My Problem with Jazz

I pride myself in a willingness to listen to different styles and genres of music. I have favorites in rap, heavy metal, Irish folk, country, classical, even opera. So my strong negative impression of jazz may come as a surprise. To be fair, there is a lot of jazz I like, mostly the early stuff and the great singers. Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, basically back when jazz had melodies and was meant to be danced to. Before rock and roll came along, jazz was young people’s music. It’s what people danced to, it was rebellious, it was accessible, it was listenable. Then something happened.

Young people started listening to Elvis, The Beatles, Nirvana. Jazz became the domain of stuffy pipe-smoking intellectuals and pretentious fast-talking pseudo-intellectuals. If you aren’t like, totally into Coltrane, man, you have no clue. You aren’t worthy to dine at the table of the musically educated elite.

I guess what bothers me about Coltrane is precisely that his music is not accessible to the “common folk.” I understand that sometimes you have to put in a little work to appreciate something new and different, and that much of the time it is very worth it, but in some of his work it seems he is intentionally making it challenging just for the sake of it, forgetting that there is true skill in creating a melody that hooks the listener instantly. A good song should not require an owner’s manual.

As an analogy, I have the same complaint about the writing of James Joyce. He often seems to be showing off how erudite and knowledgeable he is, while forgetting to tell a good story. Similarly, in the art world, I don’t want to have to know that the supposedly genius artist involved is a transsexual, HIV-positive, war protester. A painting is a painting, and it should stand alone without needed to be explained.

The best artists can create a “layering” affect, where on the first listen you’re hooked by the instantly accessible melody, but subsequent listens continue to provide new surprises and challenges. An example in the popular music world for me would be the first album by The Counting Crows (let’s pretend they quit after that one), or some of the Beatles’ stuff.

To continue the analogy, it’s sort of like the way Shakespeare would include bawdy jokes for the rabble in the cheap seats of the theater, while not sacrificing the intellectual depth of his works.

Some of my opinion may be caused by timing, too, of course. I’m sure if I listened some more to Coltrane in the right environment I would appreciate him more. At the time, I said, “I’m going to give this ‘jazz’ stuff a try, but it better be good!” and I wasn’t in a patient frame of mind. (What can I say, I was young?) Maybe some day I’ll try again and will be blown away. For now, there is enough music in other genres to keep me occupied.

I encourage anyone who agrees or disagrees to use the “comment” link below and let me know what you think.