Music is so pervasive that I wonder that we ever hear any of it.  For this post, I am even ignoring the phenomenon of everyone-wearing-earbuds-all-the-time.

But when we tell ourselves we are listening to music, what are we really doing?

The act of listening — immersing myself in — a particular recording has been a salvation for me for the past five decades.  And people who were dead years before I was born, people whom I never got to encounter, have become familiar friends.  Sitting down and doing nothing else but hearing what’s there is a deep pleasure.

But even I have to remind myself to slow down and focus on the sound, rather than playing the CD while driving, while writing emails, while cooking.

Even when we get rid of the pretense of multi-tasking (for the neurologists tell it is nothing but pretense) listening is not something we are accustomed to.

When I sit down to listen to a cherished recording — say, the 1940 Benny Goodman – Charlie Christian – Cootie Williams – Count Basie – George Auld – Artie Bernstein – Harry Jaeger ROYAL GARDEN BLUES — all sorts of unrequested associations come into my mind.

Personal: recalling the feel and heft of the original recording; what it was like to be in my upstairs bedroom listening to this; memories of discovering Charlie Christian’s music.

At the same time, there is a clamor of anecdotes and personalities: Goodman, scrambled eggs and catsup; Christian, tuberculosis, the rumor of odd clothing, eyeglasses; John Hammond, and so on.

Then there is the mind classifying and “analyziing”: how this ROYAL GARDEN sits in the long history of performances of this blues; its tempo; how Basie shapes it into one of “his” performances; Auld’s absorption of Ben Webster, and more.

It’s remarkable that the music — remember the music? — has a chance of getting through this amiable mental clamor, the “thought” equivalent of the puppy room at the animal shelter.  Can we actually hear what Charlie Christian is playing, given the amount of yapping and frisking around that the mind is doing at the same time?

So I would propose an experiment.  It isn’t a Down Beat Blindfold Test, because so much of that “test” was based on Being Right, as if listening was a quiz show.

I would ask JAZZ LIVES readers, whenever they can, to actually do the unfamiliar: to take a recording that they believe they know well and sit down and listen intently to it as if they had never heard it before.  If what we call “thoughts” come in, push them away and start the recording over.  I think I can guarantee that the experience will not simply be familiar, but deep and in some ways new, that layers and aspects of that recording, subliminally taken in but never really heard before, will spring to life.

Here’s ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, if you’d like to try it out:

(I purposely picked the video of the spinning red-label Columbia 78 for sentimental reasons.  Of course you can listen to it in the highest fidelity possible . . . )

If we could actually listen to the music we so love, as opposed to trotting out our familiar associations, what wonders might we hear?

May your happiness increase!

11 responses to “LISTENING, ACTUALLY

  1. Andrew J. Sammut


  2. Hallelujah, brother!

  3. One of my earlier (long departed) jazz friends was Bill Coverdale. Bill was a classmate of John Hammond at Yale. For background, John invited Bill to a bar where the musicians gathered after accompanying Bessie Smith at her final recording session. There, Frankie Newton told Bill he was disappointed he had not played better at that session. Anyhow, I soon became aware that Bill approached music from the vantage point of a 78 collector. He focused on one song at a time, whereas I approached collecting as an LP collector, focusing on one LP album at a time. Bill purchased two copies of each 78, one for repeated play and one for archiving. My listening was broader than Bill’s, since an LP presented uninterrupted listening for 15-20 minutes per side, although we both enjoyed many of the same recordings. He simply noticed some details that I missed, whereas I may have observed some patterns that he did not. Michael’s wise point reminds us not to become lost in the “program and surroundings” but focus on the creative interplay and details. That is fine advice in an era of playlists and CD changer/jukeboxes. In the 78 era, one needed to change the record every 2 1/2 minutes and needed to stay close to the player. (Veteran LP collectors may have noted that William Coverdale was credited in album notes for providing several of the 78s remastered for Columbia’s first 4-LP reissue set of Bessie Smith’s recordings. Joe Thomas (trumpet) was one of his favorites.)

  4. I miss Bill. He was a kind, generous, witty fellow — someone who knew how to share! But he has company in this century, thankfully.

  5. You’ve identified one of the two primary reasons that I collect 78rpm records: the medium demands attention. In order to be played, a piece of music on a shellac record has to be found on the shelf, removed from the sleeve and put on the turntable. The stylus is placed on the record, the record is spun, and for three minutes it plays…and then the process is repeated. The music never becomes aural wallpaper because therere’s no opportunity for laziness to take over, not enough time for attention to waver…and likely as not, if the music strikes a chord, it gets played again, immediately. And listening to a song twice in a row is not just listening to the same song twice in a row, no more than two points of light in a dark field are identical to one another: two plays of the same record give two different experiences, through context, comparison and contrast.

    And then, of course, there’s also the enjoyment that’s to be had in interacting with friends who also like the old music.

    Some collectors froth at the mouth over ownership of the objects. I’ll admit that I like finding cool old things, but really, when it comes down to it, for me, it’s Just More Stuff…the best part about 78rpm records is that they have music on them that you can enjoy with your friends.

  6. An excellent post! With extra credit given for inclusion of one of my musical heroes, Charlie Christian. In recent years, I’ve found myself increasingly unable to just “put some music on” if I don’t have the time or am not willing to really listen. And yet society has reached this era where music is omniscient, part of the white noise of every day life – or worse, is simply used to combat that white noise.

  7. Pingback: LISTENING, ACTUALLY | Jazz from WNMC |

  8. Amen, Brother Steinman, indeed! This really hits home for me because though I listen to music almost constantly–at work, in the car, while on the computer, on the bus and subway–there are plenty of times where I’m not really listening, it’s just there. For me, starting the blog really woke me up to a new way of listening. There are times I’m writing about an Armstrong track I’ve heard a thousand times, but because I’m intensely focused on it and want to express what I’m hearing to my readers, I almost always notice something I hadn’t noticed before. I don’t recommend that everyone out there start a blog (though we haven’t done bad by ours!) but maybe keep a private listening journal, something I did at Rutgers. When you have to put what you’re listening to in words, it makes you listen better and pay more attention.

    Keep loosening….I mean, listening!


  9. Michael Burgevin

    “I hear you” — “I hear what you’re saying” — such a wonderful article MS and thoughtful commentators — What stopped me was the ear — I just kept staring at it marveling at its design — thinking more deeply at what I was looking at as seconds turned into minutes. It is such a beautiful “thing” (the ear) and i thought of it as a band shell in reverse carrying the sound INTO our heads/mind/brain. While I thank Benny and boys for RGB (and Albert Ammons (with Lips,Vic and Big Sid in there) – perhaps we could applaud the designer (dare I say God) of our 2 ears, who put one on each side of our heads — Can we have an “amen” to that. I hope so…

  10. what’d’you say?


  11. I am afflicted with the opposite problem.

    I can’t NOT listen to music when it’s a part of an ambiance. So I hate “background music” since it either draws my attention to itself above anything else which might require more immediate attention or it is just an infuriating distraction in its triviality.

    Paradoxically there is also a great compelling presence in true silence. Try walking deep in a redwood forest sometime or in a remote desert. A raven once told me not to be so conceited since THEY invented music and taught humans song. I have no reason to doubt her.

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