Why are we still confining musicians to genre boxes?

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Ask any musician if they would categorize themselves and the answer is a resounding “no.” Ask them if they like being classified, the answer is again “no.” Yet, nearly every musician finds themselves slotted into a genre by writers, magazines, listeners and readers.

Does this mean we ignore their wishes, or is it that it is simply easier if we can put them in a box where we can understand the music they make perhaps a little better? What about musicians who come on the scene and buck the trend, seemingly becoming unable to be placed into a genres?

Beethoven, when he first wrote, shocked and bucked current musical trends because he introduced crashing chords and musical progressions which were not acceptable — or, rather, could not be readily defined under current critics’ pens. He was considered rebellious and even unmusical as his ideas were in direct opposition to the popular music of the day. He was not assigned to the classical genre until after his death. Later composers like Prokofiev, Schoenberg and Adams posed new problems for those wishing to assign them to genres.

Of course, one way is to simply increase the genres we can put musicians into: Avant garde, acid jazz, fusion, third stream or free form — all invented when new or different musical styles were exhibited.

For some musicians, crossing perceived genres is difficult because they have become so associated with a style of playing it is difficult to keep fans interested or, conversely, it is risky to step outside the conceived box and limitations. Even those like Ornette Coleman who made classical compositions with jazz solos got classified: Third stream became widely used to slot musicians like him and those who followed. It seems even the unclassifiable get classified.

One musician recently told me, “I am not sure where a magazine would place me, what bag they would put me into” when discussing a pitch to a magazine, and maybe this is typical.

Sometimes, it is as if trying to slot musicians into a genre box is as important or takes precedence in discussion over the music itself. Categorizing musicians can make it difficult for a writer, too. I have become known as a writer who likes free-form jazz and improvised music — because that is where most of my contacts lie. I do love this music, but I also like some classical, some straight-ahead jazz and many other genres.

All this genre assignment can lead to disharmony. As an example, take Debussy’s “L’Apres Midi D’une Faune.” I once described this in a piece as avant garde. The subject the piece was profiling disputed the genre assignment but I, and several others I asked, agreed it was avant garde — so I left it at that. But, really, should I have even tried to assign such a piece to a box?

Placing musicians in boxes also places parameters around them, perceived mainly by the audiences rather than the musicians themselves. For example, if you go to hear a musician who is known to play straight-ahead jazz and they go off into the realms of free playing — would this surprise? I recently went to a gig where the player, known as an improviser, suddenly played a beautiful excerpt from Bizet’s “Carmen.” Many in the audience found it interesting, but a few commented they did not pay to go to a classical concert. Surely, the guy was simply playing what he felt — and it was incredibly good.

Sticking musicians in genres is limiting. For example, if you were planning an orchestral concert and Joe Improv, a known free player was interested, would you ask him? He may be classically trained and, while he got his break at a free gig, may jump at the chance — but would your preconceptions stop you from asking?

Coleman and Tristano are examples of players who, without the invention of new genre descriptions, fell outside any easy genre assignations at the time. Throughout jazz’s history, there is the temptation to slot players into genres and keep them there in the mind. Bop, hard bop, be-bop, fusion, free, straight ahead, what do these actually mean? Do they mean the expectations of a player are limited to the genres assigned to them by writers, commentators and listeners?

It seems every author has to be able to say something like, “John Coltrane, a hard-bop player who became a free player,” or “Miles Davis played jazz fusion late in his career,” but these genres were simply progressions for these musicians. It did not mean they never played other styles.

Genres can also alienate those new to jazz, or any other kind of music. Sometimes, it feels like if you can’t hold your own in a conversation about bop versus hard bop, straight ahead, New Orleans jazz, Chicago jazz or any other genre being discussed — as if you do not “know your jazz.”

When I began writing I was told by one musician, “it is evident you know very little about jazz” — simply because, whilst I could talk at length about the music, and had been in bands, sang opera and am very definitely classically trained, I was unable, in my mind, to slot musicians into genres — because, to me, the genres meant little at the time and I was not interested in genres. (The musician in question has now changed his mind about my musical knowledge.) I have seen many people dip out of conversations, because they feel somehow snubbed or inferior if they cannot talk about genres — the lingo, if you like, of jazz.

If musicians alter their approach to music, it seems important for those discussing them to be able to neatly re-assign them to an existing genre (or invent a new one), yet not one musician I have ever spoken to over the years would classify themselves — and I have spoken to a lot. In fact, if I can guarantee one question which gets a single word answer it is: Would you classify your playing? The answer is always, “no.” Mats Gustafsson sums it up when he says that classification “is for others,” not for him as a player.

Many players mix elements from genres and it works, yet writers and critics wonder at their ability to meld genres. That is, I suspect, because in a musician’s mind all genre classification falls away or fail to exist in the first place. I often play “Bolero” and, OK, I may then demolish it by messing around with the chord sequence of simply playing around the bases, but that is just how I feel and how it moves me.

A player, I believe, is drawn to a style, a playing mode — because that is what they audition for and get the job. Or, more often, they play according to their heart, because that is how the music moves them, the way they express what the music is saying to them and, from a less restrained viewpoint, what they are saying.

Many players have a single word which takes away any need to fit into a category — and also removes limitations which place them, metaphorically speaking, into a box, complete with its walls, corners and closed lid. That word is: Music.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Sammy Stein

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