Jazz and the Politics of Representation in Three Dramedies
The opening episode of season two of the AMC series Preacher begins with a big reveal that sets in motion the season’s subsequent action: God has come to earth and gone missing. The protagonists—a preacher possessed by the powerful, but amoral offspring of the illicit coupling of an angel and a demon, his contract killer girlfriend, and an Irish vampire—track the almighty to a small town strip club in East Texas he has been rumored to frequent. God is not there, mayhem ensues, and in the club’s office the manager—before succumbing to a gunshot wound—tells the preacher, with a sigh, ‘God didn’t come for the girls, you idiot. He came…for the jazz.’ The show then cuts to the club’s performance space where a piano-less trio led by veteran New Orleans drummer Johnny Vidacovich offers a Coltrane-inflected, hard bop-style tune while pole dancers writhe at the edge of the screen. Jazz is here partly, it turns out, to give the showrunners an excuse to set the season in New Orleans, but it is also here for more than simple exigency. This article plumbs the place of jazz in three contemporary American television shows’ soundtracks: AMC’s Preacher, Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here, and F/X’s Louie. Together they represent a distinct cultural phenomenon in a distinct historical moment: the embrace of jazz as a music signifying creativity and the new; hipness and the bohemian margins of polite society; and elite, left wing intellectualism in an America riven by hope, change, and retrenchment. It is perhaps no surprise that each of these shows has a similar soundtrack—not only inasmuch as each includes new jazz recordings, in fact, but also in the range of other music compiled for their scores. They share a format—the ambivalent ‘dramedy’—an auteurish quality, an embrace of indie film aesthetics on the small screen, and a target audience. God aside, each of these shows participates in a signifying chain that links jazz to other aspects of American entertainment that once thrived together in a kind of demimonde, and which have since largely become uncoupled from each other; a Cold War-era world of Playboy clubs and the Rat Pack.
What, this article asks, might be at stake in reattaching jazz, stand up comedy, and strippers in these television shows? What does their target audience want from that set of associations? Answering those questions requires a close look not only at the narrative frames in which jazz is made to participate and the televisual techniques with which it is shown, but also at the particular sonic qualities that define jazz for these shows. Jazz is, of course, a famously varied genre label. Each of these shows features the same kind of jazz: an eclectic style based in Miles Davis’s approach to texture and form and in John Coltrane’s harmonic explorations as elaborated since the 1970s. Notably, in using this style of music they have found a jazz that is neither strongly associated with the middleclass Black project of the ‘neo-traditional’ resurgence of historical styles starting in the 1990s, nor associated with the Black radical project of hip hop and R&B-tinged Afrofuturist jazz growing in popularity at the time the shows were released. It is not so much that the vision of jazz these shows produce is white, as that it occludes its racial signifiers altogether. In the most critical assessment one might say that this is a (mostly) white, (mostly) male attempt to recapture a moment of white hipness: a chance to make Bohemian America great again. A more sympathetic interpretation may use Svetlana Boym’s distinction between restorative and reflective nostalgia to argue that the desire is to recapture the possibility of a different future offered by a selective memory of the past. These shows all make gestures toward a more multicultural world, and a world impacted by feminist and queer movements. This article holds open the possibility that by longing for a moment when jazz was hip these shows may be articulating with an audience’s desire for a more critical, more aware, more just future.
Berlatsky, Noah (2017) ‘The Major Difference Between the Preacher Comic and the AMC Show Has to Do with God’. The Verge. https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/24/15865528/preacher-garth-ennis-amc-vertigo-comics-dominic-cooper-ruth-negga (accessed 2 October 2018).
Berliner, Sasha (2017) ‘An Open Letter to Ethan Iverson (and the Rest of the Jazz Patriarchy)’. (September 21). http://www.sashaberlinermusic.com/political-and-social-commentary-1/2017/9/21/an-open-letter-to-ethan-iverson-and-the-rest-of-jazz-patriarchy (accessed 2 November 2018).
Boym, Svetlana (2001) The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.
Bryant, Clorinda et al. (1998) Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Carrington, Terri Lyne (2017) ‘Sexism in Jazz: Being Agents of Change’. Huffington Post (April 11). https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sexism-in-jazz-agents-of-change_us_58ebfab1e4b0ca64d9187879 (accessed 2 November 2018).
