The informant – AB – is a 20-year-old white male and is a sophomore at the USC Thornton School studying Jazz Guitar. The following conversation took place after a music class we had just finished, in which I asked him about any folklore/traditions/inside jokes in jazz culture. Knowing that I am a jazz major and am likely familiar with any traditions he may mention, I record AB explaining these traditions as if he were explaining to an outsider.
AB: I mean, probably the biggest meme in jazz is the lick, which is this, well, lick that people play as a joke.
(AB sings “the lick,” which goes, in terms of musical scale degrees, 1 2 b3 4 2 b7 1).
When jamming, people will sneak in the lick as a joke, and everyone else playing with them will, I don’t know, probably roll their eyes at them. It’s definitely a stale meme by now.
Me: Why is this lick such a joke among jazz musicians?
AB: If you listen to old jazz recordings, you’ll notice the lick being played everywhere. It’s just a super common phrase that soloists will play. And then, a few years ago, someone made a video on YouTube called “the lick,” and it was like a montage of a ton of different famous musicians using the lick, and it’s just been like a huge meme since then.
Here is a link to the video referenced: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krDxhnaKD7Q
The lick seems like a way for jazz musicians to prove that they’re in the know with jazz culture to the musicians that they’re playing with, or simply a way for musicians to make each other laugh during a jam session. Quoting other songs (like other jazz standards, timeless songs like “pop goes the weasel,” or simply pop songs) at a jam session has always been a part of jazz culture and is a way for jazz musicians to crack subtle jokes at each other while playing. But, the lick is special, since it’s so steeped in jazz culture and is so exclusive to jazz musicians: quoting a pop song, for instance, might make a non-musician audience member laugh, but quoting the lick goes over non-musician’s heads. Inside jokes like this help to maintain a level of unity and exclusivity within different social groups. The lick, in the jazz world, – a social group that is particularly elitist and exclusionary – is a way of separating the outsiders from the insiders, filtering the young musicians who “don’t take the music seriously” from the insiders who are familiar with the phrase.