heard.

Drums: People like drum solos, though the drum solo in “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is taking things too far. I think the drum solo connects us with our John Philip Sousa/high school marching band souls. In jazz, the drum solo means you get a break from the intellectual exertions of the horn players. It also means the drummer is still breathing.

Xylophone: Guaranteed to lift your spirits, perhaps because we all played one when we were too young to go to school, go to work, or go waste time blogging.

Bongos: Are bongos the optimum jazz instrument? Judge for yourself with the Irving Fields Trio’s pioneering Bagels and Bongos (1959). But even if you never intend to give that masterwork a spin, tell me this. How can you not smile when someone is playing the bongos? Especially when you know they’re not going to practice at your house?

My research indicates that, for a jazz band to reach the widest possible audience, they have to outlaw horns and pianos and resort to guitars only on holidays. I’m not sure the world is ready for a jazz band composed of an organ, a xylophone, bongos, drums, and maybe a bass player or somebody armed with a ukulele. But why not? I love jazz. I’d give it a listen. Though a certain jazz hater might ask me to wear headphones.

News from Steveworld
I have a new post at The Nervous Breakdown. This one is a rewrite of my music-and-sex survey. This post is making as big a stir at TNB as it did here at Run-DMSteve, which is to say I’m not yet one of the lucky 10% who own 90% of the U.S.

More news from Steveworld
Portlandians: Do you look forward all year to Wordstock? You don’t? Illiterates! Get yourself down there this October and buy a damn book. And I know which one you should buy.

This summer I entered the Wordstock short-fiction contest and finished in the Top 10. (In fact I was the runner-up to the grand prize winner – the person who actually got the money. If for some reason that person cannot serve out his term, I will don the tiara. Though I suspect he will have spent the money by then.) Wordstock will publish a paperback anthology of the Top 10, available at the festival.

There were 400 entries in this contest, from writers as far away as Singapore and Ireland, so right now I’m feeling just like “Some Kinda Rush” by Booty Luv. (How I wish John Coltrane was around to take that one apart!)

  1. Peter says:

    This is beautiful:

    No kidding.

  2. Hee hee! Awesome post. Congratulations on Wordstock!

  3. Kimberly Hauze says:

    Congrats on your Wordstock almost-win, Steve!

  4. Barb says:

    Not everyone hates jazz. Where are Dianne Reeves and Ella Fitzgerald in your list? Cross the river and come to the Vancouver Wine & Jazz Festival, August 26-28! Stanley Jordan, Diane Schuur, Spyro Gyra, Al Jarreau, Arturo Sandoval (oh my) and lots more. The art and wine are mighty fine too.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      Oh yeah, I know this crowd. Spyro Gyra: Musically inclined thugs who kick some serious butt. That time at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle when they threw their luggage, their furniture, and their tour bus out of their room and into Elliott Bay is a classic. Stanley Jordan? Dude is so wired, he hasn’t slept since 1983. Al Jarreau maintains his own mercenary army. Diane Schuur and Lady Gaga have never been seen together in the same room. Connect the dots. You’ll never get me to cross that bridge!

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