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Is Jazz too complicated?

Discussion in 'Miscellaneous [DB]' started by Tom Baldwin, Sep 27, 2004.

  1. I was listening to a CD in the car today, and as I was drawn deep into the music, it felt like I was taking a journey with the soloist. Of course this has happened on countless occasions, as has my next sequence of thoughts, which went something like this: As a musician, I can relate to this. I can appreciate the process that is involved with improvisation, both in developing that skill over time and the "in the moment" zone that you get into when you're doing it (albeit not at the level of this recording). I think to myself, I've been doing this seriously for about 16 years now. I can grasp many of the things I hear, but certainly not all. How must this sound to a non-musician? Gibberish? How much and which part of this does the average person get? I'm not trying to sound elitist, it's a genuine question. Has this music become something that only its own practitioners can truly appreciate?

    Since (I assume) only musicians will be responding to this, I suppose we can only speculate, but let's speculate. Is Jazz too sophisticated to appeal to the masses? I'm not talking about "SMOOV" or "contemporary" as they've been labeled. I'm talking about stuff that is informed by, descends from, and includes Pops, Ella, Basie, Ellington, Bird, Miles, Trane, Monk, Wes, Evans, Getz, Corea, Jarrett, etc. I have always been attracted to music that is more complex in nature. Evidently I am in the minority, and I'd like to consider anyone's thoughts on why that is.

    Post Away!
  2. Chrix


    Apr 9, 2004
    Again, objectivity rears its ugly head. Jazz is a funny thing. You can have someone who says they love jazz and listen to nothing but Glenn Miller not even know what to do if you have them listen to John Coltrane. I remember trying to have my grandfather (a fine trombonist that tells me stories upon stories of his days of playing in "dance bands" during the war) listen to the Dave Holland Big Band Record, and he didn't know how to listen to it...he didn't tell me this, but I could tell.

    Michael Brecker, in the new Downbeat, has a great quote: He says "Jazz is not entertainment. It's an art dealing with complicated and subtle things. It's not an easy listen. It takes some degree of education to understand the format of the music and what's going on in a solo. It involves close and open communication among musicians and a lot of trust onstage. That's partially what makes the music so powerful. Every night the music is so spontanious that it allows the audience to become part of the creative process."

    I think Brecker touches on a few of the points that I think make so interesting. Jazz is modern art music. It's American classical music. But it's not museum music. But like a work of art, it is difficult to understand everything that is packed into such a small space. Someone may see a painting by Richter and see a dark, grey, somewhat abstract painting of a town. But someone with some knowledge of the theory and practice behind painting see things like his use of brush strokes and textures. Now before I make a fool of myself, I unfortunately am not well versed in art, but I'm working on that. But it comes true in music and especially jazz as well as in art. The person that spends five minutes and sees just the color and the picture in the painting is going to be the same person that listens to the Bill Evans trio and hear Head/Solos/Head and not much else. They don't understand the subtle nuances of what is going on. They don't hear the interaction between the instruments. They don't understand what Bill is playing over the changes, or why Scott is considered such a virtuoso, or why Paul isn't playing 'four on the floor' generic swing.

    So why is this? I blame the utter lack of any musical training that the majority of people have. Your average layman is not going to have the attention span, let alone the knowledge to understand anything that doesn't have a beat and you can't dance to. Or if it doesn't have a catchy melody. Or, of course, if there are no vocals.

    Now, I don't want to come across as pretentious, because I enjoy some pop music as much as the next person. But sadly, one of the biggest injustices that pop music has done is promote illiteracy and the ideas that people don't need to be educated. People, essentially, just don't want to take the time to gain the knowledge that it takes to understand what Coltrane was doing towards the end of his life.
  3. Perplexer


    Sep 2, 2003

    Sadly you are giving a little too much credit to the average listener. Most would not be able to discern the difference between the head and solos, at all. I have talked to people who LIKED jazz and actually asked "well, it's all improvised, right?". We were listening to 50's Miles, perhaps even something very obvious like "Well, You Needn't" where there is an ensemble playing a very obvious composed melody at the beginning and end. He'd heard it a hundred times.

    I find that a lot of people listen in one dimension, very flat, maybe the melody, maybe the beat too. There is an unwillingness to hear the layers in any music let alone pay attention to the interaction between them. to hold a motiff in their head that hasn't been drilled into their brains by the corporate machine is asking way too much, let alone remember that motiff 30 seconds later and recognize it.

