“The idea was to take a premise and let it collapse into a joke, or an absurdity. ” Leonard Cohen On The Genesis Of Jazz Police

I met a young musician in Montreal, Jeff Fisher. He arranged ‘First We Take Manhattan,’ which had that Sergio Leone quality that I wanted – otherwise the song would have been laughed out of the world. I said to him, ‘Why don’t you write something? Let’s do a rap song.’ I had this song, ‘Jazz Police.’ From going around with the fusion group Passenger. There was this standing joke that if I caught them playing augmented fifths, or even sevenths, I’d call them on it, because I’ve always gone for a certain kind of sound. So I was the ‘jazz police.’ The lyric, I’m not sure what it was about. The idea was to take a premise and let it collapse into a joke, or an absurdity. But – I hated it. I hated the whole thing and I think I still do. I was going to let it go, but then all these other songs started breaking down, and it moved back on the menu. It caught the mood of this whole period I’m describing, though – this kind of fragmented absurdity. I was living that, so I let it stay, and also, I didn’t have much to choose from. The vault was empty… To put together another couple of songs for this record – it would have been another year! And I realized things were hospitable for me in Europe. If I waited, I’d be starting from scratch again.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen


From Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland (Musician: July 1988)

“[Jazz Police] felt surreal while I was writing it–the choruses were trying to wiggle away from being crushed by the boot of judgment” Leonard Cohen

In the Soviet Union, there’s the KGB; in our country there’s the RCMP; in the USA, there’s the FBI. But above all these agencies there’s a superagency called the “Jazz Police.”They govern everything; they rule everything; they are behind every plot and every resolution. This is my homage to them.

Leonard Cohen
Toronto: Nov 9, 19881

This next song [Jazz Police] is a very curious song. I hope you will forgive me for indulging in some augmented fifths and diminished ninths. I know that I am only supposed to use three chords, but sometimes the devil just gets hold of me.

Leonard Cohen
Portland: Oct 28, 19882

Jazz Police: The Least Loved Leonard Cohen Song?

According to another of my incredibly unscientific yet uncannily accurate surveys, Jazz Police is the Leonard Cohen Song Most Likely To Be Loathed On The I’m Your Man Album. Regardless, today’s celebration of the release of that album affords an opportunity to present this rarely heard tune.

In a thoughtful analysis of Jazz Police, Fragmented Absurdity: An Analysis Of Leonard Cohen’s Jazz Police,3 Jason Murray describes the origins of the song:

In an interview in Musician Cohen gives the story. It began during the making of the record Recent Songs when he worked with the fusion group Passenger. Often the band would sneak bits of jazz riffs into the songs, which Cohen admitted he had to watch out for. Between Cohen and the band grew an understanding that if he caught them playing jazz riffs (augmented fifths or sevenths is the example he gives) he would call them on it. Initially he was himself the jazz police! The intent was to then take the idea of a ‘jazz police’ and let it run on into some type of fruition, be it absurdity or full expression. It took 9 years (1979-1988) for the song to develop and be recorded; a testament to Cohen’s well know practice of working and reworking pieces of poetry and songs in time consuming detail

When Anjani Thomas, who herself describes Jazz Police as “kind of Manhattan Transfer-meets-Star Trek,” asked Leonard Cohen to “clarify it,” his response was that

‘Jazz Police’ is a lighthearted look in the post-modernist style, on judgment of any kind in all art forms. I recall it felt surreal while I was writing it–the choruses were trying to wiggle away from being crushed by the boot of judgment.

As Anjani concludes, “I sure hope that clears it up for all you fans out there.”4

Leonard Cohen – Jazz Police
Austin City Limits: 1988

Originally posted February 2, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric


  1. Source: Diamonds In The Lines []
  2. Source: Diamonds In The Lines []
  3. Source: LeonardCohenFiles []
  4. Source: Interview With Anjani Thomas accessed at Speaking Cohen [No longer online] []

“The chorus sounds like a kind of 30s musical about 10 degrees off” Leonard Cohen Talks About Jazz Police

I receive a surprisingly large number of questions about Leonard Cohen’s “Jazz Police,” released in 1988 on the  I’m Your Man album. Leonard’s most illuminating  comments (at least that I’ve discovered thus far) on the song are found in a two or three minute description he gave in this 1988 interview. The video automatically begins at the pertinent portion.