Blog Work Articles Links Contact blank

The Jazz Police

John Robert Brown

In his middle years, the distinguished British jazz trumpet player Dick Hawdon took up the double-bass. To the surprise of all who knew him Dick, who died in 2009 just short of his 82nd birthday, made a reasonable job of jazz double-bass playing.

He'd played the cello as a teenager. After pouring a deal of energy into practising the double-bass he then embarked on a period when he sat-in with any and every local band that would have him. Within a couple of years Dick Hawdon was playing bass in the local rhythm sections that accompanied various visiting American jazz stars.
One of my strongest memories of playing with him is of Dick calling out from behind his bass: 'Yellow card',  or 'Red Card' if one played a musical quotation, or trotted out some phrase of which he didn't approve. Dick's comments were his way of refereeing the performance, of saying that he didn't approve of what he'd heard. His remarks were always ignored, of course.

Around this time one began to hear mention of the Jazz Police, being the informal name given to the much-resented listeners and fans who laid down the law about what was jazz and what wasn't, rather like the fashion police. For example, I once knew a guitarist who maintained that it wasn't jazz if you couldn't dance to it! I suppose that Dick's behaviour was an early example of Jazz Police thinking.

During the 1980s the Jazz Police were mentioned in an enigmatic and cryptic song by the Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen:

'Jazz Police are looking through my folders
Jazz Police are talking to my niece
Jazz Police have got their final orders
Jazzer, drop your axe, it's Jazz Police.'

By the new century, the Jazz Police seemed to be an idea of the past. Then, last December, Spain's pistol-carrying Civil Guard (real police, that is) descended on the Sigüenza Jazz festival to investigate allegations that the music being played by American saxophonist Larry Ochs was not jazz. An angry jazz buff, Rafael Gisbert, had complained that the Larry Ochs Sax and Drumming Core group was on the wrong side of a line dividing jazz from contemporary music. Expressing more than mere genre-angst, Gisbert claimed that his doctor had warned that it was psychologically inadvisable for him to listen to anything that could be mistaken for contemporary music. El País newspaper reported that khaki-clad police officers duly turned up to listen to the saxophone playing and drumming being performed by Ochs and his band on the festival stage. The Spanish police agreed that Gisbert the purist might, indeed, have a case. Gisbert's complaint against the organisers, who refused to return his money, was duly registered and passed on to a judge. A suggestion that as it was free jazz there was nothing to refund was ignored. A festival organiser said: 'The question of what constitutes jazz and what does not is obviously a subjective one, but not everything is New Orleans funeral music.'

Then followed an amusing and revealing series of comments in the press and on the web. A writer in the Daily Telegraph observed that: 'Jazz festivals are famously full of oddballs, which is one of the nice things about them. I went to one a couple of years ago, and couldn't take my eyes off the audience. A more moth-eaten collection of pasty-faced, lank-haired eccentrics and evangelists you could not hope to find outside of Bedlam. But trying to police their musical tastes? That really is madness,' he said.

A day or two later, Wynton Marsalis asked the Guardian to find the Spanish complainant so that he could thank him and send him a package of his music. Rafael Gisbert has since stepped forward, which is how we come to know his name. On the web a blogger by the name of Philip Booth stated:  'Kenny G wields his chirpy soprano sax for bland instrumental pop, markets it as jazz, makes a mint, and nobody bats an eye. Where are the Jazz Police when you really need them? They'd really come in handy when a certain local festival turns over all its headlining positions to boring smooth jazz acts. I'd welcome the Jazz Police to help keep incessant talkers and noisemakers from rudely ruining my enjoyment of concerts. And maybe pianist Keith Jarrett would cease his awful audible humming (which sometimes spoils otherwise brilliant solo and trio performance) if there were a chance that the Jazz Police would intervene.'

And what did saxophonist Larry Ochs think of the controversy? Reportedly, he suffered a momentary identity crisis. "I thought I had seen it all," he told El País. "I was obviously mistaken. After this I will at least have a story to tell my grandchildren'.

From Clarinet and Saxophone magazine, March 2010. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
Updated and maintained by: routeToWeb