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What some people think of jazz

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This is an article from Andy Whitman from a magazine called "Paste," which bills itself as:

"Paste Magazine is one of the fastest growing independently published music magazines in the country. We pride ourselves in being the premier magazine for people who still enjoy discovering new music, prize substance and songcraft over fads and manufactured attitude, and appreciate quality music in whatever genre it might inhabit--indie rock, Triple-A, Americana, folk, blues, jazz, etc. What other magazine would dare run features on singer/songwriter Patty Griffin and rapper Gift of Gab (from Blackalicious) in the same issue?"

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Anyway here's the piece ...

Confessions of a Jazz Hater

The album was Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, and I desperately wanted to like it. Rolling Stone raved about it, and in those heady days that was as good as canonical truth. To hear the ecstatic reviewers tell it, Bitches Brew was unquestionably one of the greatest and most important albums of all time, the simultaneous birth and apex of jazz-rock fusion. And I was absolutely convinced. It seemed as likely a place as any for an inquisitive 15-year-old fan of rock ’n’ roll to start exploring the vast, mysterious realm of jazz.

There was only one problem: I hated it. It was awful. Bitches Brew sounded nothing like Chicago or Blood, Sweat, & Tears—the closest touchstones I had to jazz-rock fusion at the time. I couldn’t find a melody, couldn’t find a rhythm to latch onto, couldn’t find one single redeeming quality in the sprawling, incoherent mess. If this was jazz, who needed it?

And so I slammed the door on an entire genre for another 15 years. I know. It’s stupid to write off 100 years of great music because of one bad experience. But I’ve found—as I’ve done my own informal poll of my musical friends—that my experience has been shared by many other people, and with many other jazz albums. If people don’t grow up with jazz (and the vast majority of music listeners don’t), sooner or later they get curious. They buy their token jazz CD, just to test the waters. And far too many of them turn away in disappointment. The same music fans who patiently sat through endless improvisational noodling from the Grateful Dead, who willingly tolerated and enjoyed 10-minute drum solos during the height of the Prog Rock era, suddenly can’t sit still for a John Coltrane solo. Why? What is it about jazz improvisation that is so foreign, that inspires such a strong reaction from people who otherwise seem like calm, rational human beings? “I hate jazz,” my friend tells me. “Absolutely can’t stand it. I’d rather get a root canal than listen to it.” Okay, he’s a masochist, maybe a fool. But he also listens to a lot of music. What is it that turns an otherwise intelligent, temperate man into a foaming, frothing lunatic?

I think I have some clues. For starters, there’s very little new here. Jazz makes up a miniscule three percent of all music sales. There are temporary spikes in the music’s popularity—as, for example, when Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz aired on PBS several years ago. But those anomalies cannot camouflage an almost 60-year decline in the commercial viability of the music. As recently as the early 1970s, iconic jazz figures such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane were known by most serious rock fans, and their music could occasionally be heard on freeform FM radio. With the advent of narrowcasting, those days are long gone. And although the crossover appeal of jazz-like vocalists such as Norah Jones and Diana Krall signals something of a mini-renaissance in the jazz-music industry, there is, sadly, no evidence to suggest that jazz vocalists bring new listeners into the instrumental jazz fold.

Second, as much as its devotees want to downplay the issue, jazz suffers from an image problem. Even hardcore music fans—those who spend inordinate amounts of time and money on their favorite music—tend to ignore it. It’s either perceived as the domain of a coterie of effete music snobs or as inconsequential, pleasant background noise. They think of the roots of the music—Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in grainy black and white newsreel footage; important, to be sure, but ancient history. Or they think of the puffery heard on “Jazz Lite” stations, barely one step removed from Muzak. The New Traditionalists who arose in the 1980s—Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Joshua Redman, Marcus Roberts—could have stepped in to fill the void. Instead, they were so focused on slavishly imitating the post-bop jazz of the mid-1960s that they missed the opportunity. And now we’re approaching 35 years—roughly the time since Miles dropped Bitches Brew on an unsuspecting world—without anyone at the helm, without a single iconic jazz figure to serve as a focal point for the music, let alone the half dozen or more who prevailed throughout the ’50s and ’60s.

