Jazz Is America's Only Indigenous Art Form? I Don't Think So
March 25, 2014
Some long-held notions in our society have included the idea that the tallest buildings in the world are in New York, that Adam and Eve walked the Earth and discovered Brooklyn, that laserdiscs would be the wave of the future, and that jazz is the only art form created and nurtured in the U.S. I BEG to differ. As a part-time jazz musician and a full-time radio whore, um, executive, and former on-air personality who was likely more Bruno Kirby than Robin Williams (Oh, Frenchy.... Oh, Lieutenant Steve), there's little doubt in my mind that the "art" of modern broadcasting was born here, perfected here and may suffer the same fate as jazz music.
I know that radio broadcasting is an art form because I was forced to walk through a door on my way to work at KIIS-FM that was clearly labeled "Artist Entrance." It reminded others that there was seriously creative work afoot and anyone who messed with us was messing with our art.
Many of us started in college radio, a free-form canvas that was littered with vinyl, turntables, cigarette ashes but no liner cards. It was you and the music and the listener, and I do mean LISTENER. If anyone found more than one, we got a prize ... usually a look of astonishment. The key was making the best of our youthful ears and finding the right sound for our peers, a jury more rapt than we likely knew. What else did they have to listen to?
Well, there were professional radio stations, the same ones we absorbed like sponges to pattern our rap. This happened without us knowing what we were doing. We were digesting, regurgitating, re-reading and most important, immersing ourselves in an art form developed as entertainment by the Sklars and McClendons of our world. We heard what worked for us and imitated, and if we were half-decent, owned our own voice. Those of us who moved on to jobs in the business realized that we might have to think about form to our dysfunction, and that wasn't often pleasant. Flash cards with liners that said things like, "Clutter Free," or "more better music," (that was an ACTUAL liner we read while English teachers pooped their pants). These pooped, or POPPED in front of us and we had the sinking feeling that we really weren't in charge, but for our voices and our ... art.
Yes, the art flourished regardless of the confines of boundaries and indistinct rules that have worked on the radio for decades. Not unlike jazz, where you start playing what sounds good to you and then come upon chords and rhythms that bracket your work, you have to make sense of what you want to say on the radio within those boundaries. That's art, my friends, and we had it first and made it great. It's that art that separates the jukebox from our radios, and the sooner jukeboxes make use of the art of broadcasting, the sooner they'll profit from that.
Jazz has been confined to some lively corners of the world and may indeed exist as a relic, a source of where rock 'n roll developed the improvisational riff (thanks, Louis), the blues, the wail. It exists on the radio tangentially but yet rates better than many mainstay talk stations, but I digress. Jazz was born in the days of King Oliver and Armstrong and continues to grow and change today, but what's unique and important is that the U.S. can put a stamp on jazz as a purely indigenous art form.
The same can be said for modern broadcasting. It's been a long time since I've walked to work through an artist entrance at a radio station, but the name should remain for every broadcaster privileged to speak into a mic, and its demise as art should be avoided at all costs. A broadcaster's control room should be sacrosanct in its realm, a solitary confine where one can communicate with thousands while speaking as if to one. It's as much art as jazz, as fine writing, as great sculpture. It has meaning to the people, and most importantly, to the person digging it. And when we hear about preserving the arts in this country, forget not the lonely, skilled, slightly demented character with the mic dangling in front of him or her. There's an artist at work!