Sunday, September 12, 2010

Good Taste

I didn't start listening to jazz because I thought I should. I started listening because I liked it, maybe loved it. I still do. For a time--about the last five years of my life--it was almost all I listened to. When I listened to other music during that time, I would often compare it to jazz--not for constructive purposes, but to see it for what it was not. I still compare other music to jazz, but no longer with the same agenda.

I think I can say for sure that I will never grow tired of jazz--that it is my favorite music. Which is not to say I think it is the best music. I do believe in bests. I do have convictions. But I try to take things for what they are. I don't know exactly what jazz is, but that doesn't really matter. For all practical purposes, I can tell what jazz is by listening to it. I've done a lot of listening. But I still have a lot more to do.

I had to listen to a lot of jazz before I started to think about understanding it. When I could recognize Red Garland by ear, or Art Blakey, or Stanley Turrentine, or Stan Getz, I thought maybe I could contain the story of jazz--with all its sounds and textures and victories and blunders--in my head. So I kept on listening, and listening--and realized I couldn't. I also realized that I may have been in a trance.

Recently, I've been wondering if there is a difference between what I think I should be doing and what I want to do be doing. I started listening to jazz because I liked it, but eventually listening took on a whole new form. Music is huge. The music you listen to can define you, in one way or another, whether you like it or not. Sometimes a thing becomes more defined by what people think it is than by what it actually is. It can be hard to distinguish between the two because thought is very real. If enough people think something, it seems true, might be true.

Many people think jazz is for sophisticates, aesthetes, that it's an art music, that it's intellectually challenging. In other words, if you like jazz, it is usually assumed you have good taste. That may be true for some, but I can think of so many jazz fans whose puritanical belief in jazz as the best precludes them from appreciating other beautiful music.

Last night I went to a party. I do that a lot here in Montreal. As I sat sipping beer, talking with a friend, a song came on to distract me--a hip-hop song. I began to tap my foot, wondering who the artists were. And then I began to wonder why I liked this song--and why I was hesitant to say I liked it. What would it say about me? Not that that makes any sense. But I wondered away, about what makes good taste, about snobs, about enjoyment, about embarrassment.

I started to think maybe, for some, liking jazz is a guard: it defends you from explaining your tastes. But really there aren't any pure streams in music. It's all out there--in our ears, in the air, in our memories. The sound waves have intermingled.

When I listen to other music now, I try to take it for what it is. Because I think I should and because I want to. Because jazz is out there and so is everything else. Because maybe music says something about you, but really it says something to you.


  1. You have articulated this so well. Many artists have claimed that they do not belong to the genre to which they have been assigned by record labels and critics. They see it as a constant discovery process, a process of creating a sound that does something to shape the world.

    I hate that jazz has become the proper music for goatee-d, pretentious, 50s-area aesthetes and company. There are some interesting articles and interviews about the transformation of jazz into an intellectual field as an attempt to legitimize the music in the face of the Western Tradition of Art Music. Bop musicians particularly saw the music as a chance to raise black men, especially, in public opinion and offer a platform for validation. Looking at it that way, it's easy to understand where that stance came from...impossible to separate the history of jazz from the history of race relations in the U.S. ...

    Incidentally, I fell in love with jazz when I was in middle school. Swing was my gateway...and I moved on to Miles. Later discovered Bill Evans and just kind of shacked up with him.

  2. Thanks for your feedback, Cristin.

    I have read some of those articles on bop, and they do place jazz in a certain historical narrative that some may grow too attached to. I guess you take what you like and see where that puts you.

    I would imagine shacking up with Bill Evans is not so bad. If you haven't done so already, you should check out the Bill Evans Piano Jazz segment, recorded, I believe, shortly before he died. It is a really good one.