Thursday, October 5, 2017

Me and Jazz

It occurred to me the other day that I am not entirely ignorant when it comes to jazz. In fact, in my earlier years I had considerable exposure to jazz. In my teen years, when I became interested in music, I grew up in a small town (3,500 people) on Vancouver Island. My first interest was popular music in the form of rock music--it was the 60s! In the local newsstand the only purely musical magazine I found was Downbeat, devoted to jazz. I think I subscribed for a year or two. So I read a great deal about jazz in that journal. The local library, which was tiny, had a few books on music so I probably read a bit more about jazz there. I also bought some jazz albums which included Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain and Bitches' Brew. I might have bought more, but there wasn't much available in the local record store. No Amazon back then! I didn't have a lot of practical experience playing jazz until a few years later when I was asked to fill in as rhythm guitarist in a big band. I didn't get any chance to rehearse with them, was just handed a big part book. The first few gigs were extremely traumatic for a guitarist who had mostly, up till then, played blues, rock and a little classical. How the heck do you finger an E flat 13th flat fifth flat ninth chord? In a really fast tempo! I was a rather bad jazz rhythm guitarist! But it was an interesting experience. One night myself, the bass player and the drummer, with a little help from the trombone section, managed to save the bacon of the whole band when we found ourselves playing a street dance for drunken teenagers who did NOT want to hear Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington! So we played a couple of tunes by Chicago and fled!

So I was exposed to quite a lot of jazz in my early years. The thing is, it didn't take. I developed no long-term interest in either listening to it or playing it. The first thing anyone does if you say you don't like jazz is to assume you are just ignorant, as if it were inscribed in heaven somewhere that everyone has to like jazz. There are people who don't like chamber music, people who don't like country, people who don't like polka and people who don't like jazz.

Are there any interesting reasons why, in my case? Perhaps not. I just don't like the feel of it. It may be "cool," but I don't find "cool" appealing. I don't like the way they approach the individual note, if that makes any sense. Oddly, I like blues a lot, which is not "cool." Blues has a kind of earthy intensity to it that jazz does not. I can't give too many detailed reasons without doing the research, which I won't do because, as I say, jazz doesn't interest me. I get the feeling that jazz guys aren't very interested in classical either, which is ok with me.

So, we're good?

Here are a couple of tunes. The first from Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. The title is rather ungrammatical, isn't it? If it is the brew of bitches, shouldn't it have the possessive: Bitches' Brew? The cover is kind of neat:

This is "Pharaoh's Dance," the first track from the album, which does have its possessive:

So what grabbed me instead of jazz? It was the Violin Concerto by Tchaikovsky, played for me on vinyl by a friend one day. After that I had to hear every single classical piece I could find! This is David Oistrakh, violin  with the Staatskapelle Berlin, Gennadi Roshdestwenski, conductor, recorded in 1963:


Christopher Culver said...

"I get the feeling that jazz guys aren't very interested in classical either, which is ok with me."

I imagine that in North America, the division between those listening demographics is wide, but in Europe there is a lot of overlap. Consider Manfred Eicher launching ECM New Series that brought a lot of European jazz listeners over to classical (and some musicians have produced recordings on both sides of ECM). A lot of classical music festivals in Northern Europe involve some jazz component. This is helped by European jazz 1) being more comfortable with written-out scores and more limited improvisation than the stricter definition common in the USA, and 2) jazz in Europe doesn’t necessarily have to "swing", so if it sounds like European classical music or the contemporary avant-garde, that’s fine.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a very interesting observation! My experience is just mine, of course, limited by where I was and when.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand this post at all. Sorry but it sounds like a sad paean to ignorance. It's one thing to say, hey I don't like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman; or to say, I don't get jazz because I haven't made the effort. But to dismiss an entire music idiom because it's cool and you don't like cool is odd, to say the least. It's no different from someone saying they don't like Baroque music because they don't find counterpoint appealing.

Actually it is different: counterpoint is a signature trait of the Baroque style. But cool is not a trait of Jazz. It was introduced by, guess who, Miles Davis, and many have argued that it nearly killed Jazz. West Coast Jazz from the 60-70s became all cool (perfect for elevators and airport lounges) but the heart of Jazz has always been hot.

