Thursday, December 5, 2019

“Close enough for jazz”

I missed this bit yesterday, Jonathan Turley revealing his ignorance of jazz:

“You can’t accuse a president of bribery and then when some of us note that the Supreme Court has rejected your type of boundless interpretation, say, ‘Well, it’s just impeachment. We really don’t have to prove the elements.’ That’s a favorite mantra. That it’s sort of close enough for jazz. Well, this isn’t improvisational jazz. Close enough is not good enough.”
I have no idea what Turley means.

“Close enough” is never “good enough,” not in jazz, not in any art. And what is “improvisational jazz”? Some subset of jazz?

And what does “close enough” mean anyway? Close enough to what? If Turley is talking about, say, faking a tune, that’s not “improvisational jazz” — that’s faking a tune, something countless musicians have done in trying to honor a request. (See piano bar.)

But faking one’s way through a piece of music is not what jazz musicians do. The notion that jazz musicians are content to toss off sloppy approximations of ideal musical forms is sad, misleading, and dumb, an insult to the improviser’s art. Jonathan Turley should play with his Goldendoodle and leave music to the musicians.


4:17 p.m.: In a comment, Chris at Dreamers Rise identified the likely inspiration for Turley’s comment: the expression “close enough for rock and roll.” New to me, but it’s the title of a 1976 album by Nazareth. The idea: it doesn’t matter if your guitar is in tune, as long as it’s close enough, &c. So as Turley would have it, jazz musicians, or “improvisatory jazz” musicians, don’t care enough to tune up before playing. Sheesh.


4:53 p.m.: But there’s also a 1969 album by Johnny Lytle, Close Enough for Jazz. So there’s a pretty well-established tradition of dissing vernacular musics, in seriousness or in self-deprecating jest.


6:10 p.m.: But wait, there’s more: in 1956, Stan Freberg made a parody recording of “Heartbreak Hotel.” He interrupts a going-out-of-tune guitar solo with the words “That’s good, that’s good, that’s close enough for jazz.” And it turns out that “close enough for jazz” is a well-established expression. Alan Axelrod’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jazz (Indianapolis, Alpha Books, 1999) glosses it:
Close Enough for Jazz

The prejudice classical musicians once felt against jazz musicians has pretty well died, but it died hard. For much of the 20th century, many classical musicians looked down on jazz musicians as sloppy and undisciplined.
I’ve been listening to jazz for almost my entire life, having entered the novitiate by the age of three. That might be why I’ve never imagined jazz musicians as sloppy and undisciplined.


January 17, 2020: My friend Stefan Hagemann passes along this passage, from a Harper’s article about Liz LeCompte and the Wooster Group, by David Gordon:
I am not surprised when Liz tells me that her father played jazz. One of her mottoes, repeated constantly, is “close enough for jazz.” Ari [Fliakos] laughs at the thought of how often he hears this, but notes the paradox it contains: jazz is a loose form that requires total precision; it is improvisation by people who practice obsessively.
Thanks, Stefan.

comments: 2

Chris said...

I think it's an ignorant variation on the phrase "close enough for rock and roll" (meaning that in rock music tuning precisely isn't necessary). Jazz greats are rolling in their graves as we speak.

Michael Leddy said...

“Close enough for rock and roll”: I never heard that one before. I have to laugh, as I listened to two Canned Heat concert recordings yesterday in which the band spends a good chunk of time tuning up.