I was always suspicious of the DOWN BEAT Blindfold Tests — which now may be ancient history — where a famous musician was played records with no knowledge given about the performers or the circumstances, and their reactions were then printed, along with the star-ratings DOWN BEAT thrived on. Depending on their temperaments, some musicians were highly negative or consistently enthusiastic, severe or gracious. But often it became a test of memory and perception: could X recognize who was playing or not? And did they know a great variety of music deeply? So to me they were a quiz show operating in a minefield, sometimes revealing, sometimes disappointing.
But the premise is valid for those who proclaim their knowledge of and love of this music. Not all of us are close listeners, historians, collectors of sounds, connoisseurs. But I think many people have lost the ability to listen — by that, I mean to absorb a panoply of sounds and gestures, to understand them as manifestations of a particular time and place, and to weigh in on them with uncluttered objectivity. (I am not preening myself here because I would probably mis-identify many famous recordings on any Blindfold Test.) But I think many listeners come to music with judgments about it even before they have heard a note, and those judgments come out of perceptions entirely divorced from sound.
I’ve written in other contexts about listeners who listen with their eyes: admiring the attractive woman artist’s body, dress, and makeup as much as they hear her sounds. (These are the listeners who write on YouTube how they would like to take A away for an evening, or how cute B is when she sways while playing.) But there are other dances of perception: assessments based on the musician’s age, race, or ethnicity. Preconceptions and expectations, which we don’t verbalize to ourselves or aloud. And to be fair, some of the visual information offered us has everything to do with marketing, nothing to do with merit. For better or worse, performers are viewed as product to be sold to an audience — the audience who will go to the club, concert, or will buy the music. And I don’t yet know the artist who wants their cover picture on the CD to be a candid shot of them painting the bathroom ceiling.
But the interferences to objectivity are wider and deeper than getting an endorphin kick from the artist’s portrait. For instance, some listeners will turn away from a musical offering if the names are unfamiliar, foreign, thus unknown. “I don’t know that band, and I am a jazz expert for decades, so how good could they be?” And many of us are suspicious of the unknown — the child who won’t eat something because it looks funny — and thus we don’t want to take a chance on sullying our ears.
By the way, I am assuming that all my readers know the Ellington quotation about good and bad music, and the Condon one about how it enters our ears . . . so we can take them as a foundation.
I am most intrigued by the listeners who guide their listening experience by what I am calling Names. Many say, “I’m going to hear BingBong play — I always love them, and I have all their CDs as well as their new t-shirt, and I saw them in person on our last trip to Levittown, New York.” That sort of loyalty is lovely, and no one would mock a band’s strong fan base. But supposing the fan buys BingBong’s new disc and it sounds awful. The co-leaders hate each other; the rhythm section is annoyed at the horns; everyone is tired or overstimulated, etc. How many listeners will say, “I always love BingBong but their last CD was a letdown,” or “They sounded lousy on their closing set?” And let us say BingBong is expert in a particular style — name your passion — if a listener heard another band, unidentified, who played similar music, could the listener a) tell the difference, or b) make valid judgments about which band was more pleasing — without seeing the video, knowing the names, and so on?
I also write this because of the fan-club nature of so much jazz appreciation. Certain musicians have starry-eyed idolators (you could call them Facebook groups if you like) while other, equally or perhaps more gifted musicians get trickles of attention. Empirical evidence? I can post a video on YouTube of an exceptional performance by someone who stays close to home, doesn’t have a powerful internet presence, and it will receive 16 visits in the first day; post an equally compelling video by someone’s “Favorite,” and it will receive a thousand times the attention, and I do not exaggerate. But I wonder if the fans were blindfolded and listening closely without any evidence, they would make the same judgment. Or is it “We always go to the Olive Garden because they have the best Italian food and because we always go to the Olive Garden . . . “?
I would like to think I have trained myself to actually listen: I revered Ruby Braff and saw him in person a good deal, but I thought — after some time — that I could tell when he was happily inspired or grouchily going through the motions. I never saw Ben Webster or Billie Holiday, again, artists I revere, but I could say of a performance, “This is superb,” or “This is tired,” and mean no disrespect to the individuals or their art. But, before I set myself up as a moral-aesthetic authority, I know that if you tell me, “Here’s the new recording by four of your heroes,” I am predisposed to like it — although I am a very severe critic when I am disappointed. While I was writing this blog, I was (finally) playing a CD by a band whose guest star was someone I absolutely delight in, and I was saying to myself, “That’s good, but I have no compulsion to hear it again,” even though the guest star was in evidence.
The large questions — too large for any one post — are, to me: How well do we listen? What do we hear? On what do we base our assessments? Can we actually brush away all the extra-musical accretions and hear what’s there?
P.S. Readers will note my mild tone in the rumination above. So I state clearly that this post is not to attack, but to consider.
May your happiness increase!