    Maybe it is not that we are not taught how to listen to jazz, but we are not taught how to listen at all. Active listening is just too damn hard.
  4. Gufenov


    Jun 8, 2003
    A good friend of mine describes Jazz as, "At least three musicians with different instruments playing three different songs at the same time." We view everything from our own paradigm. I once planted a small orchard, and studied proper pruning technique for months. My wife sees a lovely apple tree in the neighbor's yard; I see a mishapen, poorly producing waste of soil that will undoubtly blow over in the next strong wind. She thinks it's a great band; I think the bass player needs to work on intonation, I don't understand why the guitar player ever thought that chord fits in the song, and the drummer couldn't keep time with an alarm clock. Our education and experience most definitely shape the way we view life; art and music included.
  5. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    I believe it's all about energy when you deal with non-players. Not bashing, loud, high and fast. But that you are having a good time / are really into what you are doing and broadcasting your delight. I've made mention of this on number of posts over the last couple of years, so I won't drag on about it.

    In short, and as mentioned above, everybody has his own take on what is happening. Jazz can take a little more participation than Britney and you're always going to have a smaller audience because of it. But -- if people aren't digging it AND giving the band at least half a chance, I blame the failure on the band.
  6. abaguer


    Nov 27, 2001
    Milford, NJ
    Most non musicians won't grasp the subtleties of a performance but that doesn't mean they won't react in a different way to it. Like Ray said it's about energy and it's about somehow drawing the audience in.

    When I first started listening to jazz as a teenager I just liked the way it felt more than the way it sounded, meaning the groove attracted me more than the harmony. I think that is so for a lot of people who know nothing about jazz and I always try to remember that jazz started out as dance music. But as I listened to more jazz records I found myself appreciating different aspects of it, mainly the colors of the harmony and the mood it evoked (Riffs were the last thing on my mind when I listened.) and when I heard Bill Evans' version of My Foolish Heart it just floored me. It wasn't a swinging, groovin' tune but it got me and I couldn't even explain how, but I listened to it over and over before going on to the second cut on the album.

    Like the Michael Brecker quote about it being art music, it does take some work, but it shouldn't take as much work as listening to Cecil Taylor and people will be drawn to good music/performance but I don't think it can be on the artists terms all the time.
  7. Wilbyman


    Sep 10, 2003
    Parkersburg, WV
    I've recently been gigging with my quartet in my little town of Parkersburg, WV. It's a very good group, probably the best small jazz group that's ever been based in the area (though Ray Wetzel, who played and arranged for Stan Kenton, may have had a wicked group here many years back).

    Our Monday night session is AMAZINGLY well attended. You would think people here (in WV) wouldn't know or care about this music at all but, to the contrary, we get an incredible reaction from both the yuppie bankers and the redneck plant workers. Ray is so right: if you very visibly enjoy playing, play reasonably well, and crank up the energy, people are going to respond to it and come back to see it...even if they aren't jazz listeners per se. One myth is that listeners "don't know" if you're playing well or not playing well. I've found this to be completely untrue insofar as the rhythm section goes. People are *minutely* perceptive about how hard a tune is swinging or grooving.

    I agree TOTALLY with Ray -- if you've got listeners there, you're playing a moderately accessible form of the music, and no one's paying any attention....the band is doing something wrong.

    One of the comments I always get from listeners is re: how big I was smiling throughout the set. When they see that, they *know* there's something there to be enjoyed and something special happening.
  8. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    But this applies even more to "Classical" music - a lot of which has even less for a listener to hang onto in terms of "beat" than Jazz and which requires an even longer attention span!

    So - a typical Jazz gig will have tunes/pieces as short as a few minutes up to about 15 - and often it will be a pretty conisistent beat from bass and drums that is quite "toe-tapping"!! ;)

    Whereas, I have recently been to sold-out concerts of contemporary classical music, where pieces have no regular beat, very odd time signatures, multiple key centres and can last up to 80 or 90 minutes!!

    Virtually all the Prom concerts in London were sold out, for very challenging music!

    But a much bigger audience than Jazz has, is prepared to gain the knowledge to appreciate Messiaen, Mahler, Stravinsky ...etc. :meh:
  9. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    Does it matter - isn't that just musical snobbery?
    As long as somebody likes the music, why quibble ?

