Saturday, July 24, 2010

Problems With Music 2

Jazz has mistakenly been labelled America's only indigenous art form. It is actually a musical idiom that contains elements that can be traced from American popular music of the 19th and early 20th centuries to West Africa.

Over the years I have found jazz an exalting alternative to the music that, according to my "demographics," I was supposed to like - rock, pop, country, etc. Since I started listening to classical music, which is gloriously alien to every conceivable demographic, I was never fooled into listening to any of the music of my age, or age group, merely because it was inescapable or because all my friends were listening to it.

But because classical music was composed long before my lifetime, I had to seek for examples of how a musical intelligence reacted to the age in which I live from other sources. The trouble with jazz, as I quickly learned, was that it is more about musicians than about music. If you were to call in to a late night jazz radio request line and ask them to play "My Funny Valentine," they would ask you, "Whose?" Ben Webster's or Paul Desmond's? Ella Fitzgerald's or Tony Bennett's? Miles Davis's or Chet Baker's? The interpretation of the individual musician is what jazz is about, not whatever song they happen to be playing. In fact, the song is only a pretext for the musician's playing.

The other trouble with jazz, which is supposed to be one of its greatest strengths, is its heavy reliance on improvisation, on the moment when a musician creates something from nothing. Beethoven was a brilliant pianist - in fact it was his virtuosity at the instrument that make his compositions for piano so magnificent. But Beethoven, great as he was at the piano, could never have improvised the Moonlight Sonata. Improvisation is an important part of creation, but it is only a jumping off point for a composer, a place to begin the laborious process of creating a complex and thought-out musical statement.

Jazz abhors such structuring, and is always straying away from the notes of a song as written. Some of the finest jazz musicians have turned to song-writing, and have incorporated their own styles of playing in their music. But Duke Ellington, for example, drew a line between the music he created with his jazz ensemble and his "serious" concert pieces, most of which were never performed in his lifetime. This showed a respect for composition, with its emphasis on the music - a music that has a life of its own, whomever chooses to perform it.

Jazz, at least as I have come to understand it, has ossified since the 1960s, when leading exponents of the idiom, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, etc., tried to incorporate various other musical trends. Other musicians simply continue to play the Post-Bop style, regardless of the forces that threatened to kill jazz or turn it into some other kind of music, like "smooth jazz," which seems to be where jazz goes when it dies.

Some talented jazz musicians - too many - abandoned jazz for a hybrid form of "instrumental pop," as David Sanborn once called it, merely because they wanted their music to be heard. This was a rather foolish mistake, in my opinion, since it deprives both the musician and his potential listeners of the music he should have been making.

But it is entirely understandable when you consider that jazz music only accounts for three per cent of worldwide CD sales, which is a heartbreaking statistic.

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