You Aren't Too Dumb To Like Jazz

Jazz Boyfriend i i

hide captionFinding stock photos of potential "jazz boyfriends" has been one of the best parts of this whole exercise.

iStockPhoto
Jazz Boyfriend

Finding stock photos of potential "jazz boyfriends" has been one of the best parts of this whole exercise.

iStockPhoto

One of my pet peeves in this jazz racket I'm caught up in is when people describe complex music they don't understand as "overly intellectual," or one of its variants: "brainy," "highbrow," "mental masturbation," etc. The implication is that "normal" human beings aren't intelligent enough to "get" jazz, as if the music required naturally advanced-level mental faculties to begin to appreciate.

I'm on the subject because of a few comments in our recent musing on the "jazz boyfriend" phenomenon and The Dolphy Test. They're actually quite charming, friendly comments, but I am puzzled about the sentiments within. This is from Megan Bartlett (megggers):

This May I married my Jazz Boyfriend. As the non-jazzer there are many reasons to accuse me of not "getting it" or not being an "intelligent listener." My offenses include, but are not limited to ... complaining about 28 min. songs and when asked how I like Lovano's set at The Vanguard replying with, "I was too grossed out by the jazzgasms everyone was having to listen" (you know — the head bobbing, facial contorting and moans that are required to listen to jazz). Sometimes my Jazz Husband makes me feel like a Jazz Widow. ... I'm too dumb to like jazz. But when its 1am and we walk into the club where my husband is about to play ... I'm smart enough to know the tenor will be the most beautiful and complex thing I've ever heard.

This is from Lin Harraway (coffeeiv):

My husband and my second child love jazz, especially the kind where the musician takes off on a solo and leaves the theme — and me — in the dust. I'll have to admit that I am not smart enough for this type of music. I need someone to remind me of the melody at least every sixteen measures or so. If my husband had used this as a litmus test early in our relationship, he would have expelled me — except for the fact that I allowed him to kiss me for hours while this type of music was playing.

Ok, so I may personally plead the fifth when it comes to being a "jazz boyfriend." And I also hear Bartlett and Harraway on long, meandering solos: Sometimes I lose track too if the music isn't captivating. (Not all jazz is good, of course.)

But it strikes me that what Bartlett and Harraway are complaining of is slightly misdirected. It doesn't make you "dumb" or "not smart enough" if you don't like something you've tried repeatedly to engage. And if you don't understand it, shoot, any musician will tell you: Jazz takes a lifetime to learn. It's really hard!

Jazz, as a whole, requires a bit of buy-in. Much of it is instrumental, and for people who listen to music for lyrics, that component often goes missing. Performance conventions can be uncommon: applauding in weird places, sitting down, being really quiet. Sometimes jazz composers also like to write complex harmonies, meters and forms not usually heard in pop music. But even before you get to "complex even for jazz" music, some of jazz's most treasured central precepts — swing, 12-bar blues, "rhythm changes" or AABA form, solo improvisation — are unfamiliar to many of today's music listeners in the first place. All things considered, the deck is stacked against jazz.

That said, many jazz musicians manage to transcend these things nightly to convey some greater beauty or depth or joy. Like any other musicians in the Afro-Western tradition, they're trying to communicate some emotional or spiritual feeling through notes and grooves. They're trying to create something affecting with what they do, trying to convey some sort of artistic statement. They're just choosing a medium — improvised, often instrumental music — which is uncommon to many human beings.

One of the most interesting comments, at least with respect to my thesis, comes from Evelyn Chester (EvelynChester):

It's funny that you describe the Dolphy piece as "jarring" and "spiky". I was expecting something completely different than what I heard. But maybe if you didn't grow up with jazz (which I did), it would be jarring. To me, this mostly sounded like my childhood.

If I absolutely had to choose a piece of jazz music to describe as cerebral or the like, Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch would be a good contender. But Chester's comment rebuts me there, to some extent. She says: Well, not if you're already familiar with jazz.

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