8 votes

Are r&b, funk, soul and jazz the least controversial music genres or is it me?

I've been thinking, and it seems like most genres are a love/hate thing (metal and punk are highly controversial for example, they have super hardcore fans but are largely disliked by the majority of people, pop is the opposite, most people like it but there's a very vocal minority that absolutely deplores it and wants to watch it burn, electronic music as a whole also tends to gather mixed reception, etc), but out of all music I pretty much never see any dislike aimed at r&b, funk, soul and jazz (except for smooth jazz, although a lot of people don't consider it actual jazz).

Is there some truth behind this? I personally don't like these genres (and neither do the people around me) and I've always had the feeling we were pretty alone in that sense.


  1. [3]
    (edited )
    To expand on your comment that "a lot of people don't consider [smooth jazz] actual jazz," there's been a tremendous amount of disagreement within the jazz community on what exactly constitutes...
    • Exemplary

    To expand on your comment that "a lot of people don't consider [smooth jazz] actual jazz," there's been a tremendous amount of disagreement within the jazz community on what exactly constitutes "good jazz" or "real jazz" over the past century; it's not just whether or not you like Kenny G. Though the general populace may not have much of an opinion on the genre, its internal turmoil arguably makes it the most controversial one out there.

    It's been a while since I've gotten into the sociological component of the music, but jazz's roots as a form of self-expression for certain cultural groups (mostly Black and Creole communities) introduces an extremely complex integration of identity "realness" to what would otherwise be reproducible performances comparable to any other. Because improvisation is so important to jazz musicians, and because jazz has historically had a great deal of resonance within Black communities, a significant number of jazz artists and critics have reached the conclusion that to perform jazz as a White person is an inherently different (and generally worse) form of creative expression than to do so as a Black person. i.e. there is such a thing as "White jazz," and the way the jazz scene has evolved since the genre's inception has highlighted the elements associated with this style to the detriment of the genre's "true" roots as Black music. The famous critic Amiri Baraka in particular comes to mind as a proponent of this belief, though there are many others. Personally I am not a huge fan of the idea of "Black jazz" and "White jazz," because (as I will explain henceforth) the distinction was never really that clear to begin with, and because it also implicitly erases the contributions to the genre from people of other racial identities. Generally I prefer terms like "hot jazz" to describe the energy of the material. I do think that it's very important to recognize the sociological component of the music and all associated debates, though. I don't wish to disregard the historical fact that jazz was, until being surpassed by rock and roll, the absolute embodiment of evil to the White establishment. We can laugh at that today, because jazz is frequently (and ironically) associated with being "classy," but it was highly subversive for its time.

    The precursors to the smooth jazz of the 1980s extend back to the 1920s and earlier, when White theater owners and big band conductors actively sought to change the way jazz existed as a musical form to better suit the tastes of White audiences. From a socio-artistic perspective, this was problematic because the style specifically arose from explicitly non-transferable elements of Black identity. Jazz from the late 19th century had very little European influence relative to later iterations because it was fundamentally not created by or for White people. The sociological component of Creole jazz is too complicated for me to summarize in full, particularly because the concept of Creole culture was so intensely divided between the "more White" and the "more Black," but suffice it to say that the perceived Whiteness of certain Creole musicians (by other Creole persons) could be but was not necessarily a matter of cultural destruction in and of itself (Creole identities, by definition, tend to have a heavier synthesis of European constructs than more general Black identities; but their manner of expression has emergent qualities that offer it distinctiveness from the European tradition). There has always been a lot of diversity in the genre, it's just that the nature of that diversity has changed dramatically over the years.

