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.
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.