Carson, Charles (2008) ‘“Bridging the Gap”: Creed Taylor, Grover Washington Jr., and the Crossover Roots of Smooth Jazz’. Black Music Research Journal 28/1 (Spring): 1–15.
Gabbard, Krin (1995) ‘Introduction: The Jazz Canon and Its Consequences’. In Jazz Among the Discourses, ed. Krin Gabbard, 1–30. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1525/jams.1998.51.1.03a00040
——(2016) ‘Another Other History of Jazz in the Movies’. In The Cambridge Companion to Film Music, ed. Mervyn Cooke and Fiona Ford, 187–99. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316146781.013
Gordon, Max (1980) Live at the Village Vanguard. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Gray, Herman (2005) Cultural Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Halperin, Shirley (2012) ‘The Music of Louie C.K.’s “Louie”: Finding Inspiration in New York, “Rocky” Soundtrack, “Dirty Harry” (Q & A)’. Hollywood Reporter. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/louie-louis-ck-music-soundtrack-365657 (accessed 2 October 2018).
Howland, John (2009) Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson and the Birth of Concert Jazz. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.211239
——(2012) ‘Jazz with Strings: Between Jazz and the Great American Songbook’. In Jazz/Not Jazz: the Music and Its Boundaries, ed. David Ake, Charles Hiroshi Garrett and Daniel Goldmark, 111–47. Berkeley: University of California Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1752196313000400
——(2017) ‘Marketing the Middlebrow: Reconsidering Ellingtonia, the Legacy of Ellington Criticism, and the Idea of a “Serious” Jazz Composer’. In Duke Ellington Studies, ed. John Howland, 32–75. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781139028226.003
LaFaro-Fernandez, Helene (2009) Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro. Denton: University of North Texas Press.
Laver, Mark (2015) Jazz Sells: Music, Marketing, and Meaning. London: Routledge.
McGee, Kristin A. (2009) Some Liked It Hot: Jazz Women in Film and Television, 1928–1959. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. https://doi.org/10.5429/2079-3871(2011)v2i1-2.11en
McKay, George (2005) Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Mercer, Michelle (2017) ‘Sexism from Two Leading Jazz Artists Draws Anger–and Presents Opportunity’. The Record: Music News from NPR Music (March 9). https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2017/03/09/519482385/sexism-from-two-leading-jazz-artists-draws-anger-and-presents-an-opportunity (accessed 2 November 2018).
Monson, Ingrid (2007) Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call out to Jazz and Africa. New York: Oxford University Press.
Nelson, Keith, Jr. (2017) ‘“DJing for Grownups” with the Music Supervisor for “I’m Dying up Here”, “Luke Cage”’. Digital Trends. https://www.digitaltrends.com/movies/gabe-hilfer-im-dying-up-here-showtime-suicide-squad-music-supervisor-interview/ (accessed 2 October 2018).
Pellegrinelli, Lara (2017) ‘Women in Jazz: Blues and the Objectifying Truth’. National Sawdust Log (December 12). https://nationalsawdust.org/thelog/2017/12/12/women-in-jazz-blues-and-the-objectifying-truth/ (accessed 2 November 2018).
Porter, Eric (2002) What Is this Thing Called Jazz: African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sevian, Lauren (2017) ‘Sexism in Jazz, from the Conservatory to the Club: One Saxophonist Shares Her Story’. WBGO (October 20). http://wbgo.org/post/sexism-jazz-conservatory-club-one-saxophonist-shares-her-story#stream/0 (accessed 2 November 2018).
Shteir, Rachel (2004) Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sudhalter, Richard (1999) Lost Chords: White Musicians and their Contribution to Jazz, 1915–1945. New York: Oxford University Press.
Suhor, Charles (2001) Jazz in New Orleans: The Postwar Years Through 1970. Latham, MD: The Scarecrow Press.
Szwed, John (1997) Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Da Capo Press.
Tucker, Sherrie (2000) Swing Shift: ‘All-Girl’ Bands of the 1940s. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/107.3.902
Wilf, Eitan ( 2014) School for Cool: The Academic Jazz Program and the Paradox of Institutionalized Creativity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.12495
Williams, Linda Ruth (2005) ‘Twin Peaks: David Lynch and the Serial-Thriller Soap’. In The Contemporary Television Series, ed. Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. https://doi.org/10.3366/edinburgh/9780748619009.003.0004
© Equinox Publishing Ltd.
For information regarding our Open Access policy, click here.