Le Jazz

John Coltrane

Jazz is something to which I had to make an extra effort to listen, at first anyway. Like most people who don't listen to it, jazz, on the surface, sounds like a bunch of relatively random notes going by and seems to have no real structure or recognizable melody. Of course, this is not true at all, but it's just much more complex than your typical pop style (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, etc. set to the exact same music), so most people don't have the patience to try and understand it.

The secret to jazz, of course, is improvisation. Against most non-jazz listeners conception, improvising doesn't mean playing whatever you want. To improvise is to take the melody and changes (harmony) and stretch and embellish them so you still have the same piece, but you're not just playing the same damn thing over and over and over, like in most pop songs. Of course, some jazz musicians aren't always so great at improvising, and therefore, the most famous jazz musicians whose names we've all heard (like John Coltrane and Miles Davis) are so great because they could do just that: stretch the "idea" of the piece without going into another world (although sometimes, the latter is the intention, and it can be cool too). Good improvisers can express themselves as creatively as possible, while simultaneously displaying their understanding of the piece by not losing touch with the melody, rhythm, and changes.

I also like jazz because its harmonic structure is so much more complex (and therefore allows for more possibilities) than almost all other forms of music. Whether you are playing it or composing it, you have such a wide variety of chords to use. Only in jazz can you use some crazy chord that, without any accompaniment, sounds really dissonant and awful. But put in the right place of a piece, it can be so perfect.

Like almost any form of music, jazz is best when listened to live. However, I think it is even more so for jazz. I can't really explain why, but I know that there is some stuff that when I listen to it at home, it's pretty good, but when I hear it live, it's just absolutely incredible. The down side of this is, since there are relatively few jazz musicians around, you have to pretty much be in a big city to find good jazz.

Thelonious Monk - his middle name
 was Sphere ... that says enough

There are, however, a few things I don't like about jazz. First, and I recognize I am not the first to say this, but there seems to be a lot of musicians who think expressing themselves through improvisation means playing as many notes as possible during their solo. Don't get me wrong, these guys know what they are doing, but I think they have this preconceived notion that to be a truly good improviser, you must play these crazy fast notes. That's so lame. Sometimes that's great, but to do it routinely is way too much. The cliche has it right: sometimes less is more. Piano players can be the worst. Usually, such a piano player will have his right hand flying all over playing tons of notes, while the left hand just does nothing but play the same changes with almost no variation. There is almost no conscious effort to think about the harmony. I think it's lame that some people think improvising is only melodic. That's what makes Thelonius Monk so great, because even though he could play as fast as the next guy, he knew that you don't have to play fast and only melodically when you play jazz. And Monk also plays the coolest chords.

Another thing that has really started annoying me is a general lack of creativity in terms of the overall format of jazz. In general, here's how jazz works. The piece begins with everyone playing the melody of the song. Then, throughout the piece, everyone takes turns soloing while the rhythm section continues in the background. Then, at the end of the piece, maybe after exchanging fours a few times (and it always has to be exchanged with the drummer - never anybody else), the musicians play the melody again. You know exactly how and when it's going to end (usually with everyone dragging out the last chord until everyone's played every note over that last chord). It's the same almost every damn time. Why can't these guys get together and actually improvise with another, ie, bring harmony out of the background and actually plan ahead to do something together? Why can't the sax solo, for example, and then the sax and the piano "solo" together? Sure, sometimes jazz musicians do this, but very rarely. And those that can, in my opinion, are superior players. Why can't the drummer, piano player, or bassist just shut the hell up for once? Sure they're the rhythm section, but they don't always have to play. The piano player just always seems to feel that he has to be tinkling away when somebody else is soloing; either do it in conjunction with the soloist, ie, play off each other, or else give it a rest sometimes. Come on guys, for claiming to be so creative, you seem to fit right into the same mold every time you pick up your instruments. That's the current state of a lot of jazz.

Further, I think this is just a symptom of the continual yuppification of jazz. You can see it right away: almost everyone is dressed up in formal clothes. It feels so stiff and stuffy, almost like classical music. Jazz isn't meant to be played in that kind of environment; it's stifling and inhibiting. And then, what's the deal with everyone feeling the need to clap after every solo?! If you like the solo and you're into it and you just can't help yourself and you clap or cheer, cool. But if you're just doing it because you feel you have to, then stick those hands in your pockets. Most of the time, there is this awkward delay between when the solo ends and when everyone claps. This means that you aren't into it and you are just clapping because you feel obliged to. If you were into it, you would just be right there and nail the end of the solo without thinking. I think this little clapping-after-every-solo thing has got to go. Jazz needs to be more spontaneous and less formulaic.

Lastly, it's pretty pathetic that jazz musicians think they are so creative but can't come up with a creative name for their band. 90% of jazz bands are just a guy's name with "quartet" or something similar slapped on, or else have the word "jazz" in it ("The Jazz Giants," "The Jazz Messengers," "Jazz Weather Report," etc). I've heard many say that one reason for these uninspired band names is that jazz bands tend to be constantly fluctuating, with members coming and going. Maybe so, but I can't imagine it's much worse than most bands in any other genre of music. Even if it is worse than in other genres, it's a perfect opportunity for these guys to exercise their creativity.

All that being said, I still really wish I could play some decent jazz ... but I just can't find the time to practice.

"Jazz is the only music in which the same note can be played night after night but differently each time."
Ornette Coleman

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