“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.
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.
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.