Let’s talk more about jazz – what do you say, musicians?

“I let my horn do the talking.”

“If you have to have it explained to you, you obviously aren’t going to get it.”

You know the kind of thing. Jazz musicians can be some of the most reluctant interviewees. Heck, some of them turn their noses up at introducing the tunes to their audiences.


Don’t explain.

And when they do talk about it, when they do give interviews or write their autobiographies, they talk about who they played with, and when, and where, and relate every tedious bit of backstage, in-joke banter – but they rarely ever really discuss the music itself in any meaningful and accessible way – and I don’t mean this harmonic progression or that chord inversion either.

I find it a little frustrating, and not a little counter-productive. It seems to me that given jazz music is no longer the popular music of the day, and given that therefore many ordinary listeners might find it a little confusing, difficult, opaque even, the least jazz musicians and those who believe in the music can do is try to explain it a little.

Of course, this could just be me being naive again. I’ve made that mistake before, assuming that, like me, everyone else who listens to or plays jazz believes it could appeal to everyone, could, in other words, be “popular” music again – that simple notion that we want everyone to enjoy it as much as we do. I hadn’t bargained on those who like it to be obscure, to be elitist, to be esoteric. It’s an exclusive club they belong to; why would I want to throw open the doors and let all those ordinary people in?

“Explain it?” they snort. “Why?” Or sometimes, and this I find even more confusing, they might follow those questions with the view “That would be patronising.” I can’t see how it’s patronising to try to make things easier, more transparent, when it appears confusing or difficult or just plain weird to the listener who is unfamiliar with it. When “I don’t understand jazz” is met with “There’s no need to explain it” whom, exactly, is this benefiting? And when someone, especially someone in the media – let’s say political journalist Andrew Marr, for example, says he doesn’t really “get” jazz – the jazz community responds with outrage and offence, rather than trying to pass on a little assistance, a little reassuring hand on the shoulder, a little welcome into this lovely, life-enriching music.

So, my conclusion as to why jazz musicians are reluctant to explain their music is only half-formed but it includes the following:

  • They are arrogant – they can’t be bothered to explain it, they just like doing it.
  • They are scared – they are worried they might be found out as inarticulate, or charlatans even.
  • They are mystics – keepers of some holy flame – and they want to keep a secret.
  • They are just too cool.

Now there are exceptions, of course. One obvious one is The Bad Plus’s pianist Ethan Iverson who does lots of really interesting talking on his Do The Math blog. Other articulate musicians are available.

This post is, I am the first to admit, full of wild generalisations, but they are wild generalisations for the sake of argument. That’s what I’m interested in here: an argument. Or maybe a more polite form of that: a discussion. (The internet is far too full of angry people already.)

My point really is not so much that jazz musicians don’t talk enough about their music (though that is true); it’s that when they do talk about it they don’t talk about it very interestingly or in a way that might inspire or invite people in. Maybe, like other kinds of artists – visual artists and novelists being prime examples – they just need to give it a bit more thought, a bit more respect, if you like. Take it a bit more seriously. And take a potential wider audience a little more seriously, too.

After all, while music may be “above words” and that’s part of the reason we like it so, thought is generally articulated through words, and putting things into words usually makes thoughts clearer – being able to talk about something you love doing is not necessarily to dilute it, to render it less profound. If trying to articulate one’s thoughts about something can actually clarify those thoughts, trying to explain the music might actually make the music better.

Why am I writing about this now? Well, two things I heard on the radio over the last seven or so days have prompted it. One was the always interesting BBC Radio 3 programme Private Passions. Last Sunday Michael Berkeley’s guest was the actor Rory Kinnear. Yes, I know he’s not a jazz musician, though he did play the trumpet at school. The thing is, he spoke really simply and eloquently about why he likes music, and what he gets from listening to it. His words were inspiring.

It is here.

David Bowie in 1977.

David Bowie in 1977.

The other thing I heard is a real answer to that fourth conclusion above. It was, surely we all agree, one of the coolest musicians on the planet – the uber-dude of uber-cool – David Bowie, in an archive interview from 1977, re-broadcast in Marc Riley’s Musical Time Machine on BBC Radio 4. So, it is possible to talk about your music – or your art, as The Thin White Duke would have it – and still be cool. Who knew?!

It is here.

Have a listen to these two programmes and let me know if you think what Rory and David have to say is a) unnecessary; b) patronising; or perhaps c) actually quite interesting and a valuable way into the music.

