QUESTIONS OF “TASTE”

Once upon a time, I was a very eager student in Miss Golab’s middle-school music-appreciation class.  She knew I liked jazz and introduced me to another student who was similarly obsessed.  He was much hipper.  He had a chin tuft.  He asked me, “Well, who do you listen to?” and I said “Louis Armstrong!” (my unspoken “of course” hung in the air).  Quizzically, he replied, “What about Archie Shepp?”  I said, “That stinks.  I say to hell with it,” and he, indignantly, said, “And I say to hell with you!” and stalked away.

Two jazz critics in the making, I point out.

A few years later, I still couldn’t hear Archie Shepp . . . but I also had little patience for Charlie Parker, late Lester Young, and a thousand others.  If it didn’t sound like the 1937 Basie band, Louis, or the Blue Note Jazzmen and their modern heirs, my ears were closed.

It has taken me forty years to be able to listen to a much wider variety of musics, and I am happy that my horizons have widened: if you can find beauty in Ran Blake as well as in James P. Johnson, aren’t your delights multiplied?

But not everyone feels that way.  One JAZZ LIVES reader told me that I was a traitor to the real jazz, which he defines as happy music played by “Negroes” in New Orleans.  All I can say (having calmed down) is that I hope he gets much pleasure out of the music he loves — as much as I do in listening to what I love.

This brings me to the question of what we call taste.

“I have good taste,” we say to ourselves.  “I know what I like.  What I like is really good.”

Others, we think, have slightly less reliable taste.  And we gossip about them in jazz terms.  “I can’t hang with him at the festival.  All he wants to do is go hear the Roly-Poly Piranhas play AT THE CODFISH BALL.”  Or, in more intimate terms, “I could never sleep with a (wo)man who digs the Roly-Poly Piranhas.”  I understand this sharp-edged perspective, but I am working hard to tame the snobbish divisiveness in my personality.

For whatever reasons, we grow attached to certain artistic expressions early in our lives.  Dr. John Money, an eminent medical researcher on the subject of sex (based at Johns Hopkins) said that our erotic attraction was based on childhood experiences we might not have been conscious of — not Freudian so much as experiential and genetic.  He called it a person’s “lovemap.”

Before I was able to vote, I heard records by Louis Armstrong (with Gordon Jenkins and the 1947 All-Stars), Vic Dickenson, Jack Teagarden, Eddie Condon, Sidney Catlett, Pee Wee Russell, James P. Johnson, Jimmy Rushing, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, Jo Jones, the Boswell Sisters . . . so they are part of my musical “lovemap.”

And still — for all the ecumenicalism I am encouraging about “taste,” which, after all, is just something we make up to make ourselves feel better about our visceral reactions — if you tell me that you find Louis Armstrong boring, if the Basie rhythm section irritates you, I will feel pity . . . and think, “Wow!  That is WRONG!”

If you say “I do not like the way Hot Lips Page plays the blues,” I will try not to look at you as if you had just said, “I dislike breathing.  Breathing bores me.”  I might ask you, “What don’t you like about his playing?” and then we could get into a discussion.

But the word “like” is important here, because it shows that Hot Lips Page’s essence is not really in question; what is up for discussion is your subjective visceral reaction to it.

If you say to me, “I prefer the way Tony Fruscella plays the blues to the way Hot Lips does,” at least I can understand this, although I may still be surprised.  However, if you say, “Hot Lips Page is a bad trumpet player.  He can’t play,” then I must take my leave, because you have raised your subjective assessment into a statement of what you consider to be factual evidence.  I would say, as I go away, “You might want to ask a professional trumpet player if your assertion is correct.”

Ultimately I think that such “expressions of taste” are about what moves us deeply.  Does Connee Boswell’s singing of IN A LITTLE SECOND-HAND store make you want to weep?  Does Sidney Catlett’s STEAK FACE solo make you want to get up and dance around the room?  (Please insert your own examples here.)  Are they the only musical expressions that move people to tears or joy?  I think not.

But maybe we could back off a little.

mushrooms

I don’t like the flavor of cooked mushrooms.  Too dark, too earthy.  I will eat them to be polite, and I don’t wrinkle my nose, gag, or toss my plate on the floor.  But if you think mushrooms are the most delicious thing in the world, and you pity me my culinary myopia, we could still go out to dinner.  And while you are thinking, “Michael doesn’t like mushrooms?  What is WRONG with him?” I would give you all the mushrooms on my plate so that you could enjoy them.

It holds true for music.  To my ears, there is little better than art of the musicians I hold dear.  But if you really want to go off and hear a band I don’t like, perhaps you hear something in them I do not.

Back to food.  If we are going to go out to lunch and you want me to join you for a paper sack full of McDonalds’ chicken nuggets, I will not only say NO but I will tell you what I know about processed genetically modified food from animals that have never been allowed to live.  I might even say, “Hey, do you want to die?  Have you ever had real roast chicken?”  And we could not dine together, at least not at the Golden Arches.

However, should I think you are evil or stupid?  I think the most rancorous I should allow myself — in an echo of CASABLANCA — is to say, “You were misinformed.”

