I may be jazz, but yet I am offended

I was browsing YouTube the other night, wondering as usual whether the guitars I own are adequate or if I’d be better off with another one, when I decided to look for reviews of a particular instrument: the Epiphone Broadway.

The Broadway was introduced in 1931 as an unamplified f-hole archtop suitable for big bands, and it was the go-to guitar for many a mid-20th-century session man. At some point it acquired pickups but it’s never lost its bigness; I once saw one in a Dublin shop and didn’t have the nerve to ask for a tryout, probably because it was priced at about €800, well beyond my reach. (I was in the market for an f-hole archtop and ended up getting a far more affordable Ibanez AF75, although mine is the rather uglier orange-hued AF75D, not the sunburst beauty as seen in the link.)

Well, among the many reviews of the Broadway on YouTube was this one:

— in which a Broadway is played with great gusto through some serious distortion effects, and not with the sort of smooth, muffled, warm, clean tone normally considered appropriate for such a venerable jazz box. Of the comments on the video, which are not many, the majority are in an appalled tone, as if the player had taken a shit on the instrument:

This is no way to play an Epiphone Broadway.

*facepalm* Dude.. its a Hollowbody, designed for blues / jazz, and here you are with rock licks and distortion? you might as well demo a frickin les paul! -.-‘

Weirdly, the other two comments about how you shouldn’t do this to a Broadway, goddammit, are from the player himself:

You are right, it should be a clean sound and not a distorted sound.

Appreciate it. We do so many videos, we get lost sometimes on which sounds to use. You’re right, it should be a clean sound and not a distorted sound.

The only other comments, in which someone says that they liked the video because ‘[t]here are a couple dozen of everyone doing the typical jazz licks and that’s fine but why have so many videos showing the same thing?’ and someone else agrees with him, are alone. I’m the person who agreed, for what it’s worth.

Jazz used to think of itself as, in Whitney Balliett‘s fine phrase, ‘the sound of surprise’. It’s always been a contested music, with nobody being able to agree about where the frontier is; Charlie Parker used to be accused of having anti-jazz instincts, but as someone who has ‘Donna Lee‘ as his ringtone, I can confirm that Charlie Parker bursting into a crowded 21st century office sounds more like Louis Armstrong than like the avant-garde. (Of course, Louis Armstrong was once the avant-garde, but that’s another story.) Jazz guitar in particular has been a pretty sorry field for most of its history, with the early innovations of Charlie Christian soon becoming boringly canonical; it could be argued that jazz guitar didn’t really loosen up until you had a generation of guitarists coming of age who’d grown up listening to punk, or alternative rock. It’s depressing to see social pressure being applied to the way you play an instrument; the instrument itself doesn’t care how it’s played.

It’s true that you couldn’t take a Broadway onto a rock stage and turn it up to 11. Its large, hollow body would vibrate and it would feed back uncontrollably. But if you have ever wondered why jazz, which was once the most exciting music on the planet, can sometimes sound so boring, now you know.

I may be jazz, but yet I am offended

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