Obviously, I don’t hate jazz anymore. I’ve learned to love it, and have spent much of the last 20 years avidly following new trends and filling in the gaping holes in my music collection, trying to make up for the fact that I had ignored almost a century of musical greatness. You’ll find the usual suspects in my list of favorites—Armstrong, Ellington, Holiday, Monk, Hawkins, Parker, Coltrane, Rollins, Evans, and yes, most certainly Miles Davis. But that transition to musical elitism—or whatever it is—didn’t come easily, and I sympathize with those who’ve tried unsuccessfully to enter the door into a whole new realm of music.

I do know that it helps to find the transitional albums, those albums bridging the gap between familiar musical genres and the impenetrable world of jazz (see “Ten Gateway Albums”). In spite of what some purists say, jazz has never existed in isolation from the rest of the musical universe. Louis Armstrong, long revered as the Father of Jazz, had no qualms about recording pop standards throughout his long career. It’s a practice that has continued throughout the history of the genre, from the great Charlie Parker covers of ’40s and ’50s pop standards through The Bad Plus’ frequent forays into the music of Nirvana and the Pixies. It’s almost always instructive to hear what great jazz musicians can do with a familiar tune. The early-to-mid ’70s were filled with excellent examples of jazz-rock fusion, back before fusion took on the emasculated connotations it now has. And there are many albums featuring jazz-rock guitar heroics. Fans of the blues will find a familiar touchstone in many of the greatest jazz improvisations, and it’s really not a great leap to move from the incandescent guitar solos of a Stevie Ray Vaughan or a Buddy Guy to the equally luminous blues-based solos of Miles Davis on Kind of Blue or John Coltrane on Blue Train. The door will open.

In retrospect, Bitches Brew really is a great album. It was just the wrong place for me to start. It’s a long, long journey from the straightforward three-chords-and-a-backbeat foundation that underlies much of rock music to the experimental free-jazz excursions of late-period John Coltrane (or Bitches Brew, for that matter), and it would have been helpful to have some signposts along the way to point the direction. You can get there from here. It starts with a willingness to hear new sounds, and it proceeds along a path that moves from the familiar to the increasingly unfamiliar. There may be no hope for those who truly prefer the dentist chair to jazz. But for the rest of the sane universe, there’s every reason to believe that jazz haters can become, if not jazz lovers, then at least begrudging admirers of the form.

Interested in starting your journey into jazz, but you don't know where to begin? Here are 10 Gateway Albums to start you on your way.

10 Gateway Albums

People approach jazz from every musical direction imaginable, from sensitive singer/songwriter folkies and hip-hop devotees to heavy-metal headbangers. Here are some directions that will lead to jazz’s open door.

The Bad Plus

These Are the Vistas (2003)

Pianist Ethan Iverson plays like Rachmaninoff’s hip kid brother, while bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King pummel like the Led Zeppelin rhythm section. Great improvisation and heavy metal thunder, with covers of Nirvana, Blondie, and Aphex Twin.

Dapp Theory

Y’all Just Don’t Know (2003)

Pianist Andy Milne is a veteran of NYC saxman Steve Coleman’s band, but here he mixes breakneck jazz runs with the hip-hop preaching of MC/vocalist Kokayi and Bruce Cockburn’s incisive political commentary.

Al DiMeola

Elegant Gypsy (1976)

Al DiMeola was and is a genuine guitar hero. “Race With Devil on Spanish Highway” would give Clapton a run for his money in terms of blinding speed, while “Mediterranean Sundance” is a terrific blend of jazz fusion and flamenco stylings.

Mahavishnu Orchestra

Birds of Fire (1972)

In 1972, “fusion” wasn’t a bad word. Birds of Fire is guitarist John McLaughlin’s finest hour, and this album features one blazing electric solo after another. Miles Davis meets Jimi Hendrix. Oh yeah, the rest of the band is pretty great, too.

Brad Mehldau

Anything Goes (2004)

Make no mistake, Brad Mehldau is a serious jazz pianist, but he’s a big Radiohead fan as well, and he covers at least one Thom Yorke song per album. This one has “Everything in its Right Place,” a tender cover of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years,” and several fresh approaches to some hoary jazz standards.

Joni Mitchell

Hejira (1976)

Joni’s jazz excursions could get dicey, as the subsequent albums Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus would prove. But on Hejira she strikes the perfect balance between singer/songwriter introspection and searching jazz improvisation. Jaco Pastorius’ bass work remains a revelation.