    The real issue came with jazz's commercialization and the subsequent assumptions by audiences that it was fair game for White musicians. You might be surprised to learn that the "King of Jazz" of the 1920s was Paul Whiteman, who was decidedly not Black. I personally find this characterization appalling, if nothing else because I consider many of his contemporaries far more musically interesting; for many critics it was primarily the overwhelming Whiteness of his band and not the music "itself" (not that it can really be extricated), or a mix of those factors. The symphonic jazz of the 1920s was not really an academic endeavor to synthesize disparate genres to the benefit of each one ("for art!"), but to appropriate and distort Black cultural expression in a way that paid very little homage to its foundations. Certainly there were also Black musicians who contributed to orchestral jazz fusion, like Duke Ellington, who is very highly regarded, but that brings us back to the earlier question of what should be considered "real jazz." Pretty much by definition, music performed by a Black person is "Black expression," though many critics have still called Black musicians sellouts if they adopted styles popular with White audiences for the purposes of acquiring fame and wealth (rather than it being "for the culture"). It becomes very muddy very quickly. Miles Davis is probably the musician who comes most immediately to mind here for his adoption of cool jazz specifically in opposition to bebop, which I will describe later. And then you have performers like the incredibly talented Bix Beiderbecke, who was White and worked under Paul Whiteman but who as far as I recall was not criticized in quite the same way, probably on account of his skill; and the similarly excellent Benny Goodman, who was White but also Jewish, an identity for which he faced a great deal of stigmatization. I think it's hard to argue that the swing era in which Goodman resided didn't strive to meet at least some European tastes, but there was definitely a huge divide between "acceptable" swing and the really "hot" stuff (toward which I think he leaned much more closely), regardless of the racial identities of the performers.

    The most striking instance of jazz's racial divide is the bebop era in the 1940s. At that time it was very common for musicians to have spontaneous and legendary jam sessions in the coolest clubs of the coolest neighborhoods, and many Black musicians felt a growing resentment toward White players who "played jazz" but lacked the energy, creativity, or raw talent to truly innovate by themselves without copying Black musicians. This was attributed to their differences in identity; i.e. the motivation or inspiration to produce the best jazz was a bit harder to come by for White people who did not face the sort of quotidian discrimination and systemic oppression as the Black community, and who subsequently held worldviews not aligned with what was "hip." The entire premise of bebop was to create a form of jazz so fast, so technical, so difficult, so unpredictable, and so powerful that it could not be copied; it had to "come from the soul"—or it simply could not be produced with a level of quality comparable to the good stuff. Remembering again the improvisational nature of jazz, musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and others were adamant that the form was the new thing precisely because it found a way to re-center Black avenues of self-expression in a genre that had largely become populated by White influences. Musicians would hop into late-night jam sessions and find themselves in a race to keep up; after a while, inferior players would realize in the middle of a set that they had been completely eclipsed, unable to play off the unbelievably fast and technically precise melodies and rhythms of their counterparts, and would embarrassedly walk off stage, to be replaced by someone with more virtuosic ability. Only the absolute best of the best could really "bop," and those musicians tended to be Black (there were certainly exceptions, like Buddy DeFranco, but the roster had a pretty clear divide). Because the form was (naturally) always evolving, this attitude was a way for musicians to signal their membership in the "in-group" of jazz.

