This post is intended as supplemental material for the course “Sounds of Laughter: Musical Comedy in the United States”
For the majority of these posts, I have focused primarily on musicians who use comedic elements in their work. However, Paul F. Tompkins is a comedian who incorporates musical elements into his work. His routine “Jazz Is Lousy” presents a comedic take on the ways in which jazz musicians come across as inaccessible to everyday folks. I’ve watched the clip with other jazz musicians and they tend to find several parts of the bit very funny (for all our faults, we are a self-deprecating bunch).
This routine reminded me of a quote from ethnomusicologist and jazz studies scholar Ingrid Monson, who writes about the ways that jazz musicians are “saying something” through their music:
When jazz musicians learn traditional repertory, quote a particular musician’s solo, play a tune with a particular groove, or imitate a particular player’s sound, they reveal themselves to be very aware of musical history. It is important to note that the sonic features that allude to prior musical performances include dimensions beyond harmony, rhythm, and melody. (Monson 1996: 97)
This evaluation [of performance] depends on the listener’s response to multiple elements of the sonic texture – melody, harmony, rhythm, phrasing, groove, texture, timbre, and tempo – in the present and over historical time. (ibid: 98)
Monson skims over the fact that these allusions “to prior musical performances” are often done in humorous ways (as derided by Tompkins, such as him imitating the audience members saying “I don’t get the jazz joke”). He is critical of jazz for being too intellectual and requiring a level of musical knowledge that is inaccessible to those who are not trained musicians. Monson’s quote breaks down the kinds of musical intelligence needed to derive meaning from jazz – such as “melody, harmony, rhythm, phrasing, groove, texture, timbre, and tempo”, and encompassing current and historical practices. This joke is a rich source of analysis and discussion (and is, in my opinion, an astute take on jazz musicianship). The questions that it provokes for me are:
- What kinds of obligations do musicians have to their audiences in terms of playing music that is intellectually accessible?
- If, as Tompkins maintains, jazz humor is ephemeral (i.e., his critique of “you had to be there”), then is it still a valid form of comedy?
- Are there other examples of intellectually inaccessible music outside of jazz? If so, how are these debates played out similarly to or differently from those of jazz?
While there are no straightforward answers to these questions, they can be thought-provoking prompts to understanding jazz. I maintain that if jazz education focused more on the humor of jazz (i.e., letting amateur- or non-musicians “in on the joke”), that jazz music would have a larger following (although one could argue that many jazz musicians want to keep these “inside jokes” to themselves).
Monson, Ingrid. 1996. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Week 8 (Sounds of Laughter)