NOW LISTEN HEAR: Why You Hate Jazz


Curt Bley jpegI want to get this column out of the way so that we can trust each other in the future…

You are such a wonderful person. Your friends are great people who care about their families, and they agree that you are a wonderful person. You have great taste in music and you hate jazz. Just that word, “jazz” (or as you pronounce it, “JAAaazz”) makes you feel uncomfortable in a way you can’t put your finger on. And you are perceptive! You saw the photo of me with headphones and a bass violin (you might have thought it was a cello because it looks like the one your daughter’s best friend played in sixth grade, but in this photo it’s a bass). You saw the photo and the little protective voice in your head wanted to give me a break. “He’s okay,” said the voice. “He’s probably playing old school country music. But he CAN’T be playing classical music because he’s wearing a tee shirt. Gawd, I hope he’s not playing JAAaazz. No, no, he’s okay.” Actually I WAS playing some sort of jazz.

But I’m going to try to make it up to you in this column. I’m going to help you put your finger on the reasons you hate jazz, so you can put a name on that uncomfortable jazz feeling.

Why do you hate jazz?

“Jazz is stupid.” It’s a good place to start, but you can be more specific with me.

“Okay. It’s just weird. They’re just playing bleepity blah squibbity blah bip bip.”

I get it. It’s like when you’re in a place where people are speaking a foreign language, and you feel kind of left out. Not that you really want to know what they’re talking about, but if one of them looks your way, you feel like they’re making fun of you. Especially if they’re speaking French, because the French hate Americans but like jazz.

“Yeah, that’s right. It’s like they think they’re smarter than me. I think that’s why NPR uses jazz in its shows. Sometimes when they’re playing jazz, it goes so fast that it makes me nervous. Plus, the faster they play, the smarter than me they think they are.”

They play really, really fast sometimes. For sure!

“They never play songs I know.”

Sure they do. You know “When the Saints Go Marching In,” right? Or if you’re younger, you know “Yesterday” by the Beatles, or “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? There are many others…

“I do know those. But when they play them JAAaazzy, they change something and it makes them sound weird. Not like the version I like.”

That’s true. They change the beauty of the melody…

“Until it sounds just like a symphony. Rock and roll doesn’t do that. Hey, that’s another thing. Why don’t they play with some kind of rhythm? That little weird cymbal is always going dang dang a dang.”

That happens a lot. That swingy beat is one of the basic parts of jazz.

“I can’t dance to that.”

Is there anything else you hate about jazz?

“I really don’t know why people even play jazz. It’s just, I don’t know, crazy. Aren’t they all drug addicts? Why can’t they be normal, like the teacher who runs the swing choir at school?”

I’ll address your complaints in reverse order. I hate to burst your bubble, but chances are good that the swing choir is not really jazz. Here’s a Duke Ellington recording of “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” and then a swing choir version…

 

If you were an accountant, you’d probably be upset if your kid’s math teacher taught that 2+2=5. Granted, it’s more useful for your child to know basic math. But as a musician, the choir version makes me think that the director didn’t have the kids listen to the original to get an idea of what the song is about. They could have renamed it “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” because it DOESN’T have that swing. But it does have JAAaazz hands.

As far as being drug addicts, it’s true that many famous jazz musicians have lived “colorful” lives, but there are always a couple clean ones in the bunch! In my experience, musicians have the same percentage of some sort of substance abuse as “normal” people. You should also know that musicians are as fiercely devoted to their family and friends as you are, and face similar (if not greater) sacrifices and compromises in making their families, friendships, and work out well.

Remember that jazz was originally dance music, and continued to be popular dance music into the 1960’s. I know some older jazzers who hate rock and roll because it took work away from them. I understand now that much of that work was connected with people dancing to the new music, and abandoning jazz. This contributed to jazz going (mostly) in the “art” direction from the 1970’s onward. But if you can dance, and LIKE to dance, you should be able to dance to either of these tunes…

(Pardon me, Jazz Gods. I know I have sinned nearly completely.)

“You know, I danced to these, and there’s just something different about dancing along with the dang dang a dang cymbal.”

Yes, there is! But I’ve almost reached my word limit for this time. I’ll have to get to that issue in the next column. We’ll also look into your points about why jazz is weird, why they think they’re so smart, and why on earth would anyone want to play JAaazz.

Dear Reader, if I haven’t listed the reasons YOU hate jazz, feel free to share them with me in the Comment section below. Thanks for reading, and remember to listen with your ears and heart!

eilphotocb-page1Curt Bley found his ultimate purpose in life when he saw the Beatles’ second appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. He has been playing bass since age 10 and professionally since age 14, because things were different in the era of Three Television Stations. His playing has been heard with a wide range of artists from The Fifth Dimension to Dweezil Zappa. A mostly self-taught musician, Mr. Bley is glad that his educated colleagues agree with his musical theories 95 percent of the time. He has been a mainstay on the Chicago music scene for 35 years and swears he is not done yet.

NOW LISTEN HEAR: Introducing Curt Bley