MAT MARTIN | I Like Jazz

27 July, 2016, 17:00

Blog · Music · Writing

I Like Jazz
I Like Jazz

I’ve come up against the idea that Jazz is a thing not to like more often that I would have guessed.

It had never really occurred to me as an option to rule it out before people started telling me they had “a problem with Jazz”. I grew up listening to a few bits in my folks’ record collection, which wasn’t extensive given how much my dad loved music. There was some early Jazz in there though: Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, a few choice cuts from an early New Orleans form. There was a Billie Holiday record too. I guess I didn’t think of them as a certain type of record. Significantly, I definitely didn’t think of them as the same type of record.

I’ve always listened to music people would call Jazz, which includes a great deal of different music to my ear. My tastes have evolved (a bit, but probably not as much as they could have) over the years, but never to the point at which something I’m spinning wouldn’t fall into that bracket according to a decent number of people, which I guess is the point: saying I didn’t like Jazz would feel to me as meaningless and self-defeating as saying I didn’t like food. To dismiss it would wipe out the possibility of engaging with a huge swathe of something. As an entrenched position it seems to me to represent a significant impoverishment for little gain in return.

I don’t think I have fully understood what that gain is yet. Trying to talk about the idea with people once they have expressed a dislike is hard to do without appearing to challenge the opinion they are entitled to, and that can understandably make folk defensive. I guess if I’m honest though, I do want to challenge it a little bit. I’m worried they are throwing a lot out at once. Perhaps one of the pay-offs is precisely that ability to make such a bold statement. To stand in a clearly defined camp and say “that’s not for me” can feel good, especially when it feels like a decent, tried and tested fallback position, like sneering at Bono or eschewing a high street coffee chain (both of which I have been guilty of). It helps us feel like we know something.

So here’s my bold statement: I like Jazz. Apparently it’s not hip (not unlike using the word hip) and people seem to be challenged by it, but I do.

Jazz runs deep through almost all the Western music we now know and which continues to shape our lives and ideas on a daily basis. Evolving alongside Blues music from the African culture which became increasingly present in the USA as a result of trading in slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries – and being suppressed as a result – it could be argued to be a genre more political than stylistic in origin. Certainly its angular rhythms and unfamiliar cultural roots made it a dangerous and challenging form even in its rawest state, and it’s possible that as a form it will always be regarded with suspicion by its adoptive cultures. But the musical culture of Jazz has always seemed to me one of vernacular learning and instinctive performance driven by a conscience which extends beyond music: it has at its core a spontaneity which is rarely matched in other forms of Western music, and it could be argued that this defines it more than instrumentation or style.

Its political culture is strong in voice, too. Long the music of the oppressed, the various forms which fall into the category of the genre have often been about breaking things, be they new ground or old rules. Much of the significant evolution of Western music as a whole in the 20th century can be traced to Jazz over classical forms, a significant change from previous centuries of music history. Composers and performers of contemporary classical music (which blurs lines so much with the free improvisational forms so present in modern Jazz) lean towards the unknown through formal procedures such as aleatoric generation of values or open scoring to create a music which has some of the vitality of the late Jazz forms pioneered by the likes of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy. The voice and energy of the underdog and of the searcher are strong in so many of the great Jazz musicians that the political and social element of the form remains so deeply embedded in the music as to be inextricable from it, a phenomenon which has perhaps only been recently equalled in Hip Hop culture.

But this is where it is possible to imagine a fork in the road, not so much in the evolution of a musical culture but in the perception of what that culture represents. My sense of the political, vernacular and instinctive core of Jazz is far from universal: For me, if your noises dig deep into a rich and varied cultural history, and you push them out with a consciousness of their significance for people like you, you’re probably playing music which could be described as Jazz. It’s dangerous to speak for others but I suspect that for some you’re only really jazzing if you’re playing long solos in complex time signatures to people who for some reason can’t leave their chins alone. In the latter case, you’ve most likely undergone intense musical training and are theoretically and technically so accomplished that to play less, or less challenging, material is simply boring to you. Of course, if that’s the Jazz people don’t like, then they can usually colour me on board.

The difference I see in the ways in which Jazz can be defined or understood lie somewhere in this complex notion of whether it is a question of what something is or rather a question surrounding why it is. I have certainly had similar conversations about musical genres which are far less broad. Put another way, it may be possible to define Jazz in terms of either attitude or style and come up with some quite different results.

Even when dismissing Jazz only in terms of style we are dealing with a very broad spectrum, although I suspect many people when thinking of Jazz as an enjoyable thing to dislike are imagining a frenetic and intellectual saxophone- or trumpet-led type of impenetrable chamber music. To pretend that the stereotype doesn’t exist would be naive. This music is certainly extant, and I probably like some of it, although I would be the first to admit that the more music relies on technique and intellect at its core the more intimidating it can be to the untrained ear, and a certain amount of defensiveness must arise from any resultant feeling that one is supposed to understand something about it and has somehow failed if not. But who gets to confirm whether any reading of a piece of music is ‘correct’ or not, and does it make sense to consider that the purpose of music is to be understood anyway? To me it mostly doesn’t, unless we assume artists are interested in creating an exclusive club which inflates its tiny memberships’ sense of superiority by giving it a sense of intellect which can at best only be based on subjective measures. That seems like an arduous and thankless task given how hard it is for artists to reach an audience in any case.

My own feeling on this – that great art works on several levels most of the time – is hardly groundbreaking. It may be possible to analyse and understand what is being done in a piece of music, and of course there is an enormous amount to be gained from doing so when one chooses to, but fundamentally if the music in question relies on this then it usually isn’t for me: Surely, the subjectivity of any art form is vital to its artistry. I also have very little time for music which exists to please or validate its executor rather than its listener, although I should add that I make no case for the dumbing down of technique or intellect in art on principle. The sheer abstract qualities of any piece of art must surely at the very least be satisfying or intriguing enough to invite further investigation from a third party regardless of the intellectual arguments which can or cannot be made for its existence. We must want to move towards something even if we don’t already understand its vocabulary. Look at our perpetual fascination with birdsong.

That said, when the spectrum also comfortably encompasses Armstrong and Fitzgerald or Django Reinhardt it’s hard to argue that the style is by definition either difficult and alienating, or homogenous enough to make a single judgement about. This without considering the blurred lines between Jazz and almost all modern forms of music including Hip Hop, Reggae, Soul, R&B, Rock n Roll, Swing and a multitude of other elements which form the DNA of a very modern listening experience. To dismiss Jazz as a whole must be to draw a line in the sand beyond which taste will not venture, and to condemn Joni Mitchell to spend eternity tightrope-walking its length in endless, thankless drudgery like an introspective Canadian Sisyphus (a fate from which the breadth and artistry of her output should surely save her).

But this is the point – the sheer variety of artistic visions, sounds and approaches, and the number of “non-Jazz” artists who have taken the form on in their work – be they classical musicians like Stravinsky or Gershwin, songwriters like Mitchell or Waits, or Pop behemoths like Bowie or Radiohead – surely preclude us from forming a single reactive opinion which dismisses well over a century of music history in a single blow, and holding it so widely. I don’t doubt that whatever someone is thinking of when they say they don’t like Jazz is something they genuinely don’t like, and that that is a considered opinion. I also wonder what it is they are thinking about, and how precisely it would line up with what the person next to them calls Jazz and doesn’t like.

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