NOW LISTEN HEAR: Why You Hate Jazz Part 2
In the last entry (Why You Hate Jazz, Part 1), you brought up the point that jazz is like a foreign language that you don’t understand. I think it IS a language, and like any language it remains foreign unless you hear it enough to understand it. At its best, jazz is spontaneous communication without words. It’s the main reason I love jazz.
You jazz all day long. I should say you improvise all day long. Unless you live your life reading from a script, you improvise with language to communicate with others. My favorite jazz, or improvised music, is like a good conversation. Of course all conversations aren’t the same. Some are of equal participation and others are closer to monologues, with a main speaker and other participants giving the main speaker some occasional appropriate help. An interesting conversation needs good listeners as well as good speakers. A good listener makes a good speaker better, and that’s a very important part of communication that I think many people rarely consider. A good listener will often help a speaker define his/her point more thoroughly with a well-timed question or comment, or bring out a different aspect of a topic that makes the topic even more interesting. It’s also a skill to know when NOT to talk. Of course, a good speaker is always a joy to listen to, but it’s easier to understand what he/she is saying when others involved in the conversation bring up pertinent points and don’t all talk at once.
Learning to play improvised music is a lot like learning to talk, and a lot of preparation goes into creating good musical conversations consistently. On their own, musicians must first have a good degree of facility on their instrument. In all the keys. In all the modes of those keys. In all the simple and complex chords within those modes. Many standard songs (topics of conversation) must be learned and their constructions understood. Through the course of listening and learning the standards, “dialects,” or differing styles will be learned and will help in recognizing frames of reference as one plays with more and more people. In doing all these things, a musical vocabulary is created. All those things must be practiced until the player doesn’t consciously think of them—as Charlie Parker said, “Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that and just play.” In the same way, you don’t have to think of the words, sentence construction, or proper emphasis to say “Jazz makes me nervous.”
At some point early on in your talking career, you had learned 99% of what you would need for the rest of your life. Occasionally you need to add a new word or phrase to your vocabulary, like “LOL” and “I guess you schooled me”. Most people don’t spend time thinking about a new way to say “I’m glad to see you,” but the improvising musician can spend a lifetime doing the equivalent of that, and be successful in communicating it better. Since music is less specific than a spoken language, there are far more ways to express one’s feelings as well as to make those feelings better understood (I think instrumental music is great for expressing feelings, but it’s impossible to express a very specific idea like “the pyramids of Giza were built to hold large reserves of office supplies” without words). As a musician there is ALWAYS something you can refine, explore further, or learn anew. It makes me crazy. Luckily I have built up a large musical vocabulary to express my crazy.
Learning to be a good listener (accompanist) in improvised music follows the same basic pattern but forces one to listen to music differently. Rather than listen to a soloist (primary speaker), the ears must open to the interaction of the entire band, to hear which player played something that caused another player to react in a certain way, which changed the course of the song. Or notice who didn’t react, but stayed solidly involved under the interactions of others. JUST LIKE A GOOD CONVERSATION.
Why do they play so fast sometimes? The same reason athletes have the Olympics, to find out who was the fastest! It’s harder to play faster, and harder still to think faster. “Cutting contests” were a big deal to see who could play faster and more fluently. Here’s one of my favorites, and notice that even at high speed, it’s still a conversation…
You may think that the people that play jazz think they’re smarter than you and don’t care if you understand their music or not. All creative people are human too, and every human has a need to be loved and accepted. Like everyone else, they have a comfort zone, and some are naturally comfortable in less “welcoming” zones. It’s not that they think they are smarter than you, it’s just that they’ve found their calling in life and would be unfulfilled doing something else.
Go forth now, people. You may still hate jazz, but at least you know it’s not trying to make you feel stupid. Maybe you understand it a little better, and understand what it is that makes you uncomfortable. Or you may be curious and find one of jazz’s many forms that you are comfortable listening to. Hopefully, whatever music you listen to, you’ll listen for a conversation. There’s one in every song!
Curt 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.