If we would generally agree that jazz is an art form where individuality is prized, why is so much praise expressed in terms of one musician’s likeness to a more famous one? Or, a living musician to a dead one?
When one is new to a certain art, like jazz, one instinctively gravitates to certain sounds, certain personalities, as those sensations offer great pleasure. Early in one’s aesthetic / critical development, one might assess each new experience by how closely it comes to the great ideal, the source of pleasure. Years ago, deeply in thrall to Louis (this hasn’t stopped) I remember listening to a particular Buck Clayton or Joe Thomas solo among other enthusiasts, and we would shout or cheer when Buck or Joe was most Louis-like. As a youthful pastime in private, it harmed no one. But as a formalized kind of appreciation and analysis, it would have serious, even damaging limitations.
When this impulse emerges into public speech or prose, it’s most often attached to the phrase “sound[ing] like.” Not long ago, I posted a video featuring a young brass player, not well known but superb. And the response to her was strongly positive. But more than one jazz fan and musician wrote, “Wow! She sounds just like [insert Famous Name here]!”
I understand that unsophisticated but sincere reaction. Famous Name always made me happy; New Person makes me happy, too. But I wonder if the praisers are able to hear the New Person at all, or only the memory of the pleasure brought by Famous Name.
I can imagine the thoughts passing through the head of an artist who has been thus praised, “Gee, don’t you love ME at all?” — as if improvisers were impressionists who had spent decades perfecting their Jimmy Stewart.
Another anecdote: a friend of mine has made a deep study of certain New Orleans instrumental styles that not everyone is familiar with. She could explain chapter and verse the origins of her style, its antecedents, its heroic figures. But she’s been on gigs where other musicians, assuming that her style was a matter of ignorance, not choice, have asked her, “Excuse me, have you ever heard of [another Famous Name}? You really ought to listen to Famous Name?” That takes aesthetic oppression to new heights: “You play in a way I don’t quite like. If you knew better, you would play differently.”
Over such offenses we draw the veil.
When I was young and socially raw, I believed that the highest praise one could give a living musician was by comparing him to the dead. Yes, I know, phrased that way, it sounds deeply foolish, but how many liner notes and CD reviews and Facebook postings do just this? In my defense, I was sincere, assuming that everyone felt as I did. If I told a trumpeter, “You really sounded like Frank Newton on that blues,” it was the greatest compliment. [To jump ahead, I now say, “That blues was really moving,” and that’s it.]
I’ve even heard the wonderfully silly extension of that, “You must have been thinking about Mouse Randolph in that last chorus,” which, translated, says, “Your playing made me think of something I heard Mouse Randolph create on a record. You and I must have been thinking of the same thing.” Musicians have practiced their best vacant polite smiles in the face of such adoration.
Now, when I assess an artist’s work in print, I work to avoid the simple and ultimately demeaning equation: X’s ballad chorus on DANNY BOY sounds just like Ben Webster . . . because I really should be praising the individual for herself. If your stated goal is to sound exactly like Ben or Billie, then the rules change. But how many artists strive to be exact copies?
We have no problem going to a new restaurant, ordering, and sinking into a happy swoon, mumbling through food, “My goodness. Doesn’t this fennel salad remind you of the wonderful one we had at that little taverna years ago?” and we know we are not only eating today’s fennel but the emotional memory of an experience. But the fennel salad, as far as I can tell, is long past finding such comparisons demeaning.
Imagine, though, that one meets a new Love and falls into a first entrancing embrace. Consider the effect of saying, “Oh, my God — you kiss just like the _____ I was in love with in eleventh grade!” Such an utterance would seriously impede the flow of future kisses.
I think of Barbara Lea’s wry salty wise comment in the liner notes for the Dick Sudhalter / Connie Jones recordings, “If you want to talk about Sounding Like, you’re on your own.” And I take that second clause as a polite way of stating, “Don’t do it here, please.”
Jazz cherishes and celebrates the individual. Let us not lose the individual in our eagerness to place wreaths on the statues of the Great Ones.
May your happiness increase!