Categories: Opinion

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8 replies

  1. I’d strongly recommend Ronan Guilfoyle’s blog – intelligent writing about music that even a non musician like me can find interesting. http://ronanguil.blogspot.co.uk/

  2. Interesting commentary, Peter. It’s something that I know, for certain, a lot of people (especially non-musicians) feel. My parents, for one, are both highly intelligent, culturally-minded people, responsible for my musical education from a young age. My mum was even my first piano teacher. And while very supportive of my jazz studies and interests, I know they struggle to understand and therefore be engaged by much of jazz music (mine included!). When I explained to my mum what a basic jazz-playing approach is (“there’s the “head” or main melody/theme, you’ll likely know this if it’s by Porter or Gershwin, etc., then the solos happen over basically the same harmonic progression underlying that main melody, everyone takes a turn to express their ideas over these harmonies, then we all come back to the head and the tune ends.”) she was more engaged with the next gig she heard. Because she understood what was happening.

    I think a lot of jazz musicians don’t want to talk about jazz because they can’t be bothered (it’s a very lazy, selfish thing). But I think you’d find any performers who are either good educators or those taking the time to blog their findings (Ethan, Tepfer, Ronan, etc.) would be great at talking about the subject. Especially educators.

    Also, a person and their choice of instrument can be linked. It’s a personality thing. Many instrumentalists (certainly not all) aren’t great public speakers, or their personalities aren’t obviously gregarious or outward reaching. I’ve seen a pianist play a gig, his back half to the audience throughout (couldn’t be bothered to adjust the piano angle) AND he didn’t utter a SINGLE word to the listeners. He and his band thought he was so cool. “Jazz” cool. I thought it was inexcusably rude. Now, I may talk too much and I’m learning how to tailor my banter, but the inclusivity of sharing why a song was chosen, or how you’ve tweaked it slightly, is one of the joys of this music. You can’t assume everyone will pick up on a specific trick you used. And having them aware of these quirks and tools is a sure-fire way to have them on board with your music.

    Jazz musicians forget how much teamwork is a part of jazz. It’s ironic, really. The stereotypical jazz musician is narcissistic, interested in his next chorus, or his next work of art. The thrill is getting to play with your bandmates AND play FOR listeners. So talking about craft, whether it’s on stage or during an interview, is part of the process and very much part of the joy of any artistic endeavour (acting, painting, dance, etc.).

  3. As a jazz musician whose love affair with the music and the scene has had as many ups and downs as a hollywood rom-com I can completely hear what your saying. I think a few conclusions I have come to over my (relatively short) 15 year long relationship with the music and it’s practitioners is that jazz was never intended to be listened to by an audience, or the jazz that I have been involved with, bebop etc…
    A) It started as a medium for musicians to show other musicians what they were made of. Although the music has clearing branched away from the cutting contest a lot of that mentality is still present amongst musicians, particularly younger ones.
    B) Jazz musicians on the whole (of course there are always exceptions) are not the most socially capable group of people. Probably owing largely to the amount of time spent alone in practice rooms trying to get our s**t together. We’re not all very good at talking or presenting ourselves, perhaps why you said you’ve been to many gigs where people don’t say anything about the tunes.
    C) At many of our performances we also look out and see a pool of musicians who we know and have played with so in these circumstances it doesn’t seem necessary to pass comment on the fact that you are playing ‘All the things you are’. Everyone has played it a million times themselves already! Obviously this must be alienating for the few people in the room who aren’t musicians or hardened jazz fans. Sadly this is probably a self-perpetuating problem. Only musicians go to the gigs really, or people who have listened to a lot of jazz, so we only cater for them.
    D) In my experience of teaching music the things which are hardest to explain are the things that just intuitively understood when I myself was learning. I’ve never been taught how to do something so it takes me a while to work out how to teach someone else to do it. To be able to play jazz well you have to be an exceptionally gifted musician, although if you talk to a jazz musician they’re likely to tell you how much practice they need to do. Perhaps for a lot of jazz musicians it’s hard for them to explain things they they just understood straight away when they were learning, especially bearing in mind all my previous point about social skills.
    E) What we really love is playing the music. A lot of musicians are just not interested in all of other aspects of being a musician such as promotion or on stage presentation. That’s the bit we find really difficult. But give us a break because we’ve been shedding Giant Steps in all 12 keys for the last 5 years! Is it really any wonder?

  4. What an interesting discussion.
    If it is true that it was ‘never intended to be listened to by an audience as Lydia suggests’, I find that a rather depressing thought – and it doesn’t reflect my own connection with the music. I started listening (and continued) because I heard things that moved me, or made me feel something and remains one of my key tests when listening.. ‘ has it got soul’. That doesn’t mean it has to be easy or simple. I rather like abstraction and leaving things implied or unsaid.
    That’s the sort of talking that I’d welcome – what it is about the music that moves or excites and from the musician’s side, what motivates or why its important.
    I do flinch though, when we arrive at the suggestion that only musicians go to jazz gigs, or can really ‘get’ the music. I suspect that’s when it will really be dead (not just smelling funny) and risks becoming arm wrestling or exercises in musical athletics.

    The Radio 4 series Peter mentions is great! I caught the interview with Frank Zappa. He was asked why he became a musician. He said it wasn’t to be a star and get loads of girls (‘ I had mirrors in my house’ he said). ‘It was because I loved music’. I was hooked.

