I had an email conversation a day ago with a musician — expert on his instrument and with a deep immersion in a wide range of music — about a performance I had recorded of his . . . a powerful exposition of a piece of late Sixties “popular music,” which he played splendidly.  He wrote me with some concern, wondering if his performance was, in fact “jazz.”

I wrote back to assure him that it was both beautiful and memorable, and that was what mattered.

Definitions and categories can be useful: if you have a celiac disorder, it is necessary to learn the ingredients on the package so you know no wheat is hiding to attack your body . . . but in art?

I know many listeners who set up boundaries.  This “style” is “too modern,” so they avoid it; this is “old-fashioned,” so others close a door on it.  Others see the racial profile of the musicians or the audience and make up their minds that way.  Too many old folks in the crowd?  Can’t do that.  And so on.  Not enough players of the approved color?  Oh, no.

Perhaps the questions should be, “Does this musical performance make me feel glad to be alive?  Does it stir something in me?  Does it have its own logic and beauty?  Am I happier as a result of it?”  “Will I remember it in ten minutes?”

Here are two examples of beautiful music.  According to some classifiers and dividers, one is jazz, the other isn’t.  Do such rules really matter?


Now, this comparison isn’t to say one musician is “as good as” the other; it isn’t to exalt Bing at the expense of Hawkins.  It is simply to say that there are a million varieties of beauty in the world . . . too bad for people who deprive themselves of any of them.

And the Judge.  He was born Milton John Hinton, and later in his life he acquired the nickname of “The Judge,” part a comic homage to Pigmeat Markham’s routine, part a tribute to his being there early at record dates and gigs . . . but he had note paper that I saw for myself, with the heading . . .

THE JUDGE (and a a drawing of a string bass)

You are hereby sentenced to thirty days of listening to good music!

I’m prepared to serve my sentence, Your Honor.  And thank you for the reminder!

May your happiness increase!


  1. Andrew J. Sammut

    I’m not eager to jettison the word in the way that seems to be grabbing headlines in the jazz community these days, but I have always thought that taking it a little less seriously would introduce people to a lot of great music. Listening with open ears and without presuppositions can be tough though.

    “It Cant, Have A Swing, If, It, Has, A Section Playing Strings…doo-wah, doo-wah, doo-wah, doo-wah…”

  2. Tom Harrell said he was attracted to jazz because “there were no rules.” We should all sound so lousy.

  3. If it were on YouTube, I’d throw a friendly monkey wrench into your comparison with Meyer Davis’ record of “The Day You Came Along.” No immortals, nothing undying, just a great beat and plenty of big band verve.

  4. To say Bing’s singing is not jazz is to open up a huge debate! If his singing is not jazz, is Billie Holiday’s, or Jimmie Rushing’s, or Louis’? I think Gunther Schuller summed it up nicely in “The Swing Era.”

  5. Following up on Andrew’s always cogent thought, it strikes me that for many of us nice educated middle-class folks, categorization precedes taste. You know what kind of taste – and implicity, what level of taste – someone has if it can be categorized. Eclecticism, past a certain indefinite point anyway, just means their taste is undeveloped, undisciplined, uneducated. ?????

  6. We are all aware that both Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong spoke of only two kinds of music, good and bad, in using slightly different words. To me, Mr. Ellington created the wonderful descriptor, “Beyond Category.” If we enjoy a performance that we feel is beyond category, we should try to share it with others, but not necessarily expect them to agree with our own judgment. They may have their own suggestions, and we will usually gain from listening to them in return.

  7. I must dissent from this in part.

    The musical architecture and sheer intellectual musical rigor and rhythmic propulsion which constitute the Hawkins improvisation stands apart from the Bing performance in many ways.

    I would dare say that Hawkins conceived of his approach in ways Crosby never inclined towards nor was capable of.

    Are they both “enjoyable”? Sure, depends on the “enjoying parties” involved and their expectations.

    But the differences and levels of accomplishment are, in my opinion, equally profound and worthy of note.

  8. The feeling nowadays is that being “beyond category” is all right for geniuses, but everybody else better prove themselves in a pigeonhole – including us listeners.

    We’re always on guard for dilettantes – we have even less use for them than for the rank untalented, because they make us deeply uneasy.

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