La La Land and profiting from the brand of jazz
As I walked out of La La Land—the Golden Globe-sweeping and now Oscar-nominated Hollywood musical portraying a jazz musician and an actress falling in love and pursuing their dreams—I thought to myself, “it’s nice to know that someone is making money from jazz.” The movie was enjoyable overall, but I found it difficult to get past the caricature and exploitation of the jazz genre—an exploitation because those profiting from it are Hollywood stars, directors (Damien Chazelle of Whiplash, another movie about jazz that’s not about jazz), and producers but not musicians who’ve dedicated their lives to the art. The score has little to do with jazz, and the film overall cashes in on the notion of jazz while doing little to advance support for or listenership of the evolving genre.
The movie paints an outlandish portrayal of jazz musicians in scenes like the one where the male lead freaks out when his sister sits on a stool Hoagy Carmichael sat on, when he says that he sometimes drives five miles out of his way to get coffee by a legendary club, and when he forces the female lead to listen to jazz when she makes the hackneyed confession, “I don’t like jazz.” As someone intimately familiar with the jazz community, I couldn’t stop my eyes from rolling. Well, at the least, La La Land truly reflects the real jazz world in that the people making money from it are white and not the Black Americans from whom the music originated. The question of who deserves to profit from jazz is a question for another post, aspects of which I explore here.
Things called jazz that are not jazz
Though the movie is accessorized with countless jazz references, it doesn’t have much to do with the music itself, which is how jazz is often used in mainstream culture. Some examples:
- Jazz apples, a cross between the Royal Gala and Braeburn apples, available at your local grocery store
- Live Jazz by Yves Saint Laurent because who wouldn’t want to smell like a musty NYC basement club?
- The Kate Spade Jazz Things Up collection featuring black cats, pianos, and boom boxes
- Jazz Total Detox for flushing out toxins before a drug test
It turns out the Tumblr documentarian Russell Finch had the same question and sought to find out by interviewing a number of professionals, including historians, musicians, and a marketing manager, on BBC Radio 4. The segment is illuminating and drove me to an unexpected conclusion about the use of jazz in marketing.
The marketing professional interviewed had managed the Diet Pepsi Jazz campaign and explained that she wanted the Diet Pepsi to be seen as something more than just flavored soda. She wanted to appeal to the emotions of women in their 20s and beyond, who want a calorie-free drink but in the least diet-tasting way possible, aspiring to something exciting and rich as they drink Jazz. This checks out with a semiotician also interviewed, who said the jazz label presents a civilized sense of wildness and the bourgeois self likes to view itself as free.
Jazz in marketing
In the radio segment, jazz professor Mark Laver provided the necessary historical context to jazz in marketing and advertising. According to him, jazz music entered the popular consciousness in North America through tobacco company sponsorships of radio programming and also radio jingles. Jazz developed a reputation for illicit activity in the 20s and 30s, causing moral hysteria over what it was doing to young people, dancing too close to the rhythmic music of black people. The idea of African-American culture/bodies as a sexually potent or dangerous thing is a persistent concept in the U.S. cultural imagination and it has a pervasive influence in advertising. In the counterculture movement of the 1950s, this dangerous and sexy quality was reconfigured by beat writers such as Jack Kerouac as a desirable antidote to the button-down, flannel-suited, prudish version of America.
(For further reading, Mark Laver provides insightful analysis of the Volkswagen Jetta ad from March 1999, which featured the music of bassist/composer Charles Mingus and was one of the “magnificent seven” as described by Adweek, and discusses Mingus’s complex relationship with commercialism in “Rebels and Volkswagens: Charles Mingus and the Commodification of Dissent.”)
The acclaimed musician Nicholas Payton reminded me in his interview that the music most call jazz now wasn’t even called jazz at the time. Duke Ellington wanted to call the music “negro music” and Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus rejected the word “jazz” being attached to their music as well. He explained that the original recorded “jazz” band was a Dixieland band—a white band making a parody of jazz music. In Payton’s view, the word “jazz” is equivalent to the “N word,” and he is resolute in calling his music “Black American Music.”
There are a number of debated origin stories around the word “jazz,” including one about a drunk black musician with a name abbreviated to some variation of “Jas,” egged on by white patrons to play louder, faster, and wilder, and another about Storyville, the fabled red-light district where the music was played in disreputable clubs to accompany acts of fornication. Ultimately, the origin is unknown. What is known is that the word has obfuscated the roots of the music and constructed a host of associations with the genre that can be conveniently employed to market stuff.
Jazz is marketing
In his popular and controversial blog post On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore, Payton writes the following:
Jazz is a marketing ploy that serves an elite few.
Jazz is a label that was forced upon the musicians.
It’s a marketing idea.
The music itself is a part of this category of things called jazz that are not jazz.
I can’t say I disagree, looking at how the word has functioned historically in relation to the music. So actually … the music itself is a part of this category of things called jazz that are not jazz … That realization gave me pause. Does that mean all these products using the brand of jazz—La La Land, Jazz apples, Jazz Diet Pepsi—actually are no more unrelated to the word “jazz” than the music itself? If jazz was nothing more than a marketing label from the beginning, then it is appropriately applied to any marketing campaign, whether for music or toilet seats, and arguably fulfilling its quintessential purpose in moves like a single organization claiming the name as its own to boost its site SEO. Forget about jazz in marketing—jazz is marketing.
When a name gets diluted and branded as too many unrelated things, it becomes difficult to control the intended message. With jazz, it turns out that the message is intact, as it was never really about the music rooted in New Orleans but rather about evoking a fantasy with racist overtones … and now, a nostalgic parody.