The Death of American Music

Sometimes I feel like my life is a cliché. Here it is, a Saturday morning, and I am washing dishes while drinking strong coffee and listening bebop. The album is Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder. I remember thinking it was cool to be obsessed with Miles and Coltrane and then Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Then I moved forward with hard bop from the mid 1960s, men like Morgan and Horace Silver and Wayne Shorter. That’s where I was two years ago and now my dog is outside barking in time with the drums on the record. These days my jazz fixation revolves around Blossom Dearie and scratchy New Orleans jazz like Jelly Roll Morton and Ma Rainey. There was that brief period before World War II when jazz and blues and country were almost indistinguishable, when American music was fresh and breathtaking. I think that continued for a long while into the 1960s, but after Woodstock it seemed to only come in spurts. There is a reason so many people still love Springsteen. When he appeared in the 1970s, he pulled classic rock away from its trashy tendencies and captured something distinctive about the American experience. He did it with an obviously working class bent, but it has never been so over the top as to be alienating. But since Springsteen and, maybe, R.E.M., there has been no American music worth carrying around. The most interesting people you will meet – and I include many of my friends in this group – are those who have given up chasing new talent and are instead digging through stacks of albums by Americans both great and obscure, and almost all of them dead or nearing retirement age (the Boss and Bob Dylan being two obvious exceptions). It seems as though rock and roll, country, blues and jazz have all reached some sort of climax and are, like classical music, stuck in a boring period of repetition. I am not sure what the cure is, but at least I have Lee Morgan and Gram Parsons to keep me satisfied in the meantime.


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