The post contains other mistakes. For example, any attempt to distinguish Jazz from Blues is historically flawed. It's like trying to set, say, hymns apart from classical music. It makes no sense.

Second, no one would pick Bitches Brew to illustrate why they don't like Jazz because it is not Jazz (as many, like myself, would argue). If you want Miles, at least pick real Jazz like Kind of Blue.

The relation between Jazz and classical runs deep and many of the greatest non-Jazz composers have been influenced by it, from Strawinsky to Ravel to Reich. And of course the opposite is true: Gunther Schuller, Bill Evans, John Lewis, Wynton Marsalis, etc.

Finally, there is no grammatical issue with "Bitches Brew." Bitch is a term of respect for "musician"in Jazz lingo and to brew means "to make music." So "Bitches brew" simply means "musicians make music." The grammar is fine. (Maybe you've spent too much time speaking Spanish..: :-)

That's minor. I still can't get over the lack of curiosity behind this post. You've devoted many posts to the proposition that aesthetic values go far beyond the subjective notion of "I just don't like it." And yet you're dismissing a major body of Western culture because "you don't like it" with not the slightest effort to argue the case. The only attempt is one sentence: "I don't like the way they approach the individual note." Do you expect your readers to have any clue of what that means? Be careful, your new friends at the musicology blog might begin to like your post-modern subjectivity...

Bryan Townsend said...

You just scared me out of my socks!

Thanks for clearing up my misunderstanding of "Bitches Brew." But yes, I have a long-standing lack of curiosity or interest in just about any kind of jazz. It extends to a lot of other artists, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Don Ellis, Ornette Coleman and so on. On the other hand, I find Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, B. B. King, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others quite appealing. Is it simply impossible for me to have this combination of likes and dislikes? And aren't there people, possibly lots of people, that don't like Baroque music, whether it is the counterpoint, or the endless note-spinning or just those damn sequences?

But when you say that distinguishing jazz from blues is an historic mistake, there I think you went astray. Blues is a rural music from the Mississippi delta. Jazz is an urban music from New Orleans. While there are some stylistic overlaps and influences, they are very different kinds of music. And I have a nearly visceral response to them in opposite directions.

Will Wilkin said...

Over the decades I've come to like jazz less than I used to, except for the great jazz singers, who I love now more than ever. The simple vocal melody, sung with feeling and wit, moves me and gives great joy. There are a lot of them, but Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong are most famous for very good reason.

Maybe 20 years ago I resolved to buy every Miles Davis CD, and I have probably over 30 of them now, and will always be a favorite. Yet in the past few years, I can hardly listen to him, nor any other instrumental jazz.

Why not? Hard to put into words, especially as I'm conscious that I myself have zero musical talent and only random rudiments of theory too weak to technically describe my dissatisfaction. But if pressed and unafraid of being contradicted by the more learned here, I'd say the improvisational format gives me feelings of wasted wanderings, however virtuosic the playing. Similar to how, despite being an old Dead Head with recordings of hundreds of Grateful Dead concerts and all their albums, I can't listen to their live stuff much anymore because, again, there is for me a lack of compositional structure for too much of the listening time.

After only a few tens of thousands of listening hours so far, I feel like an advanced beginner in hearing classical music, because as I become aware of the existence of deep structure in composition I crave it and want to explore it ever deeper. It is odd for a supposed :free spirit" like myself to so deeply yearn for structure and "form" in art, yet that is where my tastes have been heading more and more as the years go by. When I first "detected" structure, I was maybe still only 20, over 30 years ago, when I experienced certain Bach pieces as perfect forms in complete existence as a shape, like a double-helix diamond with thousands of perfect aspects, which slowly turns to the observing ear, to be poured over moment-by-moment in detail yet also contemplated as a whole, existing outside time. Perhaps any music could be "viewed" that way by the ear and mind, but Bach showed it to me and rock (or jazz, etc) never had that eternal imperturbable wholeness for me. Rather those kinds of music seem to me more like a series of episodes. A great painting or great literature also has that same wholeness, where all parts fit together into a bigger structure. Of course architecture is the most obvious example, if we don't mind a little usefulness in our art!

Anonymous said...