US3

Hand on the Torch (1993)

These hip-hop visionaries merged great beats and pointed commentary with some notable samples from the vast Blue Noteback catalog. Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and Horace Silver sound superb in the contemporary setting, and the rappers are in prestigious company indeed.

Weather Report

Heavy Weather (1977)

More fusion magic. Joe Zawinul’s perennial hit “Birdland” will hook you with its joyous evocation of 52nd St. big band music, but his quiet, lovely ballad “A Remark You Made” will keep you coming back again and again.

George Winston

Autumn (1980)

Pianist George Winston is the missing link between introspective jazz great Bill Evans and pastoral folk music. Sneer at the “New Age” label all you like; this album remains breathtakingly beautiful after almost 25 years.

John Zorn

Naked City (1989)

Japanese speed metal, James Bond spy music, Ornette Coleman covers, spaghetti westerns, and avant-garde sax shriekfests all converge on this landmark album. What, you wanted Henry Mancini movie themes? Zorn’s got that covered too.

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While I bristled at the frequent use of the word "elitist," I have to admit that my journey into jazz was similar. Back before I discovered jazz, my pattern was to "collect an artist," which is to say I would buy every album by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, or whoever before I would render my judgements. When I first started listening to jazz, I started (as this guy did) with people like Miles and Trane because those were the people I'd heard of! And I ran into the same brick wall this guy did when I reached albums like "Bitches Brew" and "Ascension." I went through two years of half-heartedly trying to get into jazz until a friend gave me a copy of "The Best of Horace Silver, v.2" on casette. "Song for My Father" hooked me, and I never looked back after that. Horace was my gateway to jazz, and for that he will have my undying affection (despite "The United States of Mind").

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It’s either perceived as the domain of a coterie of effete music snobs or as inconsequential, pleasant background noise.

So that's why I wear a black turtleneck sweater, shades, and a beret to all my jazz concerts (and talk loudly throughout the performances).

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It’s either perceived as the domain of a coterie of effete music snobs or as inconsequential, pleasant background noise.

So that's why I wear a black turtleneck sweater, shades, and a beret to all my jazz concerts (and talk loudly throughout the performances).

do you snap your fingers repeatedly and say "cool, man...dig?"

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It’s either perceived as the domain of a coterie of effete music snobs or as inconsequential, pleasant background noise.

So that's why I wear a black turtleneck sweater, shades, and a beret to all my jazz concerts (and talk loudly throughout the performances).

do you snap your fingers repeatedly and say "cool, man...dig?"

yeah, daddy o!

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and stroke my beard...

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which is, of course, my destiny...

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Interesting article. I've argued for many years that anyone who is really into music will eventually find their way to jazz. But, when I say "really" I mean "REALLY" into music. Most people aren't and never will be. What happend to Mr. Whitman, though, is probably the same thing that happened to you and me in that most of us can relate to some level of musical experimentation along the road that led us to jazz. I did this many moons ago with Oliver Nelson's "Blues and the Abstract Truth" and I didn't come back to jazz for years. As hard as it is to believe in the context of now, that recording was as startling to me as "Bitches Brew" was to the author. I just wasn't ready for it. Fortunately, the hill this created wasn't high enough that I couldn't negotiate it later in my life.

My initial reaction to the "Gateway" recordings, though, is gateway to what? With the exception of the Meldau's "Anything Goes", the list is heavily skewered with jam band, fusion centric recordings that can only take you so far. I guess I would like to have seen Mr. Whitman suggest 2-3 recording from the cannon of genuine jazz masterpieces...something from the list of giants that he says now populate his own, personal collection. Then I think you're talking about a real gateway.

Up over and out.

Edited by Dave James

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Odd phenomenon, in my infant jazz stages I had some great jazz on the shelf (Art Blakey - Moanin') for a year before going back and realizing how good it was. I had to become willing to really listen and learn the language, then things made sense that once didn't. In fact, I am still developing, it would seem. McLean's Jackie's Bag didn't click for me the first few times, now it sounds great.

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do you snap your fingers repeatedly and say "cool, man... dig?"

Of course! And I'm always the first to say "Yeah" after song ends but before the applause begins.

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But do you tilt you ear on or off the beat...??

I'm an OF I know .. but most of those " gateway" recordings sound like 'exit signs " to me....

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do you snap your fingers repeatedly and say "cool, man... dig?"