But if you want to spend all your time at the festival listening to the RPP, I hope you get a chance to walk in and hear a lyrical cornetist take a beautiful solo on a ballad.  Only then can you say you want to be exclusive.  Telling me that the lyrical cornetist “would put you to sleep” is true for you, but it makes me sad.

The principles of criticism stand solidly here: what are the artists attempting to do, and how well do they accomplish those goals?  If a band proposes to swing in a certain manner, to improvise on themes in ways that are melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically varied and skillful . . . we should judge them on those criteria.

For me, if the tempo drags or races, if the band is not in tune, if they rely on crowd-pleasing volume rather than shadings of dynamics, then I feel sad for the people who are hollering joyously in that room.  And also I feel sad that such displays of enthusiasm often shape the decisions of festival promoters.  I once talked with someone who ran a New York City jazz club, who told me, “The only way I know if a band is good is if they fill the room.”  That was understandable in economic terms, but not always so artistically.

I will hold on to my set of experiences and loves and I hope you will allow me to.  And I will try to be gentle.  If you tell me that the RPP is THE BEST BAND YOU HAVE EVER HEARD.  I might say, “Gee, have you ever heard Louis and Lonnie Johnson on HOTTER THAN THAT?” but I will try to disperse my unspoken scorn.

Want some mushrooms?  (Could I have those olives you aren’t eating?)

May your happiness increase.

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20 responses to “QUESTIONS OF “TASTE”

  1. Excellent post, Michael.

    Over the years of conversing with musicians and fans, I’ve found the most dangerous and loaded question to answer truthfully is: “don’t you think (a name here) is great???!!!” I believe Pee-Wee Russell’s response is the best (and I paraphrase): “I think I’ll go set fire to this…” (his clarinet).

    Cheers,
    Chris

  2. And aren’t we lucky that Mister Russell’s threat was purely rhetorical?

  3. The French got it right: «Des goûts et des couleurs, on ne discute pas.» Google translation: “Tastes and colors, we do not discuss.” Indeed, taste is terribly personal and individual. What is music heaven to one is music hell to another. My vision of hell: to be confined for eternity to a hermetically sealed room where “modern jazz” is played 24-7-365.

  4. I guess the only thing a good critic can do is try to provide enough material to whet someone’s palate.

    If only there were some type of free resource where people could share their own tastes with others, using the best examples of the art form captured live and with insightful yet welcoming commentary framing the material, as though they were writing a journal, or a log, on the web, a “web log” if you will…

  5. …in the context of jazz, a place where “jazz lives,” or conversely where the “lives of jazz” can be explored…

  6. I don’t know. That would take too much time, and after all, who would look at it? And everyone knows that “jazz is dead.” “Again?” “Yes, again.”

  7. Thomas P. Hustad

    Enjoying music is one of the things that makes us human. To me, the only tragedy is that some people decide too quickly what they like without first listening to a variety of musicians and styles. I am glad when someone enjoys music, even if I don’t agree with their selections; however, I am saddened if they claim to reject jazz without even a quick listen. Ruby Braff spoke at length about how he developed his liking for music by listening to the radio. He bemoaned the lack of variety in much of the radio programming during his later years, saying something like, “How can people like jazz when they have never even been exposed to it.” That is a challenge for all of us who love this music.

  8. Brilliant essay Michael. I happen to be a died in the wool classic Jazz (always with a capital J) fan and only in my dotage am I getting to understand and enjoy the style of music played by the likes of Napoleon, Crow & Mosca – your most recent offering. Way out modern, as far as I am concerned, is there for them wot likes it. I also happen to be a big classical music fan but have given up going to concerts. It irritates the heck out of me to pay for and waste time at a full concert and be subjected to half of it being “music” by some tone deaf Russian or other modern composer. So I don’t go. Similarly, wild horses would not drag me to listen to Wynton Marsalis, Dizzie, Charlie Parker and their ilk. So I don’t go. Easy!
    Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year Michael and keep this great stuff coming – I love it !

  9. “What, the Roly-Poly Piranhas aren’t to your taste?!”

    “No way man, I’m allergic to seafood…”

  10. “Something is fishy here.”

  11. It’s actually OK to like ALL music. Every kind of music is a true telling from someone’s soul. It took me a while to learn this, but I’m very glad I did. It’s helped me learn to like many more kinds of art.

  12. Amen, Brother Fryer!

  13. Live and let live. Enjoy the music you love and don’t criticize what others like or dislike.

  14. Very provocative Michael. Bravo!

    Taste, I would say, is derived from cultivation. One cultivates his or her “taste” in music by listening, carefully and at length. One listening experience necessarily will lead to another, IF the listener is open to it, that is he/she is curious. I find that many people are simply not curious about music in general, and jazz in particular. Many people simply listen to what they like, and have no desire to explore, consequently their “taste” in music has been limited by their self-imposed limitations. The vast majority of people have developed their musical taste to perhaps a first-grade level, and they choose to stay on that level forever. That is OK, but when I’m looking for critical comment about music, I certainly don’t expect anything very profound from these people. There is a difference between one’s subjective likes and dislikes, and the opinions of people who have taken a lot of time to listen carefully and thoughtfully to a lot of music, read critical comment about music, and talk with musicians about music.The latter group has cultivated some “taste.” They deserve to be heard when they express critical opinions.