Jazz is the fusion of the blues and African rhythm with European harmony (ragtime at the beginning). It started in New Orleans with Buddy Bolden and then Louis Armstrong, both of whom put the blues (the scale, the microtonal inflection, the syncopation, etc) at the heart of it: then it moved north to Kansas City (Count Basie, Charlie Parker, where it greatly expanded its harmonic vocabulary, far beyond the New Orleans tradition); then to New York. There's a parallel evolution of the blues from the Delta to Memphis and Chicago, but the root is the same. Think of it as the Gregorian chant of Jazz. When Jazz musicians jam together and get lost and confused, they stop and go back to playing the blues: it's the mothership of the idiom. No great Jazz musician ever has not have mastery of the blues.

But again my complaint is this: I don't like Schoenberg, Stockhausen and Boulez, but that is not why I dismiss them as minor composers. I don't like Carl Orff but I can see some merit in his music. So my liking something only informs my judgment but it doesn't determine it. Actually I kind of like Boulez: to me it's fun easy listening. The reason I think is bad is twofold: first, it does not build on tradition; second, the influence of that modern music is virtually nil! It's a clonal colony: it only influences its own members. And it's not because there's been too little time for the world to "get it." Pierrot Lunaire is almost 100 years old and the world still doesn't get it. SOrry, but there's a 100 year cutoff in art. If people still don't get it after a full century, I take it as evidence that it's not good art. There is no exception to this rule in the history of mankind.

The influence of Jazz is extraordinary. Nothing that came of age in the 20th c. measures up impact-wise. It's everywhere (pop, film music, classical composition, etc.) It introduced a new rhythmic vocabulary that's transformed almost all of music. And unlike pop, it's very sophisticated stuff. Pop music is poor -- very poor. It's essentially trivial music ridden with clich├ęs and bereft of innovation. I am close friends with music professionals of both types and there's no comparison in the level of music expertise. The Jazz pros can run circles around the classical types. Granted it's the nature of Jazz, since you must be able to master both the theory and the practice. CLassical performers tend to have limited understanding of what they play and composers can't play (by and large). There are exceptions of course. The obvious ones are the organists who, like Jazz musicians, must have the full package.

My point is that, even if one doesn't like it -- and it's perfectly fine not to like it -- it is to me a truism that Jazz is far and away the biggest "music development" of the 20th c. (notwithstanding the great contributions of Stravinsky, etc.)

Jazz as art form is essentially dead now, but no one can do music the same as before, and that to me is the sign of a great artistic "moment."

Bryan Townsend said...

With only a few quibbles, oddly enough, I find that I can agree with all of your comment, Will and most of your comment, Anonymous. So let me try and untangle what I think was a bit of confusion regarding my post. Usually here I am speaking as a professional of some sort and as such, as you say, Anonymous, "my liking something only informs my judgment but it doesn't determine it." However, in this post, what I was doing was simply relating biographical data. This is raw empirical information and I didn't try and analyze or explain it. For whatever reasons, possibly ones I am simply unaware of, I have no interest or liking for jazz. Thanks, Will for sharing a similar feeling. So you are welcome to speculate and analyze my data!

Now for the quibbles. I will accept your analysis of the history of jazz and blues, Anonymous, as I believe it to be true. Incidentally have you ever read "Coming Through Slaughter" by Michael Ondaatje? Fascinating novel about Buddy Bolden. But jazz and blues still feel very different to me, make of that what you will. I like your 100 year cutoff and yes, Pierrot Lunaire, despite its intriguing aspects, seems to have failed the test!

This is the only part of your comment I struggle with, Anonymous:

"I am close friends with music professionals of both types and there's no comparison in the level of music expertise. The Jazz pros can run circles around the classical types. Granted it's the nature of Jazz, since you must be able to master both the theory and the practice. CLassical performers tend to have limited understanding of what they play and composers can't play (by and large). There are exceptions of course. The obvious ones are the organists who, like Jazz musicians, must have the full package."

I have heard this, or something similar, a number of times, and while it is certainly true for some musicians, I wonder whether it is a general truth. What does it mean to say "the jazz pros can run circles around the classical types"? Are there any examples? Is this just a bit of received wisdom? In what aspects? There are a lot of questions that arise.