September 12, 2012

What Is This Thing Called Jazz?

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Fox News recently debunked the myth that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, to the tune of the Dean Martin classic “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head.” I’m reminded of how I’ve strayed musically over the past year. That, for the most part, has been a good thing. But listening to something other than jazz always leaves me a little homesick.

I grew up with jazz. Well, sort of. It was the first kind of music I listened to obsessively. Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie is probably to blame. It was the subject of my first unwieldy stab at art criticism as a 13-year-old. Just by embellishing grid lines with dashes of color, Mondrian created streets throbbing with cars and people. I never quite got over that feeling.

Then along came John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman’s eponymous 1963 album. I saw that a voice could be an instrument, and an instrument could be a voice. My sister and I began to trawl record stores for compilation albums on sale, and that is how I met the swinging gentlemen — Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, among others. I loved the pandemonium of The Rat Pack singing and ad-libbing at The Sands and big bands stomping at The Savoy. For the next three years I saw no need to listen to anything else.

Jazz standards have become my comfort food. When I’m rapidly losing coherence as I type papers late into the night, Sarah Vaughan’s mournful refrain, “I’ll never know a Sunday / in this weekday room,” becomes achingly true. After being assaulted by relentless pop tunes, I can replay the same standard for hours, marveling at the endless variations on a theme. Thelonious Monk’s “Round About Midnight” is one of them. Monk hammers incisively, Miles Davis is insistent and thoughtful, while Bill Evans delicately weaves the melody together. For some reason, I’d never suspected that there were words to the tune. Then I stumbled upon Amy Winehouse’s recording, lavish and sonorous. Jazz had surprised me again.

What is this thing called jazz? The textbook answer is that jazz happens when musicians improvise simultaneously and achieve syncopated syncopation (whatever that means). Not too surprisingly, a serviceable definition of jazz eludes many in its firmament of stars. Sarah Vaughan, who pioneered scat singing, protested against being labeled a jazz singer. The label was too stifling for the self-professed lover of “all kinds of music.” Vaughan is not the only rebel. So maybe Duke Ellington’s hazy declaration suffices — jazz is “in the ear of the listener. If a man has some very hungry ears for … a pleasant noise that makes him feel he wants to swing, that’s jazz.”

I like that vagueness. Like art, jazz is mysterious, and yet it makes me feel something. Sorting out good jazz from the bad is as easy as differentiating good art from bad art. Good jazz, like a good building (as defined by the architect Louis Sullivan), “grows naturally, logically and poetically out of all its conditions.”

Of course, that is not as easy as it sounds. I mostly love jazz trio The Bad Plus’ recordings, especially its wistful and thunderous interpretations of Nirvana and Queen songs. But when the group played Bailey Hall this year, I got lost in the winding improvisations, which quickly descended into cacophony. I bought a Bad Plus t-shirt anyway.

I don’t think The Bad Plus played badly. I tend to believe that my lack of musical schooling prevents me from appreciating the finer points of what I’m listening to. But then I remember this: A friend, who is an accomplished pianist, complains that people get unnecessarily defensive when he asks if they play music. Those who admit that they do rarely fail to add, apologetically, that they play very badly. He tells them that it doesn’t matter.

I see jazz. I don’t have the technical vocabulary to navigate its contours, so I think about jazz as impressionism. Shadows have color, and light shifts constantly. Everything happens imperfectly, but vividly. The trite becomes all-important. “The way you wear your hat / the way you sip your tea / the memory of all that / no they can’t take that away from me” — mid-century jazz standards like this one, famously covered by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, show that jazz is in the details. Jazz is hunger and sensitivity. It acknowledges that things happen, but demands a future anyway. The protagonist of Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz, though haunted by the past, refuses to see it as “an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack and no power on earth could lift the arm that held the needle.” (Morrison also demonstrates that syncopated syncopation is possible with words.)

To drummer Chick Webb, jazz is like falling in love with a girl, falling out with her and then seeing her again. I’m still not sure why I feel such a strong sense of homecoming when I hear jazz.  Maybe it’s because many songs have become biographical, inseparable from things that have changed me. But, like much of life, the laws of attraction work in mysterious ways. Let’s not pretend that we get any of it.

Original Author: Daveen Koh