    Of course, even the cognoscenti (including most musicians) have their subjective likes and dislikes. But that is quite a different thing from being able to discern what is and is not good music and good jazz.

    Michael P. Zirpolo
    Author,
    “Mr. Trumpet…the Trials, Tribulations
    and Triumph of Bunny Berigan”

    P.S.

    I often create great confusion when I ask people: “what is music”? Maybe it’s like pornography–people know it when they encounter it. Or do they?

  15. I have to say that in my case, appreciating jazz took some effort. I enjoyed hot dance music since a teen but some music, like Jelly Roll Morton playing piano, literally just sounded like a bunch of unrelated notes. I kept listening anyway when eventually something snapped. I heard what he was playing! That opened the floodgates and soon I enjoyed Eric Dolphy every bit as much. Strange but true!

  16. An answer created with the help of Google translator:

    As a practicing musician (guitar) I like to play music that I like to hear myself. When I started teaching, I thought so too. Give the students the music that you liked. But the students wanted to learn the music that THEY like. This way I learned so MUCH about music, which I did not before. I can say now after almost 20 years as a music teacher that almost any kind of music will provide valuable content. I think today, personal taste is a bad basis for a discussion about music. Of course, everyone can say: “I do not like that, so I do not hear it.” But if the mood is right, music that you dislike most probably can enhance your mood or quit a bad mood. Who can know it before? In the years I have realized that I want to hear music of Eric Dolphy or Metallica when necessary.

    Many listeners have different experiences. We are ALL connoisseurs. I love Louis Armstrong. He is my LIGHT. Other listeners like Archie Shepp. He is their light. If it HELPS you, it’s okay. Indeed, I believe that music connects people. You just have to listen …

    Regards
    Uwe

  17. You are one of my lights, Uwe. And that is definitely not a stage joke. Love, Michael

  18. Michael,

    Your column really struck a chord with me. As a kid, my hero was Gene Autry, so this cat from Ozone Park listened to “cowboy” music. When I went to see “The Glenn Miller Story,” I flipped for that music, and ended up buying the gold LP set of Miller radio recordings. Next I took the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert out of the library. Eventually, I found the “Ambassador Satch” album at the library, took it home, listened to about three notes of Satchmo’s trumpet, and was hooked. I decided that this was what I wanted to hear for the rest of my life. Well my horizons eventually expanded. The next big moment for me was hearing a live broadcast of the Maynard Ferguson Big Band from the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Hearing that band was an ear opener for me, especially Maynard’s trumpet playing. Over the next few years I explored many different jazz sounds, but eventually found that my favorite sounds were Louis, big bands from Miller to Maynard, small group swing and West Coast jazz. When pushed to name my favorite musicians, I always seem to come back to three names, Louis, Zoot and Monk. Of those alive today, the player who moves me the most is Warren Vache, with Harry Allen a close second.

    They say that the music of your youth never leaves your affections, and I find that to be true. I still dig some classic country sounds; ’50s vocalists like Johnnie Ray, Frankie Laine, Jo Stafford and Kay Starr; and the rock’n rollers of my high school years like Elvis, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly and the Doo-Wop groups, but the jazz styles that I mentioned above still occupy much of my listening time.

    In the late 1960s, my wife and I discovered Hugh Shannon, and for the first time I started to really listen to the lyrics of the Great American Songbook. Suddenly vocalists meant a lot to me, and I finally understood the magic of Frank Sinatra. I became almost fanatical about this area of popular music, always discovering new singers like Beverly Kenney, Jackie Paris, Blossom Dearie, and on and on. There are many vocalists today, Becky Kilgore, Nicki Parrott, Catherine Russell, Hanna Richardson, Petra Van Nuis, Maud Hixon, Tony DeSare, and Eric Comstock being prime examples, whom I really dig. Of course some veterans like Marlene VerPlanck, Pinky Winters, Sue Raney Audrey Morris and Marilyn Maye are still high on my list of favorites.

    This fascination with GAS material led me to paying a lot of attention to Musical Theater, and the wonderful creators of this music. I’ll leave that topic for another day.

    Then there are Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. I had a friend who about 15 years ago started me developing an interest in the dance bands of the 1920s and 1930s, especially many of the British bands. Vince feeds that part of my musical appetite.

    I must admit that I am not as open to new sounds as I should be, but I never enjoyed much pop music from the Beatles on, except for Van Morrison.

    I had not intended to go on like this, but those who know me also know that I can go on about this for hours.

    Joe

  19. Bill Gallagher

    I get it, Michael. So did my dad when he said, “If everyone liked chocolate, there’d be no vanilla.”

  20. And where does that leave blood orange sorbet and hazelnut gelato, I ask you?

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