Every so often, I will attempt to re-present interesting facets of the academic discussions that occur during my classes in the M.A. program in Jazz History and Research at Rutgers University. Last week, I lead a class discussion on the influential call to arms by jazz scholar and American Studies professor Sherrie Tucker, entitled Deconstructing the Jazz Tradition: The Subjectless Subject of New Jazz Studies. Now, that might seem like a mouthful of academic jargon, but it was actually quite an inspirational read (unfortunately, the text of the article is not freely available online, but you can buy a copy here if youre interested.)
In the article, Tucker ruminates on the current signifiers and associations that jazz carries with it in contemporary society. An examination of these intersections between jazz and mainstream social consciousness can lead to some interesting discoveries both about jazz and about the way we conceive it. One of her examples came from the following exchange in a 2001 episode of Spongebob Squarepants:
Patrick: Youre a man now, SpongeBob, and its time you started acting like one.
SpongeBob: Yeah! Oh, but Im not sure I know how.
Patrick: Allow me to demonstrate. First, puff out your chest.
[SpongeBob puffs out his chest]
Patrick: Now say, tax exemption.
SpongeBob: Tax exemption.
Patrick: Now you must develop a taste for free-form jazz.
[Both listen intently to jazz music]
Patrick: Okay, you're ready.
Tucker points out that jazz is brought up as a sort of ironic signifier of manliness, in a particular historical moment (in this case, 2001, the same year that Ken Burns released his influential PBS documentary Jazz.)
Well, I had a similar moment the other day while watching season 5 of the Showtime dramedy Weeds. In episode 10 (Perro Insano,) one of the main characters, Andy, invokes jazz to bolster his mature, masculine credentials: he asks his lady of interest out to hear some jazz. When she challenges him to name even a single jazz musician, he comes up with Dr. Teeth. Hes a muppet, she says as she rolls her derisively, to which Andy responds, but hes a JAZZ muppet!
That this conversation invoking jazz, muppets and masculinity comes up in a popular 2009 TV series came as a bit of a surprise: after all, The Muppet Show has been off the air for quite awhile, and the cultural cachet of jazz seems to have diminished rapidly since its spike during the Ken Burns years. But there it is. What surprised me even more, however, was this comment from Myles McNutt, author of the high-minded TV blog Cultural Learnings:
- And, while I love Andys Dr. Teeth runner during the episode, Id contend that Dr. Teeth isnt really a jazz pianist. Id argue that Floyd and Zoot are more definitively jazz musicians if were discussing the Electric Mayhem as a whole. But thats just my opinion.
I dont think McNutt had any idea about the murky water he waded into with that comment, but I think it is worth considering here. As implied by the citation in Weeds, the Muppet Show played an important role in framing jazz for the many young people who watched it during its heyday. I will leave it up to you to answer his question.
For comparison, Floyd and Zoot:
Now, my question: do you agree or disagree with Mr. McNutts assertion that Dr. Teeth is not a jazz muppet? By contrast, are Floyd and Zoot jazz muppets? Cite specific reasons to support your assertion. I hope that in doing this, we can all benefit from a careful consideration of what we consider jazz or jazziness when the music intersects with popular cultural conceptions.
Another interesting thing about the Muppet Show is that the shows writers dealt cleverly with jazz and the life of the professional musician. My favorite manifestation of this is in the musician jokes:
The show also frequently hosted jazz musicians as guests. Note the odd juxtaposition between Kermits reverential introduction and the subsequent performance by Dizzy Gillespie in his Muppet Show debut:
I think youre starting to get the point. The Muppet Show provides a fascinating mirror for thinking about jazz in its many complicated reverberations throughout society. Obviously, these examples are from a different historical moment (the 1980s) but as the Weeds citation shows, still carries cultural significance.
I look forward to reading your thoughts on the issues raised here in the comments section. Please have fun with this, as I offer this object of discussion both with a serious eye towards the issues at hand as well as the fact that, well, its a bunch of muppets playing jazz.