You’re sitting at the bar in a smallish, dark, smoky room, entranced by the silky sounds of a tenor saxophone. Ice cubes rattle against an old fashioned glass as the bartender pours your favorite single malt scotch. But suddenly you are yanked out of your euphoric state of mind.
What’s the offending party? Why, none other than a melodic line that suddenly doesn’t fit properly inside the key of the harmony.
Okay, I know. Smoking in jazz rooms isn’t exactly legal these days, and you might like your single malt neat. Also, since when is the tenor sax silky? Stop sharpening your reeds, saxophonist friends. I’m only kidding.
If you happen to be a jazz musician, you probably understand the phenomenon of superimposed melodic lines that don’t fit inside the harmony of the moment. If you’re not a jazz musician, you may or may not know what I’m talking about. But chances are, if you listen to enough jazz, you are going to hear this occur. Hey, I like it. I actually love it when it’s done well and it’s honest. By honest I mean that it’s in the moment and it just fits. But it doesn’t fit. Or does it?
My question is this: For the jazz-appreciating audience member, or even the less frequent jazz listener, are you put off when things happen in the music that you might not understand, or that create discomfort, for lack of a better term? Or do you appreciate the artistry of a moment in time that feels unsettling, but you don’t know why exactly?
I think most audience members can tell the difference between a musician making an informed, in-the-moment musical choice, and a (slightly-less-talented) musician playing wrong notes by accident or, even worse, trying to force them in. I respect my audience, or at least I try to. I don’t dumb down my music because, well, “They might not get it.”
I don’t fancy myself a free jazz player (although I do enjoy listening and playing that way from time to time), but I do like to stretch my melodic lines sometimes. I’ve reached a point in my playing where I’m pretty honest with myself. I don’t force melodies just for the sake of trying to play something “cool” or “hip”. Rather, I strive to play in the moment and listen to the other players around me. If that means we’re taking a left turn from time to time, then so be it. It’s a choice that’s as much informed by the great lineage of jazz musicians as it is by the larger tradition of music in general. How about Debussy, Chopin, Mahler, Beethoven, or Bach, not to mention countless other composers and musical traditions from around the world? All great music uses tension and release, and has stuff that just doesn’t fit.
Where’s the line? I certainly don’t know, but it’s different for all of us. That’s the beauty of music and art in general. Some people like Picasso. Others like their artistically-rendered faces neatly intact.
So as far as I am concerned, if you’re a musician, quit worrying about what your audience might enjoy. They’re not dumb. People enjoy great artistry, they crave feeling and emotion, they appreciate a moment. I’m not saying everyone is going to like my style, just like not everyone is into late Coltrane, or Frank Sinatra, or heck, outlaw country music. But that doesn’t mean musicians need to go around trying to please everyone out there. Do your thing. Do it well and you will have an audience.
To put it another way, there are a hundred little sub-genres of jazz, just like there are hundreds and thousands of sub-genres of other types of music. Should I try to play in the style of Harry James to please the swing era fans in my audience? If I do that, maybe I risk losing the audience members who don’t like swing, and rather prefer Miles Davis’ second quintet. Ok, so should I play like Miles did with his second quintet in the early to mid 60s? Crap, now I lost the Harry James fans in the audience. (It’s impossible to like both Harry James and Miles Davis. Kidding. Again. I like both, really.)
Be honest, be yourself, and do it really well.
I want to hear the thoughts of the music lovers out there, especially the ones who aren’t necessarily musicians themselves. What do you think? Do you want your musicians to cater to what they think might be your taste? And if so, how far should they go in doing so?
In the opening scenario, would you be put off by “wrong” notes? Would you even care? Or would you appreciate the synergy and emotion of the musical moment? Personally, I probably wouldn’t have even looked up from my scotch. I’d probably smile a little and enjoy the moment. But then again I’ve been listening to music with jazz musician ears for close to fifteen years now. I’m sure it’s a different experience for someone with a different background, but how so?
I want to know. Let me hear it in the comments below.
Let it be known that the author of this article has nothing against Harry James or playing in the style of Harry James where appropriate.