Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why Do I Not Like Jazz?

I want to like jazz. A lot of very intelligent people say jazz is really good. Some people say it is the best music ever. Those people all seem to be very serious and brooding. Am I not serious and brooding? I like a lot of other music that people say is really good. I'm intelligent. I want to agree with people. Why is it, then, that I still don't like jazz?

I never thought I'd like country music, but I like it now (or at least country music pre-1975). I never thought I'd like rap, but after taking the effort to explore it, I like rap now as well. You would think that, since I probably have more in common with jazz artists than I do with either country or rap artists, I would prefer jazz over those other genres. You would also think that the Raiders would be able to find a decent quarterback around here somewhere.

About this time last year I decided to give jazz another try. My former attempts at "getting into" jazz felt so much like slamming into a brick wall that I resolved only to try it again when I had fully exhausted exploring all the other genres I already knew I liked. I tried rap before trying jazz again; that should give you some idea. But this time I gave it a good, concentrated attempt. I downloaded about fifty albums from jazz's supposed "peak period," or at least peak period of albums (which didn't exist before 1948, when Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were dominating the genre). Maybe the problem was that I didn't have context for jazz's many supposed innovations. That was part of my problem with rap. So, as with rap, I decided to listen to the albums I downloaded in roughly chronological order. The results?

Some improvement, perhaps. I don't outright dislike jazz anymore. Every now and then I've even heard something I've liked. Jazz does emit a vague "standing on a Manhattan street corner in 1957" vibe that I enjoy, although other music also gives me same vibe, with the added bonus of me liking it more. I recognize that jazz is not supposed to be listened to in the way that The Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd are supposed to be listened to, when you devote your full attention to the lyrics and the running order of the songs and the production choices, etc. I think when you listen to jazz you're just supposed to space out and not necessarily give your full attention to the music.

But overall, I feel like I am listening to music that I am never going to fully appreciate. I will listen to a Sonny Rollins or a Charles Mingus album, and hear a song I like, and then read the AMG review and apparently find out the song I like is not an important track at all! Oops. You know there's a problem when you don't even understand the terminology of the review you're reading. Here's an excerpt from Thom Jurek's review of Bill Evan's Sunday at the Village Vanguard:
His thematic statement includes the briefest intro, hesitant and spacious before he and pianist enter into a harmonic and contrapuntal conversation underscored by the hushed dynamics of Motian's snare, and the lightning-fast interlocutions of single string and chorded playing of LaFaro. The shapshifting reading of Miles Davis' "Solar," is a place where angularity, counterpoint, and early modalism all come together in a knotty and insistent, yet utterly seamless blend of post-bop aesthetics and expanded harmonic intercourse with Motian, whose work, while indispensable in the balance of the trio, comes more into play here, and is more assertive with his half-time accents to frame the counterpoint playing of Evans and LaFaro.
Now come on. Do you really think all that stuff is really going on in there, or is the reviewer just trying to show off? I feel like there is something about jazz I fail to understand at its core. Or perhaps I really do understand it all too well - and that is my problem. Some other possible reasons why I may not like jazz:

1) I like lyrics. Sue me. Most jazz does not have lyrics. I'm a writer. I was an English major. I still have that "English major" mentality. You gotta give me some words. I'm lost without those words. I really do not know what Charlie Parker is "saying" with his saxophone. I wish somebody would tell me. The jazz aficionado would say, "Man, you can't explain what Charlie Parker is 'saying,' you just feel it. It's like the saxophone is his voice." No. It's not. His saxophone is his saxophone. I'm sorry. A voice is a voice.

2) I like music with an overt sense of humor. I like music that is ridiculous, outrageous, irreverent, silly, and often deliberately lowbrow. Jazz seems to take itself very seriously. Very, very seriously. It's like these guys are all Van Morrison. Lighten up a little. When jazz does try to be silly or humorous it seems to do so in a very low-key way that doesn't much appeal to me. I'm sure it didn't start out this way, but it certainly feels this way now: Jazz seems so "proper," so "tasteful," so "refined." I spit on proper, tasteful, and refined. That's what I like about rock. I don't care how many years pass: when will "Tutti Frutti," Wooly Bully," or "Land of 1,000 Dances" truly become "tasteful" or "refined"? Sure, these songs aren't as rude and disrespectful as they once were, but let's see a Ken Burns documentary about "Do you know how to pony/Like Bony Maronie." I don't care how many universities teach classes on Chaucer; his raunchy sex jokes are still raunchy sex jokes. That's the problem with jazz: it just isn't any fun.

3) I am not a musician, nor do I understand music theory. I suspect that it would help if I had such a background. But I don't. I would like to think, however, that if music is good, I should be able to enjoy it even if I know nothing about music theory. When I was a child I didn't know anything about film theory, and yet I still enjoyed Star Wars and The Wizard Of Oz. Maybe jazz is like the Godard of music; it's only theory. Honestly when I hear jazz aficionados talk about jazz, and then when I go listen to the jazz they're talking about, I feel like I've had a stroke. Because one does not really seem to follow from the other. I'm almost inclined to think these people are lying. But I don't think they are. I think they actually do like jazz.

Maybe if your parents liked jazz and you simply related to it when you were younger, and then later you heard pop music and thought, "Oh, this is silly, real emotion is only expressed by a saxophone solo," then I could sort of understand. Or maybe if your parents only listened to pop music, but you hated your parents and wanted to establish your own identity and one day you heard jazz and thought, "Well, even if this isn't any good, I'm going to listen to it anyway just to be different from my family," I could understand that as well. I just need an explanation.

It's funny. When I listen to jazz, I wouldn't say I think the music is bad. Bad music sounds like something different. Obviously the musicians are very talented, and they are playing with a great deal of passion. Then why does it say so little to me? It's like I'm A.M. and jazz is F.M. Why do I not like jazz? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll pop? The world may never know.


Herr Zrbo said...

You're preaching to the choir buddy. My dad is into old jazz (30's-40's) but I've never had the slightest interest. There's no lyrics and no distinct melody. It's admirable that you tried and listened to so much. I'm not even going to bother trying. I'll just stick to rock & roll thankyouverymuch.

Little Earl said...

Yes, thank you, I am an admirable man, am I not?

Of course I don't exactly see you as a "rock & roll" guy, but I know what you mean. "Pop music," to be more accurate.

Old jazz of the 30s and 40s actually had lyrics and actually had melody. Unfortunately it is very old! I associate old jazz with people like Woody Allen and Steve Buscemi's character from Ghost World. I like old music too, but 50s-60s-70s old, not 30s-40s old. Maybe the drums just weren't loud enough for me back then.

Herr Zrbo said...

I guess I prefer the term 'rock & roll' over pop music because to me pop music either means mainstream-bubblegum-Britney type music, or if we're going with the literal meaning it would mean 'popular music' which is too broad. My mom (and many others) like classical music, which would therefore make it 'popular music', right? Considering how pretty much everything (including all my electro music) descends from rock & roll, such as (insert 'Beatles did it first' here) I prefer the term 'rock & roll'. /end rant

And happy Kwanzaa to everyone!