Sunday, September 26, 2004

forgetful crybabies

If I had a picture of Mannekenpis, I would have used it in this post.

It's almost embarassing being a jazz fan when articles such as this one purport to represent you.

I'm annoyed by these articles because they take a very narrowly-defined historical base and listener profile and from that extrapolate that the sky is falling. Total lack of a broader historical perspective results in the reification of the two imaginary constructs into a litteraly mythical Golden Age.

It's even more embarassing when you read blogs written by people who actually seem to follow and understand what is happening. Where are the equivalents in the jazz world?

The older among us remember that wonderful dinosaur, the long-playing record, which came with a trove of information to help a listener better understand the music. In the days before MTV, record labels made the album an immersive experience with striking graphic design, moody photographs and informative liner notes written by prominent critics such as Stanley Crouch, Amiri Baraka, Dan Morgenstern and Ralph J. Gleason.

And the even older remember 78 rpm discs, which contained two songs of around 3 minutes each. And even in the album era people continued to buy singles, which has mutated into downloading MP3s. So "the days before MTV" cannot be simply typed as a very long period stretching from the dawn of recorded music to the mid-80s during which the "immersive experience" of the album reigned.

Millions of young listeners are buying music that is sold without liner notes, correct recording dates and session information. Even the musicians' names are often removed from their performances.

Newsflash: a lot of the original issues were sold without all this information and sometimes with incorrect information (sometimes on purpose, à la Charlie Chan or Little Brother). Miles Davis famously hated liner notes and musician names are often difficult to find on his 70s albums.

That's the state of the art at iTunes. Search for one of my favorite albums, "Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster." You'll see that iTunes lists the release date of this 1957 session as 1997 (the date the CD was released). Curious about who plays bass? Good luck, iTunes won't tell you.

If you're using iTunes, you're on the Internet, right? If iTunes won't tell you, AMG will (I know that you, dear reader, already know AMG, I include the link for Wayne Bremser's benefit).

Also, keep in mind that many people don't really care.

The less that contemporary players in all genres know about the past, the less likely they will be to advance the music.

I would argue that hearing music is more important than knowing who played it and in any case it's not as if this information has been wiped from the face of the Earth.

Already there is a growing audience for jazz that's accessible rather than challenging. We have seen the popularity in recent years of cookie-cutter "smooth" and "quiet storm" jazz radio stations offering a soothing background tapestry to daily activities with a program of music that doesn't engage the audience in any kind of dialogue.

Already? Muzak has been around for a while. As has been wallpaper music. As have been people who listened to Sinatra but not to Monk or even Basie. The term "quiet storm" has been in use since the mid-70s, negating Bremser's "in recent years. Again, lack of historical perspective.

Will a listener schooled on this music, whose source for more diverse jazz recordings is an online music store, be receptive to the intensity of a performance by Ornette Coleman or Sonny Rollins that might touch a much wider range of emotions?

I would like to couple the above paragraph with two earlier ones:

With all of this written and recorded information accessible in one [box set], it is easier than ever to track a jazz musician's ideas and techniques evolving day by day, session by session, which is how the art form advances.

Appreciating this, our ears are not so startled when the smooth Miles Davis of "Kind of Blue" produces the menacing "Bitches Brew" of 10 years later. Understanding this progression, we can make some sense of Ornette Coleman's listener-unfriendly "Free Jazz" the first time we hear it.

I fail to understand the first and third paragraphs. Because a "schooled" listener studied the music by downloading it, s/he is less likely to be receptive to Rollins and Coleman, who express a range of emotions that is broader than... what? Than what's available on iTunes? Understanding Davis's transition from KOB to BB helps us makes sense of Free Jazz from the very first time we hear it? Wouldn't familiarity with Coleman's earlier work and perhaps with the free jazz that came before or after be more useful?

We live in a time when many listeners don't care who plays bass on a Jay-Z track or which 1970s funk band was sampled on a Beyoncé single. The culture of music videos leaves a large number of musicians unseen and anonymous.

The largely anonymous existence of session musicians tends to show that "many listeners" have never cared, regardless of what time it was. This is especially ironic in the wake of the Funk Brothers emerging from decades of not being cared about, despite being on bagfuls of hit records. Again, people cared just the same back then, which is not much.

It's impossible to study the great mid-1950s recordings of Miles Davis without knowing who John Coltrane is.

Yes, it's impossible to study, somewhat less impossible to enjoy. And if you're interested by what the saxophonist or bassist has played, you can go to AMG and find out who it is. Or buy the CD. Simple and not too different from how playing non-playing students of music have been deepening their knowledge of it from time immemorial (through magazines, books, liner notes and now the Internet).

someday listeners and musicians might want to know more about what exactly they are listening to. In the case of jazz, the future of improvisation really depends on it.

The future of jazz is riding on the features present in iTunes and its clones? Despite the same information being available elsewhere on the Internet?