[N0te: This piece first appeared in an earlier instance of my blog (troubledsoulsunite.blogspot.com) which has since been shut down. It’s being reposted here under the “My Favorite Posts” section of the blog.]
If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.
This famous quotation, attributed to Louis Armstrong, kind of sums up everything jazz is about, and why it makes so many people pissed off- while they claim it’s just a bunch of pretentious dribble. See, in the eyes of an academic, anything (and everything) can be quantified, analyzed, and understood. Someone with a PhD in Astrophysics can appreciate the musical genius of Beethoven, as they understand that there is something mathematical and calculated behind his music; structure, a theme. In short, the music is scientific, and thus logical.
But then there’s jazz- the musical style that is anything but scientific, anything but calculated, anything but understandable. And sure, all academics will claim they love jazz, and love listening to Miles, Charlie, and Louis- but much of this has to do with their own pretension, and their desire to see themselves as cultured and high class. Secretly, they disdain the music, and more importantly, themselves, for not understanding it, and for not being able to properly appreciate it. They’ll brag to their friends that they own a copy of Kind of Blueon vinyl, while all the while they’ll hate playing it- just in case their 10 year old son creeps into the room while it’s on and cries out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, in the form of a “this music sucks,” leaving them without any coherent or proper response to their kid. They live in fear of the unexplained, and their own inability to explain, and thus jazz music is the manifestation of their greatest and deepest fears.
And this is exactly why they’ll never get it. Because jazz isn’t about understanding; it’s not about a specific song structure, or a specific meaning. Jazz is a free form art, which is about pushing the boundaries. Not like other genres, where the development of music occurs when an artist decides to take the style to the next level; nay- jazz itself is always being pushed; during the song, throughout the jam- the entire genre is based on the lack of structure, and the idea that a song is never truly finished. And this is why people have such a problem understanding jazz; because it’s like life. If a kid came up to you and said “Can you explain what life is about to me?” you would be dumbfounded. “Life…” you would stammer, “is about…” And you wouldn’t really have an answer- because there is no one answer. It’s about living, it’s about experiencing; it’s about emotions and feelings and everything else that happens. So, to define jazz as a combination of notes with a given time, would be horribly underselling the product. Because it’s so much more than that.
Miles Davis, in particular, wrote some of the saddest music known to man. There’s just something about his horn that speaks, nay yearns, from the deepest part of his soul. Without being able to properly explain it (and thus I won’t even try) I’ll just quote my favorite music critic, Lester Bangs:
Make no mistake, Miles understands pain- and he will pry it out of your soul’s very core when he hits his supreme note and you happen, coincidentally, to be a bit of an open emotional wound at that moment yourself. It is this gift for open heart surgery that makes him the supreme artist that he is.
I myself cannot, in any way, shape, or form, give a better explanation of why Miles Davis sounds so amazingly good. And this is why I love to write about music, because it forces me to listen more intensely, and to try to understand what I truly love about it.
So, on this one year anniversary of this blog, I present to you this Miles Davis bootleg; because this stuff, more than anything else, is why I love music- the combination of virtuosity, talent, beautiful sounds, and emotional instability. This is music, and this is life.