The Jazz.com Blog
June 26, 2009 · 14 comments
Michael Jackson, for all his considerable talents, never enjoyed a large following among jazz devotees. His songs are rarely covered by jazz bands (although with one very famous exception), and if you raise his name in a discussion with serious jazzistas, they will usually change the topic to his former producer Quincy Jones, whose artistry is more closely aligned with jazz values.
Yet jazz fans are not immune to the appeal of pop. They will embrace a great songwriter like Joni Mitchell; or a pop star who fills his band with jazz players like Sting; or a hitmaker who shows some impressive instrumental chops like Stevie Wonder. But Michael Jackson did not fit easily into any of these categories.
Yet Jackson had a better sense of the changes transforming the entertainment world during the late 20th century than any of these figures. Jazz fans not only should mourn his passing, but perhaps learn from his example, Then as now, formulas were changing, technologies were evolving, and Michael Jackson was the perfect talent to seize the opportunities of this new era.
In particular, the concept of the singer-songwriter—so powerful during the 1970s (and whose individualism was very congruent with the jazz sensibility)—would collapse as a platform for popular music during the 1980s. The intimacy and nuanced effects of this approach were not well suited to a multimedia age, which wanted something larger and more spectacular. Michael Jackson provided this panem et circenses spectacle, although in his case it was a spectacle that sometimes continued offstage and in private life.
The arrival of music videos and cable television was almost like a second coming of talking movies. Just as during that earlier age, audiences were attracted to stars who could exploit the full potential of the new medium. A half-century before, movie releases had been marketed for their “all singing, all talking, all dancing” grandeur. The screen might be smaller at the home entertainment center during the 1980s, but the appetite for powerful visual effects was much the same. A Stevie Wonder or Joni Mitchell, for all their musical talent—no doubt deeper than Jackson’s when measured in mere sharps and flats—were not capable of operating on this level.
In truth, no musical performer of his generation had a more powerful visual impact on the screen than Michael Jackson. He was so dynamic in front of the camera, that the Disney corporation even built a 3D film for its theme parks around him—and got Francis Ford Coppola to direct it and George Lucas to serve as executive producer. What a strange turn of events: after all, 3D films had always focused on massive effects, scary or scenic, something on a Grand Canyon type of scale. Now a 3D film was built around a personality?
But Michael Jackson was not just another personality—he also operated on a Grand Canyon kind of scale. And I can assure you from the lines I encountered when I went to see Captain EO at Disneyland, that this was a hugely popular attraction. How many films do you know that enjoy a decade-long run? In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie has a return engagement in the near future.
But it was in the more downsized and compact format of the music video where Michael Jackson crystallized his artistry and built his enormous audience. Here is the core of his legacy, one that you will not be able to appreciate if you simply listen to the compact disks or study the lead sheets.
This is not to dismiss his purely musical talents—Jackson’s genuine skills as a singer had been clear from his earliest years. And through some strange biological fluke—perhaps aided by who-knows-what—Jackson retained the childlike quality of his voice even after he reached adulthood. To some degree, he reminded me of Ella Fitzgerald, who also managed to convey a sweet innocence, almost the exact opposite of the sassiness and sultriness around her, and put its stamp on everything she sang. Jackson was the same, and in the midst of a music scene that featured some of the most brazen and push-the-envelope acts in the history of music—the Sex Pistols were formed at almost the same moment that the Jackson 5 left Motown—he always held on to the ingenuous aura of the child star.
But it was as a dancer that Michael Jackson parlayed his talents into superstardom. It was the moonwalk that killed the singer-songwriters, who stayed hidden behind their pianos and guitars while Jackson strutted the big stage. Youngsters everywhere imitated his steps, not his voice, and even today, his footwork is admired and emulated by countless stars and wannabe stars. (See some example here.)
All of this is foreign to the jazz sensibility. Jazz once had a close relationship with popular dance—not coincidentally during its period of greatest financial success. But in the 1980s, jazz had lost this connection. Jazz bands might be able to cover Jackson's tunes (not often, as I noted above—I still remember working in a combo where the sidemen rebelled after the leader wanted to play “Beat It”; he gave up and called another tune); but they could not assimilate the full effect of Michael Jackson, which started with his toes and only gradually arrived at the vocal chords and cerebellum.
Jazz fans did know about Quincy Jones, however. They had known about Jones long before Jackson and the mass audience had discovered him. They would give him much of the credit for Jackson’s hits, and certainly he played a key part in the elevation of this pop superstar. Yet Jones's brilliance lay in adapting his techniques to Jackson's inherent strengths and potent charisma—and not merely applying some formula he had learned from his jazz days.
The production tricks Jones brought to these hit tracks are fascinating to study. And sometimes daring in bizarre ways. How did Jones ever get the idea of taking little snippets of Jackson squeaking out high notes, and use them as background effects—almost like birds chirping on the trees? Then Jones would mix this amalgamation of quasi-ambient sounds with a lead vocal, hypnotic bassline and a very 80s-style rhythmic sensibility. All this was a far cry from what Jones had done with Sinatra and jazz players, but give this man—born in 1933—his due for understanding the new sensibility in a a way that no one of his generation could approach.
If you had any doubts that this was the right formula, you merely needed to look at the Billboard charts. The Jackson-Jones collaborations sold around 200 million albums. The duo eventually parted ways, and Jackson was focused on producing his own music. Yet he never came close to matching the sales of his work with QJ.
Jazz fans might think that this success was driven more by technology (videos, cable TV) than by musical factors. But a close examination of the history of jazz shows that the same marriage of music and technology has driven its own success. The possibility of jazz as an improvised art form with large scale distribution depended on the invention of sound recordings. Benny Goodman’s immense success—and indeed the whole phenomenon of the Swing Era—would not have been possible without the widespread adoption of radios in American households. Without long-playing records there would have been no Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme.
Music and technology have always been interlinked, ever since the first cave dweller figured out how make a bone into a flute, the hide of an animal into a drum. If the jazz world didn’t embrace Jackson, it was due to the fact that the technologies he parlayed into fame were those which jazz players were either unable or unwilling to assimilate into their own creative endeavors.
Yet it’s clear to me that, two decades after Jackson’s biggest hits, the jazz world can still learn from his example. Only nowadays, the stakes from comprehending the symbiotic relationship of music, technology and media are even higher.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia