What Defines the Enigmatic Genre of Viral Jazz?

The New Weird Virtuosos Making Jazz for the Post-Internet AgeThere’s a smallish club called Rockwood Music Hall on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, around the corner from the legendary Katz’s Delicatessen. It’s the sort of place a young, striving musician might book for their first gig in the city, fresh out of Berklee College of Music and ready to take over the world. It’s also the imagined setting of a funny video by Spilly Cave, a 25-year-old songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and music school dropout who has nearly 40,000 followers on TikTok.

With its hyperspecific fluency in the inside jokes of internet threads and conservatory rehearsal rooms; its display of actual, no-bullshit jazz chops; and the way it turns musical ability itself into a sort of meme, the clip from Spilly Cave is emblematic of an emerging style, which the critic Nate Chinen dubbed “viral jazz” in a piece for NPR, based on an earlier coinage by the great pianist Vijay Iyer.

This movement has been bubbling on YouTube and TikTok for years, but is now more prevalent than ever. Its exponents are musicians, many but not all of them quite young, who have jazz educations and aren’t afraid to show them off, but sense something faintly ridiculous in their own virtuosity. They love pop and bebop equally; they roll their eyes at the mere mention of the lick; they regard Thundercat as an elder statesman and the meme-fluent jazz YouTuber Adam Neely as a wisecracking uncle. They have managed to once again make jazz, or something like it, seem cool to their fellow kids.

The popularity of these new weird virtuosos is good news for anyone worried about jazz’s relevance in the 2020s. But it also raises questions about what it means when an art form so rooted in history and lineage reaches the context-obliterating shores of social media. A traditionalist might reasonably question whether a jokey 30-second TikTok video counts as jazz at all.

The stars of this community are DOMi and JD Beck, a keyboardist and drummer, aged 22 and 19, who are nominated for Best New Artist at next week’s Grammys, and can play circles around just about anybody. Or, if you believe the about section of their website, which loads after a spinning GIF of a mouse playing the world’s tiniest tenor sax: “domi is a 12 year old saxaphone [sic] prodigy from France” who “deveoloped [sic] her own unique sound by combining major 3rds and major 4ths”; and “jd beck is a 6 year old sheep investigator from Texas” who “devoted his life to smooth jazz and wishes to be taken seriously in the music industry.” Both, apparently, are also highly decorated theoretical physicists.

Take their performance of “NOT TiGHT,” the title track of their debut album, from an NPR Tiny Desk Concert. DOMi summons the power of nearly an entire band on her own: athletic solos, dense harmonic flurries, and funky basslines, played with either the left hand or the feet. Beck sounds like the electronic drum programming from an Aphex Twin or Squarepusher track come to life, strafing his partner with superhumanly fast and precise snare fills, deconstructing his own groove before bringing it back together again. This is not unprecedented territory for jazz; it is somewhat reminiscent of the pianist-drummer duo Brad Mehldau and Mark Guiliana, if you replaced their sojourns into starry progressive rock with softly swaggering neo-soul. But it is a thrill to see it executed so well, especially by players this young.

Humor has long been entwined with virtuosity, especially but not only in jazz. Thelonious Monk could elicit laughter with a particular note choice or rhythmic inflection; Louis Armstrong loved to ham it up onstage and on record; Chico and Harpo Marx were extraordinarily gifted musicians who had no qualms with using their abilities as a gag.