Thursday, May 17, 2007

JT to Oprah: Thanks for Nothing

(Note: If you want to support jazz more than Oprah does, the Jazz Foundation concert is tonight. I don’t know what the ticket situation currently is, but if you show up with money, I bet something can be worked out.)

Oprah’s show is one of the few the mediagenic Wynton Marsalis has never appeared on, which says plenty about Winfrey’s lack of interest in jazz. Nate Chinen bemoans her neglect in his column in this month’s Downbeat. The only remotely jazz oriented artist to win Oprah’s endorsement for her ditto-heads is Chris Botti, who as Chinen writes: “travels in an orbit clearly identifiable as adult contemporary pop.”

He complains:

“According to Blue Note, neither has Dianne Reeves nor Cassandra Wilson [appeared on her show], despite each artists public embodiment of something like a Winfrey-esque code of self empowerment.”

Unfortunately, they do not fit the Winfrey-esque aesthetic. Her Book Club selections (which, I’m all too familiar with), can be called middle-brow with literary pretensions. There are formulaic elements, including women protagonists, family drama, up-from-victimhood themes, and regularly scheduled epiphanies, that I’m told are “ah-hah moments.” (Yes some have award pedigrees, especially after the James Frey carnival of horrors.)

Jazz of course, is not so predictable. At its best it can be honest, dramatic, and above all, surprising. It does not unveil its secrets on a regular time table. It can be ruckus fun and intellectually rigorous. Jazz does high art and greasy gutbucket, but sorry, no middlebrow.

Chinen complains:

“Over the years I have found myself frustrated by her obvious disinterest. Couldn’t she just fake it? It would take so little on her part and mean so much.”

However, he expresses unease with his feeling that:

“jazz is a responsibility Oprah is shirking, as an African-American icon and an arbiter of mainstream culture.”

The problem with Winfrey’s jazz apathy is not that she is dodging a duty to her heritage. She is just ignoring something great. Unlike her book club selections’ neat and tidy “ah-hah moments,” jazz deals in messy truths. As Col. Jessup would say, Winfrey “can’t handle the truth.” In the case of jazz, it’s her loss—a loss she passes along to her loyal minions.