    I would argue that jazz maintained a significant presence in the popular consciousness even as performers like Thelonious Monk hinted at the avant-garde with their revolutionary dissonances and rhythmic aberrations. Rather, my personal impression is that the genre fell out of the mainstream as popular music and rock and roll became more culturally dominant. I don't think this was the fault of jazz itself, just that it struggled to compete with newer instruments and sounds that emerged alongside the counterculture of the 1960s (there were various attempts at fusion, but I don't think they were as popular as pure rock ever was). In my estimation, jazz began to lose some of its racial implications as it became even more personal than bop, because then it became less about collective cultural self-expression in the face of blatant discrimination and more about musical innovation for its own sake, often regardless of what the audience thinks. Some jazz groups actively insult or otherwise show disrespect to the audience for even the mildest of offenses (this is part of the draw). More generally, many classifications start to break down once you get to a certain theoretical level. This is perhaps no better exemplified than in the free jazz of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, which, if I'm going to be honest, requires a very particular mindset to genuinely appreciate. I can find myself entering that space sometimes, but it's not for everyone. Structurally, I would equate academic jazz from this point onward somewhat more closely with contemporary classical music than any sort of jazz that predates it, insofar as it is almost exclusively appreciated by a very particular audience. It doesn't surprise me that some musicians, such as Wynton Marsalis, are very critical of the avant-garde, calling it inaccessible. In most semi-recent discourse on jazz, I see less racial commentary and more "how can we make jazz hip again?" I'm admittedly a bit out of the loop with the very recent jazz scene; the last time I went to any sort of performance was perhaps in early 2020 and a concert at a larger venue in Philadelphia a year prior, and ongoing circumstances have made it challenging for me to get back into the "swing" of things (as it were). Perhaps this is a "hot" take (…as it were), but I would question whether jazz can ever really be at the progressive forefront of the musical scene again without more heavily reintegrating both implicit and explicit social (read: racial) commentary into its messages. It's not like jazz musicians have forgotten the genre's roots, but the onus of fighting (and being criticized by) the establishment seems to have shifted in large part from jazz to rap over the past few decades.

    I can no longer cite specific passages from memory, but most of my knowledge here originates from the compendium Reading Jazz (ed. Robert Gottlieb, 1999), which is something like 1000 pages long and records perspectives of musicians and critics on jazz from the genre's very inception. I haven't read the whole thing, but I would recommend it to anyone looking to become a little more familiar with the history of jazz music.

    12 votes
    1. [2]
      Link Parent
      Interesting comment, you sound quite passionate about jazz!

      Interesting comment, you sound quite passionate about jazz!

      3 votes
      1. Atvelonis
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        I can say with confidence that it's one of the most innovative musical genres of all time, and for that reason one of the most complex—and intense. I have a great deal of respect for the classical...

        I can say with confidence that it's one of the most innovative musical genres of all time, and for that reason one of the most complex—and intense. I have a great deal of respect for the classical tradition and its devotees (the modest amount of musical training I have largely originates from this perspective), but first-rate jazz musicians operate at a level of instantaneous creativity that I can barely comprehend. Witnessing a live jazz show with talented performers can be genuinely awe-inspiring, in an almost Biblical sense of the word (the hotter the better, in my opinion, to induce this feeling)—perhaps that remark is irreverent to God, or to jazz, but I'm not sure how else to describe my experience.

        The first such concert I recall attending was in a dark, crowded dorm basement when I was a first-year college student. There was an "A" band and a "B" band; I was there because I had friends in the latter. The second group played well, but when the A band stepped up and started their first piece, it was like they had broken through to another dimension, playing with a preposterous level of dexterity and improvising off each other's improvisations to no end. They had a soprano saxophone who often took the lead; he had an amazing range, such tight control of his solos, and most impressively managed to come up with half of what he played right on the spot (I play the alto, and I was proverbially knocked off my feet. I'd played Charlie Parker before, but this was completely beyond me). The pianist was equally talented, and I could see the way she took influence from Thelonious Monk and made it into her own thing—we had class together, and the professor would sometimes comment on her technique. Coming from a classical background, it's astonishing to see what a jazz pianist can do when they let loose. I think they also had a couple guitars, one leading and one backing, who complemented each other and the rest of the band with incredible grace. Don't even get me started on the drummer: this man was a legend the school over, and when he finally got his solo, you could see the fire burning in his eyes like an inferno! He translated that raw energy into powerful, ornate, and fascinating rhythms that made the audience shout with giddiness. Just when you thought he was done, he'd start up again and amaze you a second, third, fourth time. And how! It was unbelievable. Occasionally they'd also have a vocalist come up to breathe even more life into the performance. My poor first-year mind struggled to wrap itself around the possibility that such sounds could even exist; they were quite literally beyond the realm of the plausible. It was a bastion of pure expression, pure creativity, and pure love. The intimacy of the setting gave it an additional charm; there being 50 or 60 attendees (I have no clue exactly) meant that this was no grand arena performance, and the willingness of the musicians to play with such ferocity for such a small audience was humbling. It was a scene untouched by institutional or corporate expectations, being instead completely by and for the musicians and their art.