    So I often find that Miles' or Oliver Nelson's solos - just to name two - are more like melodies than some of the heads they play!! ;)
  10. You have people that complain that the Jazz audience is too small. Then you have others who say (or imply) that you can't really like Jazz unless you put enough time into educating yourself about its theory, and so on. Well doesn't the second statement really explain the first?

    If someone has to know what a Blues scale is, for it to sound good in a solo, then it's being used in the wrong way. If someone with little musical knowledge hears a lick and thinks "wow that was nice", then the improvisor is doing a good job.

    Don't get me wrong: I completely agree that someone with a deeper knowledge of Jazz theory (ie. musicians) will more fully appreciate a good solo... BUT, if a solo isn't melodic enough to engage a NON-musician, then the blame should be put on the musician's shoulders, and not the listeners'. To blame the listener is really a cop-out, and an easy way out. To say that a "layman" couldn't appreciate a good solo, is really blaming the wrong person.

    IMHO (I'm sure most of you will disagree), too much of the focus of an improvisor is to show physical mastery of his instrument... eg. to play as quickly and with the widest range he can. Often there isn't enough focus on creating a melody which will be memorable enough to keep the listener's attention. (That's why Charlie Haden is my favourite Bassist.)

  11. Sam Sherry

    Sam Sherry Inadvertent Microtonalist Supporting Member

    Sep 26, 2001
    Portland, ME
    Euphonic Audio "Player"
    Ray Brown once said something to the tune of, “The better we play, the fewer who can tell.” That’s true about jazz and it’s equally true about any artistic endeavor, but it’s NOT the end of the discussion. The subtleties of brush-stroke or chisel are utterly lost on me but I can still be moved on a rudimentary level by Guernica or David. I may not perceive the nuances of scansion or character development but I can still be moved by The Prophet or Ender’s Game. That’s what Branford Marsalis was talking about in his infamous put-down of Cecil Taylor: “I shouldn’t have to warm up just to listen to him. I don’t field grounders before I go to the ballgame.”

    Obviously, each of the iconic jazz artists Tom cites is known for making deep, challenging music. The reasons we dig them now are probably not the reasons they reached us when we first heard them. Each in his or her own manner each went out of the way to provide handholds for less-experienced listeners to grasp, even while simultaneously providing a subtle and sophisticated platform for exploration by musicians. It does not take Duke Ellington’s genius to give YOUR listeners an introduction and some interludes between solos, so that even neophytes can tell that something has come and something else is coming. (Tom, for example, composes music that is highly sophisticated but embraces that challenge.) If you don't want to take that route, you can still provide your audience the same “handle” Charlie Parker and John Coltrane gave their pop listeners: A familiar popular song to relate-to while you stretch out. ‘Trane was exploring “My Favorite Things” right up to the end of his life, even if he took it to places that Richard Rogers didn’t plan to visit.

    Ultimately, as some posters have noted, it comes down to expanding the enthusiastic and educated jazz audience. But that it not an abstract goal, it is a challenge for each jazz musician at every gig. What do YOU actually DO to get the kids from the local high-school or college out to see YOUR gig?
  12. Marc Piane

    Marc Piane

    Jun 14, 2004
    To throw another perspective into the arena.

    Jazz is often (not always) limited to music that is from the 1930's-1960's. The the newest tunes most traditional bands play are at least 34 years old. To an under 30 audience these tunes are similar to classical music in that they were written before their lifetime by a dead composer. Some people attribute the success of groups like MMW, The Bad Plus, EST, and even Brad Mehldau to the fact that they are using a more modern vocabualary. Esbjorn Svensson (piano player from EST) goes on to talk about this in a recent Downbeat interview. These groups have the top record sales in jazz.

    Many jazz tradtionalists are resistant to the changes these groups attempt to make and critisize them for it. Check out the slam on The Bad Plus in a recent Jazz Times.

    One other thought is that one of my students said he's not real into jazz cause that's his 'grandfathers music'.
  13. godoze


    Oct 21, 2002
    I too have always been drawn to complex music. Not for complexities sake, but I have always found that I need to keep growing and by listening and playing increasingly more complex music this helps me grow in manifold ways.

    As to the non-musician, well, the non-jazz person anyway i have this story to tell. My wife is a singer -songwriter type and while she cannot stand, as TEABAG so eloquently put it "Smoov" jazz she also cannot stand Coltrane. Why ? well, to quote my 6 year old "Dad, Trane is too wobbly ! "

    She finds the solos too abstract for her tastes. She appreciates the heads (oy, i couldda stepped in that) but the solos leave her . she feels his energy but he doesn't communicate with her.

