Laufey is the savior of jazz. 

At least according to Rolling Stone, NPR, Billboard, and more.

Laufey (pronounced /LAY-VAY/) is an Icelandic–Chinese singer, multi–instrumentalist, and songwriter. Drawing inspiration from Ella Fitzgerald and Chet Baker, Brazilian bossa nova, and her own background in classical music, Laufey’s songs are an amalgamation of all things mid–century. The artist blew up on TikTok with her single "From the Start" in May 2023—less than a year later, she won her first Grammy for her sophomore record, Bewitched. The Bewitched tour showcases the singer effortlessly switching from the piano to the cello, all while singing. The 24–year–old is extremely talented, to say the least. 

However, whether or not she is the “savior of jazz“ is debatable. After all, what is considered jazz? Youtuber and musician Adam Neely identifies the characteristics of her songs that could categorize them as jazz. She draws inspiration from Chet Baker’s scat improvs in her single "From the Start," utilizing syncopation and arpeggiation—all features of jazz. 

Yet, there are few agreed–upon definitions of jazz. In a 2001 documentary, Jazz, filmmaker Ken Burns and Wynton Marsalis, an American jazz trumpeter and current artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, discuss the criteria for the genre. Marsalis states that jazz must have swing, the blues, and improvisation. By these criteria, Laufey would not strictly be jazz. It’s worth noting, though, that Marsalis has a pretty conservative view on jazz and lists these criteria with the intent of keeping out the new evolving genre of jazz fusion. On a technical level, Laufey draws inspiration from so many sources that it would be difficult to corner her into a specific genre. The Grammys categorized Bewitched as "Traditional Pop," while others call her a mid–century pop singer. 

Beyond whether she can be considered a jazz artist or not, the issue here lies more in what Laufey being touted as the savior of jazz says about the state of the genre, and what it should represent. The genre is much more than just the sound and characteristics of the music. Jazz has cultural significance, and can't be separated from its history of struggle. 

Born in the early 20th century in Black and Creole social clubs of New Orleans, jazz deveoped as resistance music. “It was absolutely about where people weren’t allowed to go, which made them travel in their music,” artist Georgia Anne Muldrow says. Jazz allowed Black artists to integrate with white musicians and, for a select few, offered the chance of social mobility. 

However, once production companies discovered the profitability of jazz, Black artists were continually exploited in the industry. Black jazz musicians did not have control over recording and distribution industries; more often than not, the richest jazz artists were white. The industry required a certain level of uniformity for recording, which led to jazz losing out on its crucial characteristic of improv. With this criteria, white jazz bands offered the level of uniformity that recording studios looked for and reaped the economic benefits. Still, jazz created a sense of social cohesion and identity for Black Americans at the time. After World War I with the introduction of Prohibition, jazz came to gain traction on radio stations and represented a sense of rebellion and freedom in illicit speakeasies. It was also widely accepted overseas, where Black jazz musicians were given many performance opportunities.

In the 1960s, jazz began to be recognized by institutions as American classical music. American universities wanted to include jazz in their curriculum. But when saxophonist Archie Shepp was hired by the University of Massachusetts in 1969, he was not allowed to teach jazz in the context of race and history. Although times have changed since then, and jazz curricula are more willing to discuss its historical context, the study remains inaccessible to the very people who created it. According to the United States Department of Education, less than ten percent of students who graduate from American universities with jazz degrees each year are Black. 

In an interview with Zach Sang, Laufey acknowledges that jazz can be out–of–reach, given that there is a general notion that you have to be educated to talk about it. She also admits that she sometimes feels “small” talking about it, despite having attended the Berklee College of Music. Especially for younger generations, jazz can feel like it is not for them. It doesn't help that the most authentic way to consume jazz is often in speakeasies or lounges that younger people cannot attend. So while Laufey may not be considered a full–on jazz musician, what she does do for the genre is make it less intimidating for Gen–Z listeners. She does not box herself into the genre of jazz, as she says to Sang. Instead, the way people consume music now is often based more on a mood or a vibe rather than a genre (think of those "POV: Dancing in your kitchen" playlists). Jazz itself is also an evolving genre, and there are different schools of thought on what exactly jazz is. As Amiri Baraka said, “[Rhythm and Blues] is contemporary and has changed, as jazz has remained the changing same.”

Yet, with jazz being born out of Black American culture and the opportunities it gave to Black artists, it's tone–deaf for elite music publications to label a non–Black artist the “savior of jazz.”

If we want to talk about young Black jazz artists, we can turn our attention to Samara Joy. The 24–year–old singer from New York City won three Grammys this year, one for Best Jazz Performance. Esperanza Spalding is another young jazz singer. She attended Berklee College of Music and has five Grammy awards to her name. If you want to listen to some live jazz, you can tune into “Live from Emmet’s Place.” The stream started in COVID–19 Pandemic when jazz musicians had nowhere to perform. A major element of jazz is the community and the culture. Because of the improvisation aspect of it, jazz players need to play live and around each other to thrive. Now, to be on Emmet Cohen's stream is considered a prestigious achievement. Whether Cohen intended it or not, his arrangement of having jazz players in his Harlem apartment living room is a brilliant nod to Harlem rent parties, where tenants would hire musicians to perform and raise money to pay rent. These venues became breeding grounds for budding jazz artists. 

So, jazz is not really dying, and Laufey is not doing the saving. One can definitely acknowledge her contributions to the genre without dismissing her contemporaries. To dismiss her for not following jazz conventions because of the specific technicalities of her music would only contribute to the gatekeeping of jazz. Jazz is associated with the idea of liberation, and it should be free to everyone as long as we acknowledge its origins and credit the Black artists who created it. 

Laufey never really sets out to "rescue" jazz; she simply pulls inspiration from different genres to create a timeless sound that, as she says, “can remind older generations of something they listened to when they were young and is something new for younger generations and can tie those generations together.” As long as jazz, by Laufey or by anybody else, is still being listened to, it will never need a savior.