Jazz in Marketing (La La Land and the Brand of Jazz)

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:

In fact, there’s a Tumblr blog that collects things called jazz that are not jazz. So what is it about the word “jazz” that it should be used to brand so many unrelated products?

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.”)

jazz in marketing, jazz applesThe 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.

Watch a short excerpt from a diagnostic workshop in which James Heaton engages with the staff of the Tenement Museum in New York City to answer the question, “What is a brand?”

Ask for help.

We are kind, thorough and ready when you are. You just need to ask.


6 thoughts on “Jazz in Marketing (La La Land and the Brand of Jazz)

  1. Ken Hoffman says:

    I appreciate this article being written even while disagreeing with some of it. The word jazz is nothing like the music jazz. And the word to describe jazz means many different things to many different people. However, this article is really ironic. I don’t think anybody should be upset about people using the word or the idea of “Jazz” to promote things. It’s like the word “free”. You can’t copyright that word obviously. While this was an interesting article I find that the two things have virtually nothing to do with each other: The word jazz and the actual music of jazz. Jazz has all but dropped off of the CDs and downloads that people buy. Yet the music still thrives all over the country in live performances where it started and where it’s meant to really live. I’m writing this as a jazz saxophonist and someone who is very interested in marketing because it is the lifeblood of our economy and of all small businesses. Personally I think it’s an idiotic focus on semantics to say it should be called black american music. And just plain wrong because there are plenty of great white jazz musicians. ANYTHING that tries to make ANY group of people superior is wrong. Jazz is like america more than anything else…because of it’s wide diversity both stylistically and in it’s performers and composers.

    • Joyce Kwon says:

      Hi Ken, thanks for taking the time to comment with your thoughts!

      I agree that the word “jazz” and the music we call “jazz” have little to do with each other. That we use the same word for a myriad of seemingly unrelated things could be a source of confusion though. What I’ve taken away in writing this is that the very purpose of the word is marketing and so, it’s all fair game, however unfair it may be to the music genre in the way it comes to be represented.

      I absolutely disagree that it’s an “idiotic focus on semantics” to call it Black American Music. It’s not about whether there are great white jazz musicians—of course there are great jazz musicians of all ethnicities and varying nationalities—but about recognizing where the music came from, out of whose struggles the songs were born. Nobody is trying to make any group of people superior. It’s about remembering that it’s a folk music, something the name Black American Music makes explicit.

      This is not the main topic of this post so I didn’t expand on it but I did write about it on my blog. My understanding continues to evolve and I haven’t given this full consideration yet, but I’m thinking calling it Black American Music does not preclude non-black Americans from playing the music—for example, East Asian people could play Indian classical music or Latino people, Korean traditional music, if they understood the history and culture and dug into the circumstances which generated the music, in addition to acquiring the technical proficiency necessary on their instruments.

      All of that said, I’m glad I got to write this for a blog on marketing as that feels most appropriate and in line with what the word jazz stands for.

      • Ken Hoffman says:

        Calling it Black American Music is not accurate. It does not give credit to the African influence. In addition a large part of the standards encompasses songs written by white americans. You can’t pick and choose what parts of jazz you want to use to label.

        In addition, it seems to me at this point in time that any attempts to go back and try to rewrite history only serves to drive a wedge between groups of people and give them something to argue about. That’s why I am against the idea of it being called black american music.

        The word jazz has been used to describe dozens of different styles of music over the years. I completely disagree that it was only used as a marketing device. ALL music is labeled. All experiences and things are labeled. The act of labeling something is never accurate, yet it’s necessary to be able to communicate ideas. I don’t see anyone arguing about rock being called rock and rock music being used to market things.

        • Joyce Kwon says:

          Would you mind explaining how calling it Black American Music does not give credit to the African influence? That much I would think is clear, whether one likes the name or not, since the vast majority of enslaved people in the US came from Africa at the height of the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, that is, they are black—black Americans.

          Standards are not necessarily jazz—belonging equally at home on Broadway or as lounge music, as much as in a jazz club. I don’t believe it’s just the song choices that define a genre; one could do a jazz interpretation of Radiohead (e.g., Brad Mehldau), a standard of our time, and I’d be inclined to categorize it as jazz rather than rock, depending on how it is played.

          Yes, the Great American Songbook is core to the jazz repertoire, I certainly acknowledge that, but calling it BAM does not take away from accomplishments and contributions of anyone not black—whether Jewish, Brazilian, or anything—who have contributed to the art form.

          Consider the vast genre of classical music. There’s no dispute that its roots are in Europe—in Bach, in Mozart, in Beethoven. There have been and are countless classical composers and performers now who are not European and have contributed immensely to the genre. Recognizing classical music’s European roots does not take away from the accomplishments of Asian- or African-American classical musicians. (Also, in case you’re wondering, there is no confusion as to the origin of classical music, hence, I don’t see a need for an effort to change the name to clarify anything.)

          No, we do not want to be rewriting history, which is precisely why the name Black American Music was coined by Nicholas Payton. I appreciate you wanting to not drive wedges between people; unfortunately, the history of jazz is a stellar example of cultural appropriation—rewriting history/writing over black history—and a color-blind approach in the pursuit of avoiding arguments would actually be silencing the exploited instead of making peace and reparations, doing a disservice to all involved.

          Lastly, if I was arguing about jazz being used to market things before, I am done. I think that is its purpose!

          I’m aware that this may not be an easy topic to discuss and appreciate you sharing your thoughts, though we disagree on the core points.

  2. Mike Steger says:

    What about the NBA’s Utah Jazz, who kept their nickname when they moved from New Orleans to Salt Lake City? Is there anything more incongruous than Salt Lake City and jazz?

    • Joyce Kwon says:

      Ha, good point.

      Though I know little about the Utah Jazz, the brand of Salt Lake City, as I understand it, and jazz do seem to be incongruous. I know nothing about NBA team-naming practices but perhaps it wasn’t worth the effort to try to change the name?

      James Heaton wrote about this in Brand Names: Do I change mine?.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Ask for help.

We are kind, thorough and ready when you are. You just need to ask.