  5. I personally am always more than happy to talk about my music, and music in general, and try to answer any questions about it to the best of my ability. But I don’t feel that explaining the music, in technical terms or otherwise, necessarily makes it sound any different to, or makes it more approachable for, the listener. People usually say “I don’t understand Jazz” purely because they are not used to hearing it, i.e. they are not exposed to it, so it tends to sound “alien” to them. ( And for the most part there’s no singing! )

    No-one needs to have pop or rock or any other more “popular” music explained to them so why on earth should Jazz need “explaining”? All people have to do is listen, you either like it or you don’t. Maybe if you don’t like a piece of music today you may like it the next time you hear it, it’s hard to say. But for the most part it appears impenetrable to some people simply because they don’t hear it in their daily lives. We can hear most other music, pop, classical etc, on a daily basis on Radio, TV etc, but not Jazz.

    Jazz can certainly appeal to anyone, but maybe they have to listen to it a little more than they have until they get used to it. You don’t need to know anything at all about what’s going on in terms of the construction of the music, I’m sure most pop fans don’t know anything at all about chords or harmony, so why should it be any different for Jazz listeners? Explaining it won’t generate more listeners. As musicians I believe we should try to make the best music we can and try as much as possible ( without “watering down” our concepts ) to get that music to as wide an audience as we can.

    And talking to the audience shouldn’t make the music any more palatable either. Miles didn’t talk to the audience, but Dizzy did. Trane didn’t, Duke Ellington did. It’s about the individual’s personality. I went to listen to Ravi Shankar a couple of times and he didn’t speak to the audience at all that I remember. I’m sure most people in the audience couldn’t have explained what was happening in the music in any technical way. He still got a standing ovation on both occasions of course.

  6. It’s a good talking point – and I know the original premise is intended to be provocative, but I don’t think slagging off lots of musicians is really the answer.

    It’s a truism that music says things that can’t be put into words, but that doesn’t explain why some music is more easily engaged with than some other. I didn’t say ‘understood’ because I think if understanding is all you get from music then you have missed out on enjoyment which is the proof of engagement at a visceral and emotional level.

    Yes, some people don’t ‘get’ jazz as a whole category of music, perhaps because their musical preferences are for the more orderly and predictable – nothing wrong with that but it isn’t jazz. Danny Levitin makes clear in his great book ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’ that our reactions to music are complex and utilise many different parts of the brain, and these interact differently in different people. As a result some people like the predictable thing, others are more prepared to take a chance.

    However I think we should also consider the music itself – what is it actually saying? What does it offer the listener, and what does it demand? A lot of jazz tends to abstraction – not a bad thing in itself but it can lead to a bleak or formal experience. After all, there’s ‘cool’ and then there’s ‘cold’. It could be hard for anyone to explain in words why people should enjoy that or how they can get into it.

    I also think that as players we should not under-estimate audiences either. After all, making and sharing music is something humans have been doing for tens of thousands of years, so most people have an innate relationship to music in one form or another. It’s too easy to diss audiences and doesn’t put musicians in a good place either.

    So is it the audience’s problem if they don’t get the music, or the musician’s?’ If they don’t like something, maybe it’s because it really doesn’t have that much to offer them.

    I’ve written music all my life, and I really want to hear what people think of it – any people. I try to make sure that my music has something to offer to people who are not knowledgeable but who appear open-minded enough to be interested. In my experience, if I present the music honestly, with feeling and without condescension, there is a good chance that at least some people will really like it. What more can I do?

  7. Not my words on the matter, but some thoughtful ones from Archie Shepp all the same: “I’m concerned with people because music is about people. I care very much about getting to them … I’ve been able to reach them through a purely emotional relationship. That’s the advantage of playing music over writing – you can reach your audience almost directly through emotion … through sheer human vibrations – which is perhaps why most musicians don’t talk much. They just function on another kind of physical and spiritual level.” – From the liner notes to the 1966 album Live in San Francisco (Impulse).

  8. As someone who enjoys listening to and playing jazz, I think it’s totally fine to not get it. It’s a personal choice. I used to try and make people get it, and explain it, and I was treated like a Jehovah’s witness for this deed. Not everyone likes heavy metal, or hip hop, and you don’t have a conversion movement.

    If you like how something sounds, enjoy it. If you don’t, you don’t have some intellectual responsibility to force yourself, or to study it more so that you can be better at pretending.

    Not everyone has to be a foodie, or wine aficionado, so why the pressure with jazz? You don’t need to get it. If you like it, listen to it, and enjoy it, or ask questions if you want. If you don’t like it. You don’t need to like all of it either, and it’s certainly impossible for any single human to understand all of it, since its such a wide term, and one where people have their own personal definitions. It’s art… why does it need explanations

    Why can’t everyone just like and do what they want, without being accused of being ignorant or arrogant?

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