    Her favorite cd is "Kind of Blue". I think the foil that Cannonball provides mollifies her and lets her deal.

    And as we all know the American attention span is famously short. And we are not known as a country of cultural sophisication, especially not for native art forms.

    Good Thread, Tom. Hope you cats dint mind me rambin' on like a salty old dog.
  14. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    Ironically, I think you have almost proved the opposite point to your conclusion there! ;)

    So - most classical music is in many ways more complex than your average Jazz tune Jazz and (as you say) was written by people who are long dead. But it can still be enormously popular - so a classical tune is used in a car commercial or something and it is bought by millions - many classical compilations sell huge amounts!

    I remember a piece from Mahler's 7th symphony which is pretty complex and musically sophisticated, being used for a Castrol commercial many years ago and bcoming very popular!

    I don't think it's complexity that is the problem - it's unfamiliarity! So, people love familiar tunes - even if they are pretty complex - if you hear something many times it can fix in your mind forever.

    The thing about Jazz is that it unsettles this basic need in us to fix on something we've heard before - it has fewer reference points that stay the same for the listener. I think as musicians, we like this, as it keeps us on our toes and involves us more - but for casual listeners it means they are just "all at sea, without a map"! ;)
  15. Can a group of jazz musicians have a legitimate conversation about this? When you have an understanding of the music, its structure, and its history aren't you overqualified to comment on the question? It seems that there is a danger of developing the musical snobbery someone mentioned earlier.

    Isn't it just a case of taste rather than understanding?
  16. Marc Piane

    Marc Piane

    Jun 14, 2004
    Bruce. That perspective is not mine but out there. Classical music is also losing audiences at an alarming rate too. That's a different discussion.

    Frankly I love playing complicated stuff, the more the better. However, at least as youger audiences are concerned, traditional jazz has a strange 'my parents music' thing.

    There are a number of problems that face jazz. Jazz happens mostly in 21 and over clubs. Jazz performers (not all) are notorously bad entertainers. Jazz gets very little radio play for audiences to get familiar with the music. Jazz is not winning many new fans and the old fans are dying. There is also the opinion among some jazzers that there must be something wrong with audiences if they are not getting it.

    I am a jazz player through and through. I also do a fair amount of composing and am constantly trying to strike a balance between my vision for the tune and how the audience will percieve it. I am a firm believer in the importance of the relationship between band and audience. I think some have lost sight of that.
  17. Sam Sherry

    Sam Sherry Inadvertent Microtonalist Supporting Member

    Sep 26, 2001
    Portland, ME
    Euphonic Audio "Player"
    You're warning's well taken, but I hope we can have a discussion here without slagging people for having differing musical taste.

    Perhaps. Still,

    a) Those of us who try to promote concerts and jazz oranizations and jazz education generally put A LOT of thought into how things got to the state they're at in such a short time. It appears to be a mistake to dismiss our perspective simply because we know and love the music; and

    b) If you wait for people who don't know something to talk about why they don't know it, you're dead, man.

    With respect, no. Lack of understanding impedes development of enjoyment of or "taste for" artistic endeavor. How many times have we heard:

    "All jazz sounds alike"
    "There's only about two country songs"
    "Bluegrass -- the fast one and the slow one"
    "That headbangin' **** is all the same"
    "Operas put me to sleep"

    For those of us who love xxxx, it's all about making sure that xxxx is available to people so that they can have that "WOW -- I've gotta get more xxxx!" moment.
  18. Gufenov


    Jun 8, 2003
    Perhaps. But still, there has to be an interest there. I have no desire whatsoever to learn the intracacies of Rap. Any efforts to "educate" me to a point where I'll gain an appreciation of it are pretty likely to fail. That's not a knock on the genre; I'm fully aware that others feel differently than I. It just doesn't interest me, personally.
  19. Well said. I have listened to jazz most of my adult life and enjoyed most of it BUT it is only since I have began to try to play it that I have really began to appreciate it. When I listen to some of my Bill Evans Trio stuff, I am just totally blown away by the improvisation and interaction. If I play that for some of my fellow bluegrassers I start feeling like Al Sharpton at a Klan rally. You don't even want to know what they thought about Mingus.
  20. anonymous0726

    anonymous0726 Guest

    Nov 4, 2001
    I think this is both cliche' and inaccurate. I submit that this is more an attribute of the human condition than just 'us'.