Of course! And I'm always the first to say "Yeah" after song ends but before the applause begins.

I usually spend that time calling the musicians "crazy cats" and hollering out a vulgarity and the musicians nickname(s), followed by "baby."

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And so I slammed the door on an entire genre for another 15 years. I know. It’s stupid to write off 100 years of great music because of one bad experience.

That about sums it up for me!

BTW, I was listening to Birds of Fire just today. ^_^

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10 recommended Gateway recordings above = Turned off jazz for a long time, in my case.

Mine entry was via the Duke Small Groups vol.2 album, cemented by a compilation of Diz/Bird recordings.

I've found that letting people taste a fairly wide variety of jazz recordings is the best way to help them find out what they like - Compilation! It's worked on some friends, most of whom can't stand the early recordings (particularly the audio quality) or free jazz. Middle of the road/straightahead, preferably with some good vocals seems to be what appeals to folks not already into jazz.

As for jazz snobs... :ph34r: :rsly: :rsmile: :rcry

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and I'm still not up for getting into heavily free stuff like Brotzmann, Cecil Taylor or even Ornette.. yes, I like some free jazz but not to the point it goes so out that it bothers me (like Brotzmann, sampled some clips--no thanks) and I've listened to inside-out stuff and borderline free for 6 and a half years, I even like some of Pat Metheny's free stuff (I used to like anything he did but now I've picked favorites-become more critical with him, even tho I recognize a consistent quality to all his work) I really didn't like "Free Jazz" either even tho I listened to it very hard, we even analyzed a section of it when I was a student in the jazz class, even tho I can focus on all the different levels of activity there, its just not to my taste.

Anyway, I think people bget turned off to jazz b/c they might end up hearing something really heavy, like a free tune, something like Kenny G, or maybe turned off by the discussions that we as jazz fans have like artists, pros and cons, etc....... or they could get turned off by elitism such as that which ppl like Stanley Crouch favor.

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I think the biggest problem with jazz for most people is simply the fact that, to get it, you have to listen to it. Even a lot of hardcore music fans struggle with this one. I didn't really get into jazz until I sat down, closed my eyes and actually listened to an entire tune without doing, or thinking about, anything else. And that's a tough hurdle for most people.

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I think you are right Moose. And I don't think this is limited to music at all. Most people just aren't that attentive to so much in their lives. People are bombarded with various forms of stimulus all day long in our culture, and what is pushed on the buying public music-wise is easier, catchier tunes.

Another example of this is found in things like the remake of "Manchurian Candidate." Watching the old one and then going to see the new version was like stepping through some weird time warp. Fast camera cuts, and bold dramatic action substituting for the original's (in my view) far more chilling diologue and story lines. Earlier tonight I watched my DVD of "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold," which would never get made today. The rewards of a movie like this require attention and thought, which our culture is being weaned away from. It's an experience that requires much more from the viewer than simply sitting there. I think the same is true with much of the popular music scene. Maybe it's always been this way. And perhaps I'm exposing myself as a snob, but so be it. I'll take something challenging that helps me see the world in a new way anytime.

Sorry to stray off topic a bit.

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Speaking of Crouch ( :unsure: ), just noticed that he's joined the JAZZ CORNER! (Confirmed by Lois.)

THIS should be interesting!

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I think the biggest problem with jazz for most people is simply the fact that, to get it, you have to listen to it. Even a lot of hardcore music fans struggle with this one. I didn't really get into jazz until I sat down, closed my eyes and actually listened to an entire tune without doing, or thinking about, anything else. And that's a tough hurdle for most people.

I think you've got a good point there, Moose. That's why I think you're most likely to get into jazz when you're still at that stage of life when you spend some time really sitting (or laying) down and listening closely to music; say roughly ages 15-25. After that, most people no longer have the time or inclination for that kind of close listening.

BTW, I noticed there was no room on the "gateways to jazz" list for people like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Basie, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderly, Bill Evans, Louis Armstrong, Sonny Rollins, and so on. Helluva gateway!

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It’s either perceived as the domain of a coterie of effete music snobs or as inconsequential, pleasant background noise.

So that's why I wear a black turtleneck sweater, shades, and a beret to all my jazz concerts (and talk loudly throughout the performances).

do you snap your fingers repeatedly and say "cool, man...dig?"

yeah, daddy o!

:w Hmmm. Just made me think of something.

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