Listening to “My Girl”, Talking about “Jazz”.

Saturday night I played for “Novel T’s 2013 Pine Bluff Summer Jazz Fest” at RJ’s Grill in Pine Bluff with some excellent local musicians: Ed Lawson (Saxophone), Ivan Yarbrough (Bass), Sheldon Joshua (Piano), Cliff Hawkins (Trumpet), Gavin Hawkins (Drums), and Legoria Payton (Vocals). I was very happy to get to do this, because after having spent four years at UALR allegedly learning how to play Jazz, I wasn’t totally sure I would get to actually play any Jazz outside of school. Because I don’t personally know many people who really like to listen to or play Jazz…

Yet I could express almost the exact same sentiment by saying that that I don’t personally know many people who know how to listen to or play Jazz. If more people were familiar with the songs, structures, and idiosyncrasies of Jazz, more people would enjoy it (or at least people would enjoy it more).  I don’t think anyone would question that having (or seeking) knowledge of the vocabulary and allusions in a great work of literature would yield a greater enjoyment of that work, yet many people don’t realize that some music also requires education about its language in order to enjoy it. I don’t want to imply that there is one unequivocal way to listen to or play Jazz— every true Jazz artist has found his or her own unique relationship to the ever evolving music— yet Jazz will always be rooted in a tradition of standard repertoire, swing feeling, and improvisation, and the more familiar a musician or fan is with this tradition, the greater capacity he or she will have for enjoying Jazz.

Much Jazz is advanced and challenging, and the listener who seeks only a simple drug-like pleasure from music will perhaps have an averse reaction to it upon first listen. I don’t think anyone would question that having (or seeking) knowledge of the vocabulary and allusions in a great work of literature would yield a greater enjoyment of that work, yet it may not occur to people that some music also requires education about its language in order to enjoy it. Jazz rewards those with a critical ear and a knowledge The more one listens to great Jazz artists, the more he or she is rewarded with a greater capacity to understand and enjoy it.

As I’m writing this, The Temptations’ “My girl” is playing on the radio over the speakers of the restaurant I am sitting at— the woman at the table next to me is singing along. She love’s it, I love it, we all love it. But why do we love it? I argue that certainly one of the prime reasons is that we understand it. We’ve heard these harmonies, this bass-line, these lyrical sentiments all before (and not only in this song). It’s familiarity makes it easy to digest. Furthermore, there is a probably a whole collection of pleasurable extra-musical associations we have with this song (a movie we saw, a person we love, a fun party we went to, “the good old days” etc…). “My Girl” and other pop songs provide a nice familiar pick-me-up in the moment, but listen to it once or twice and you’ve fully discerned all it intellectually has to offer. Jazz on the other hand is often advanced and challenging, and the listener who seeks only a simple drug-like pleasure from music will perhaps have an averse reaction to it upon first listen. Yet with each new listen, the music of great Jazz artists (unlike pop music) keeps revealing new insights about what music is and could be.

Note: Many other thoughts about Jazz, oblique to the point of this particular blog post, have been running through my head as I’ve been writing this. For one, I am uncomfortable with simply stating the word Jazz as if it is a definite solid unified entity separate from it’s many diverse and evolving parts, yet I only have so much time and energy for one post, so I’ll leave it alone for now. But rest assured people, this is the only the beginning of an ongoing (but probably sporadic) soapbox about Jazz.

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