Earlier today I found a couple of letters I wrote to the 'Independent on Sunday' in 2001 ... I hate jazz
Nicholas Lezard's campaign to rid Radio 3 of jazz deserves all the support it can get. Jazz should be returned to Radio 2 where it belongs, even if the listeners there don't want it either. There really is no justification for inflicting such mediocre ear-fodder on a cultivated audience.
Unlike classical music, jazz - with very few exceptions - cannot be defined as 'art' in any meaningful sense of the word. It is principally concerned with showing off technical virtuosity (which is presumably why Stravinsky, the arch-opportunist and master of clever but frequently empty pastiche, was drawn to it). And it's not just the soulless sterility of the music that irritates. We also have to put up with unctuous presenters displaying their trainspotting mentality as they witter on in hushed, reverential tones about this or that 'session' before name-checking every single musician playing on it. This merely empasises the fact that most jazz is little more than a communal ego-trip.
The introduction of jazz and other 'light' music to Radio 3 clearly showed the station dumbing itself down in response to the (imaginary) threat posed by Classic FM. Of course Radio 3 must broaden its horizons, but it should confine itself to broadcasting genuine and serious music. As far as I'm concerned it doesn't matter whether it's by Bach, Schoenberg, the Fra Fra Tribesmen or the Velvet Underground; just as long as it isn't shouting 'hey, look at me, look at me, watch what I can do!'
I notice that my letter of 18th February has prompted some stinging ripostes from jazz afficionados and others. Frances Knott asserts that 'all artists worth hearing are show-offs'. I would say the opposite is true. True artists, whether originators or interpreters, display a humility in their work that can only come from a deep understanding of the human condition. Great art, whether by Samuel Beckett, Mark Rothko, Thomas Mann or Robert Simpson, has little to do with personal vanity.
D I Booth seems to believe that I am opposed to virtuosity on principle and cites the concertos of Bach and Birtwhistle in defence. Leaving Birtwhistle aside - as posterity may well do - Bach, Mozart, Chopin and Liszt were among the greatest keyboard virtuosos of their times but they were also great composers. Superb technique allied to extraordinary imaginative genius is a winning combination in any discipline. In his youth Liszt was regarded first and foremost as a virtuoso performer, but he composed his greatest works in later life once, I suspect, the urge to 'show off' had been tempered by experience. My point was simply that virtuosity alone is never enough. Paganini may have been a great fiddler but he was a pretty indifferent composer. Ravel was reputedly a lousy pianist but he still created some fine piano music.
I do not deny that some jazz has merit, especially when it remains in touch with its roots in the Blues. But there is a world of difference between Billie Holliday singing 'Strange Fruit' and Cleo Laine indulging in pointless vocal pyrotechnics or John McLaughlin twiddling self-indulgently with his guitar. Improvisation is a vital ingredient in all music, including folk music of which jazz is an offshoot. But folk music must be grounded in a living culture, not left floating aimlessly in some rarified realm to which only those with a specialist knowledge of the mechanics of the music can gain admission.
I am puzzled by Simon West's remarks about Pavarotti and 'Nessum Dorma', since I fail to see how the beauty of this song is in any way diminished by its popular appeal. To quote Leonard Bernstein (approximately), 'a music lover is someone who can hear the William Tell overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger'. Besides, Pavarotti is a great singer and far too professional to merely 'regurgitate' Puccini. 'Jingle Bells' and similar Three Tenors froth is another matter, but at least it has a good home amid the ringing tills on Classic FM. As for the suggestion that it is 'soulless sterility endlessly to repeat the work of men dead for 400 years', perhaps Simon West should ask why we do so. If he is honest he will admit that it is because such works are widely acknowledged to be some of the greatest artistic achievements of the human race. It is not by chance that Bach is remembered while a hundred other composers of his age are forgotten. Should we also dismiss the timeless and universal works of Shakespeare and Da Vinci because they are 'too old-fashioned' for this Brave New World?