        I'm afraid I might've set the bar a little high by my description above, but I've simply never seen this sort of unbridled enthusiasm and skill elsewhere. I like a lot of music; hot jazz is always going to retain a special place in my heart. I can promise you that I was at least mostly sober for the duration of the performance (perhaps having had a cocktail or two, but nothing to seriously impair my critical judgment)—it was a groundbreaking experience that I'm happy you've prompted me to recall in such detail.

        4 votes
  2. Akir
    Honestly, for everything except perhaps funk (and soul, though to a lesser extent), the definitions for those genre have shifted dramatically over time. I liked old-school R&B, but at one point it...

    Honestly, for everything except perhaps funk (and soul, though to a lesser extent), the definitions for those genre have shifted dramatically over time. I liked old-school R&B, but at one point it just became a subgenre for rap and I absolutely hated it for a while, only to come back around to where it is now, where I actually love it again.

    Jazz is particularly bad for this question, because Jazz is more of an umbrella term than a genre; there's so many different expressions of Jazz that make up their own subgenre, much like you noted with smooth jazz.

    I'll also say that there's very few people who really hate pop music. Pop arguably isn't even a 'real' genre; it changes too much to pin it down. Those who say they hate it tend to be misguided; what they actually hate is what pop music represents to them, which can be anything from excessively formulaic music, the commercial entities and industry that produces it, or simply music that gets repeated so often it becomes annoying.

    10 votes
  3. drannex
    (edited )
    I don't think there's not truth to it, but jazz and it's ilk also have fundamentally less casual listeners than standard. If you asked the general public about a modern jazz musician or group,...

    I don't think there's not truth to it, but jazz and it's ilk also have fundamentally less casual listeners than standard. If you asked the general public about a modern jazz musician or group, they just won't have an answer even though jazz has had its biggest growth both in creativity and listenership in decades just in the past few years!

    I absolutely love jazz, but there are lots of genres within it that are less my cup of tea but I listen to a lot of them (and music in general) and there are old school jazz lovers who hate the new sounds, especially 'cave music' using contrabasses, traffic cones, and other forms to modulate the tone to be more discordant in tone (see Moon Hooch's No. 6, or Too Many Zoos, or Melt Yourself Down). There is a lot of hate in the classical jazz scene for the new sound, and a lot of new listeners due to how good and different the new sound is.

    Even funk has its critics these days, as electronica has permeated more and more into the scene (Griz, Grammatik, Pretty Lights). And then you have lofi, which is a new form of jazz with quieter sounds, and more bass related drum tracks and a lot of people listen to it.

    Overall, less people will say they won't listen or hate jazz, but overall nearly no one actively listens to it.

    4 votes
  4. wcerfgba
    In my friend circles jazz gets a bad rap, although people are coming around to it more as I continue to expose them to it. But jazz is a very broad area. I listen to a lot of bebop and for a lot...

    In my friend circles jazz gets a bad rap, although people are coming around to it more as I continue to expose them to it. But jazz is a very broad area. I listen to a lot of bebop and for a lot of people its too fast or dissonant, like there is too much going on or the musicians are trying to 'play too much' or they're trying 'too hard', but I love it. Cool and West Coast jazz like Brubeck seems to get a better reception in the mainstream. Some free jazz is too much for me and just sounds like garbage -- I like some Coleman but Dolphy's Out to Lunch! is too much for me.

    My partner can't stand transients in music so he hates most modern R&B like D'Angelo (another favourite of mine) but he likes more classic stuff like Motown which I find OK, if a little tame.

    So I think it really depends on what people are used to. If you hear stuff with a lot of jazz influences then you will less offended by the harder stuff I guess?

    3 votes