Straight, No Chaser
An inveterate jazz junkie recounts how he cultivated an ear for the hard stuff.
Thursday, September 14, 2000
But what is this thing called taste? How is it cultivated? How does one educate one''s ear and mind to receive and appreciate unfamiliar sounds? Exposure counts for a lot, but I don''t know how much bubblegum music or Chinese opera or misogynistic rap or atonal electronic avant-garde minimalism I could bear listening to before learning to enjoy such noises. And yet, until my late 20s, I might have said the same about jazz.
A longtime fan of rock ''n'' roll, rhythm & blues, folk, blues, country and even some so-called classical music, I had never really connected with contemporary jazz beyond a few popular albums by Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Stan Getz in his bossa nova mode, Dixieland trumpeter Al Hirt (all white players, it must be noted) and the dignified classicism of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The musicians who would eventually become demigods in my personal artistic pantheon--John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, et. al.--had not yet registered on my sonar. Once they did, sometime in the mid-1970s, the range of my listening pleasure was immeasurably expanded.
The sound of the music suffuses one''s being--not just your ears but your whole body--so as to literally fill you with the art, even though those vibrations quickly vanish.
I can''t quite locate a particular experience that made me a lover of jazz. My conversion must have occurred slowly over a period of time and reached critical mass before I really knew how my life had been changed, but central to my sonic awakening were at least three concerts I attended in 1976--one in the unlikely Santa Cruz suburb of Capitola, one in New Orleans at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, and one at The Bottom Line in New York City. Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Mingus, respectively, headed up groups in each of these venues that transformed my understanding of what music could be, opening my soul''s receptors to the sense of discovery and revelation available to virtuoso improvisers pushing themselves and their collaborators into marvelous zones of unknowing, creating tones and rhythms and moods and emotions and layers of inner landscapes never to be experienced before or after but riding the present moment with a mixture of technical skill and melodic imagination and a certain uncanny intelligence that transcended anything I''d ever encountered in books.
Listening to records is undeniably a fine way to attune one''s ear, but there''s nothing quite like hearing music played live, and jazz, with its emphasis on the unwritten, on the individual expressive solo and collective improvisation, can be unspeakably thrilling to witness when the players are hot and in the process of discovering the outer limits of their accomplishment. To sit in a smallish concert hall or, better yet, some intimate club, and watch and listen to expert creative adventurers egg each other on to heights and depths of sonic exploration is exciting in a way that can''t be touched by more scripted forms of performance. The sound of the music suffuses one''s being--not just your ears but your whole body--so as to literally fill you with the art, even though those vibrations quickly vanish.
Yet somehow, within our cellular memory, something remains.
Nearly a year ago, at Birdland in New York, I heard a Ron Carter nonet--two basses, four cellos, piano, drums and percussion--burn through two sets of hybrid sounds, part downhome folk, part uptown bop, part Euroclassical, part intergalactic, whose unique and moving beauty, so daringly odd and difficult to describe or even remember as tunes or songs ("Wayfaring Stranger" was one), continues to echo in my consciousness. Carter is well known as a jazz master, and I don''t know what else to call what his group was doing, but at that level of musical synthesis, genres and definitions are irrelevant. This experience, for me, epitomizes the genius of great jazz.
To the uninitiated, or even to a jazz fan hoping to hear something more easily familiar, Carter''s show might have been too weird for comfort--I certainly found it disorienting--but that sense of testing the boundaries, of honoring traditions by recombining them in unpredictable ways, is in the richest spirit of the jazz ethos.
Like abstract art, it may require suspension of expectation and a learning how to look (or listen) with different eyes (or ears) than the ones we''re accustomed to feasting on the figurative. But images and sounds that have become part of our common vocabulary--van Gogh''s hallucinated landscapes, Jackson Pollock''s dancerly drips and splatters, Monk''s eccentric piano-poetry, Coltrane''s soaring tenor and soprano solos--were once considered (maybe still are) too far out for polite society. Even now, one of Vincent''s pictures is likely to leap off the museum wall and overpower the unsuspecting spectator, just as one of Coltrane''s unmistakable epic riffs may erupt from the rush-hour dashboard and lift one''s psyche far beyond mere traffic.
I doubt that anyone can really be taught to feel the force of any original art, but with the music known as jazz, receptive listening is a good place to begin