Sunday, September 2, 2012
I listen with my body
I finally figured out why I don't like cool jazz. Before now I just thought I wasn't smart enough to understand it. (Maybe that's because I had to Google it to make sure I didn't look stupid by using the wrong name.)
The moment of epiphany came while I was standing in a hotel lobby, waiting for a shuttle to Beth Israel Medical Center in Boston. I was exhausted and therefore easily irritated. I drank my scalding cup of free coffee and listened to the piped in music.
It was the kind of jazz I hate. The kind that leaves me puzzled.
So I puzzled over why they would choose to play it. And I tried, for the first time, to dissect what it is that I don't like.
The first thing I realized is that cool jazz doesn't sound good.
It's often a bit discordant. So I analyzed what it is that makes it that way.
Turns out that the individual instruments don't seem to go together.
In most of the music to which I'm exposed, orchestral, popular, classical, etc. all the pieces are written to come together in a harmonious whole. They complement each other. They blend and meld to create harmony and beauty.
Not so in this type of jazz.
I realized that in this style of music the individual elements are more important than the whole.
This seems to fit with the cultural milieu from which it arose. Rugged individualism. The self as more important than the group. The style seems to embody a "look at me" mentality.
In order to appreciate cool jazz, you have to suspend your focus on the whole and tune in to the performance of the specific. Tune in to what the drummer is doing. Focus on the pianist. Follow the flute. On their own, each does interesting things. Enjoyable things even. But when mixed together it often creates discord.
I seem to respond to that dissonance on a sub-cognitive level. Music is physical and emotional. It evokes. The form disorients me, like I'm on an auditory merry go round, and I don't like it.
(ALERT: I'm about to do something I've never done before. I'm going to make a sports analogy.)
The approach would never work for a sports team. Imagine if all the players on the field at a Red Sox game did their own thing. How well would they perform if the guy on second base was busy flexing his butt muscles hoping for a close up, while the player from first was headed his way? What if the outfielders pirouetted and twirled so that they didn't see balls flying their direction?
It can't work that way. In order to achieve a goal, team members have to be woven together seamlessly. In most forms of music, at least Western music, band and orchestra leaders, choral directors and musicians work hard to create musical unity.
But not in cool jazz.
This probably is not an epiphany for any one but me. And it is not meant as an insult to those who do appreciate the form. But I just don't get it.
I'm not enough of an intellectual. I listen with my body.