Just read an interesting interview with one Mr. William Joel -- who, for better or worse, was a key influence during my senior year in high school.
Don't roll your eyes -- I've written about this before.
(I'm convinced that my girlfriend at the time was only interested in me because I could play the piano in a style somewhat similar to that of Mr. Joel. I still find it oddly fitting that our relationship fizzled right around the time he stopped making albums regularly. But for a while there, Billy Joel helped me to get laid, and for that alone, I am grateful.)
Anyway, kudos to Marc Myers for posting such a thing on a jazz blog, of all places. (Apparently, the Joel interview stemmed from a previous interview with Phil Woods, who played the various solos that would be smushed together by Phil Ramone into a single Frankenstein solo for Joel's iconic "Just the Way You Are.")
If I'm hesitant to admit that I was once obsessed with Joel's work (please note that better pianists than I have no such compunctions), it may have something to do with commentary like this (excerpted from the JazzWax interview):
Billy Joel's relationship with jazz fans has always been a bit tenuous. Much of the rancor dates back to Billy's 1978 album 52nd Street. With jazz on the ropes in the late 1970s, Billy's followup album to The Stranger featured the young singer-songwriter standing on the cover holding a trumpet and posing in a New York City alley. Though Freddie Hubbard played on one of the album's tracks, 52nd Street's cover sent an unintentional and chilling message: Rock's dominance of the music business was so complete that one of its stars felt comfortable enough posing as a jazz legend. In effect, the rocker was perceived by jazz fans as using their art form as a kitschy prop, which only rubbed salt in a festering wound.
Woah. I'll admit it: I wasn't exactly hip to these issues the first time I heard this record (in the mid-80s, years after it actually came out).
Of course, now I can see how a photo of a rock musician posing with a horn he couldn't actually play, on a famous bebop street, on the cover of a Grammy-winning hit album, might be read as a subtle but gratuitous dig at jazz, especially during what may have seemed (to some) like a low period for the latter genre. And as a musician who has tried to "pass" on both sides of the jazz / rock divide (I have described myself as both a "songwriter" and a "composer"), I get it. The jazzer in me thinks it is patently unfair that the rockers get the lion's share of the money and the fame. (And the rocker in me thinks it is patently unfair that the jazzers get the lion's share of "serious" critical consideration -- but that's an issue for another post.)
But "rancor"? Wow! I mean, if Joel really wanted to put down jazz, one wonders why Freddie Hubbard appears on 52nd Street at all. (Why not, say, Herb Alpert?) Hell, shouldn't Joel have been stepping on the trumpet instead of merely holding it?
More importantly, I have to ask: was it Billy Joel's fault that rock "dominated" the music business in the 70s? If he was just making the music he wanted to make, was he to blame if it happened to sell? And is it his fault if, today, one large subset of his fans seem to be people who, as a general rule, don't really care about music at all? (Cuz, ya know, I see a lot of those same people at the jazz festivals, too.)
One other thing struck me about this interview:
JW: Thinking about recording a jazz album?
BJ: No. I’m not good enough.
JW: Oh give me a break...
BJ: No I’m not. I’m really not that good a piano player.
Huh? What's the subtext here? That it would be supercool if Joel ultimately put his time, effort, and talent into... jazz? (Really, Billy? You don't think you could play jazz well? As talented as you are? I find that hard to believe!)
I guess I can't blame Myers for pursuing this line of questioning, JW being a jazz blog and all. I'm sure it was a completely innocent gesture. But at the same time, it just seemed a little strange to me.
I mean, I like it when artists try to cross over or hybridize. Like, for instance, when a nascent singer-songwriter does his best heavy metal impression! That's my aesthetic schtick too, right? But at the same time I guess I'm not terribly interested whether the rockers I like (or the R&B/soul artists, or whoever) can play jazz. I have never cared whether they harbored secret bona fide "jazz chops." And, by the way, not to get off on a tangent, but I have never thought of using the possibility (or fact) that they did as a legitimization for my admiration of their work.
Maybe I'm funny that way!