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Monday, 4 January 2016

Three months of jazz

So, as 2016 gets under way, 2015 will go down for me as the year when the penny finally dropped with JAZZ. “Oh great,” I can hear all my friends and acquaintances think, “that’s just what everyone wanted to happen – now he can be boring and pretentious about something else entirely.” More than one of them told me they thought I was into jazz already because I was “that type” - which I decided I would take as a compliment while knowing full well it really wasn’t. So lap it up y’all – here I go.

Jazz does have a reputation, to the outsider, of being boring and difficult, of “all sounding the same” and being either pipe-and-slippers music for old men or chin-strokey hipster music for slightly younger old men. Which perhaps I am now, so perhaps it's apt. But I can put a date on my jazz Damascus moment: September 26, 2015, when on a perverse whim in a record shop (yes, I still do that) I purchased some Thelonious Monk albums in a ludicrously cheap boxed set and found on playing - almost to my surprise - I think I actually really like this. And I didn’t stop playing Monk (whose middle name was “Sphere”, I found out to my utter glee) for a solid month. From there Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and Eric goddamn Dolphy, who for my money had to be the coolest cat alive before his teeth-grindingly avoidable death at 36 (younger than me now).

So What?

Now, I do pride myself on having eclectic taste but like everyone who says “oh, I like all kinds of music” I don’t really mean it – I have my preferred comfort zone of artists and styles I return to again and again, from which I occasionally take excursions as a kind of musical tourist; and I’m clearly rooted in rock and pop, particularly of the “alternative” sort, from about 1967 to 2007, just the same as many people of my age. I’ve had a couple of token jazz records in my collection for over a decade – y’know, the usual, Kind of Blue, Mingus Ah Um, a bit of Louis Armstrong – but they make their way out for a spin maybe once a year at best, when I fancy something a bit different, never quite gripping me enough to want to delve further.

"So what?" you may ask. It is not my intention to wax on about how "grrrrreat" jazz is, I know it’s not for everyone – what I want to convey is the joy, revelation and even relief of discovering and entering a whole new world at the advanced age of 38 that I previously only had a very sketchy and caricatured idea of.

You see Jazz is not just one thing as it seems from the outside, and it occurs to me that the same applies to whole areas of human endeavour that we compartmentalise as “a thing” without really knowing much in depth about the stuff that makes it up. For example, “rock music” or “modern art” or, going further, science, philosophy or – little bit of politics here, Mr Donald Trump – Islam. Again and again you hear people dismissing things under umbrella labels, having only come into contact with a couple of tiny iceberg tips of these things, assuming it’s all like that and they know all about it.

I Didn't Know About You

In jazz there is a wide spectrum of different sub-cultures and schools, historical developments and traditions, worldviews and attitudes contained under its umbrella that run the glut of human temperament and experience; from low brow to high brow, joyous to melancholy, warm to scary, jump-up to soothing, basic to complex, raw to polished, crowd-pleasing to virtually unlistenable.

The freaked out, hypnotic, spiritual "free" jazz Trane was doing in his final days has very little to do with 1920s swing or Dixieland, any more than industrial math-core metal has to do with Buddy Holly, though in both cases there is clearly a shared DNA. On the other hand much of the more challenging arty jazz of 1960s clearly shares a spirit with searching, experimental, iconoclastic music everywhere, from Stockhausen to Aphex Twin to Captain Beefheart - which is a spirit most big band swing, which is essentially popular dance music, is completely devoid of. My point is that within the box of “jazz” some trends are utterly in opposition to each other and some very little to do with each other - and the same can be said of rock music, philosophy and, Mr Donald Trump, Islam.

My Favourite Things

What is interesting about exploring a new (to me) world like this is it puts your tastes in a new light – I haven't just abandoned my previous taste in music and got a new one; rather, without even consciously intending to, I find myself looking for the same kinds of things I value in rock music.

It’s no mistake it was Monk that finally held my attention. A lot of the beginner’s recommendations (I'm ashamed to say even Kind of Blue) sounded a little too much like what I expected to hear, perhaps, so didn't capture my imagination. But I’ve always liked music that’s a little offbeat, surprises me and has a sense of humour - and Monk has that in spades.

I found myself astonished at his piano style, which seems to have come from outer space, as if his weird runs and chords are raising their eyebrows at the rest of the quartet - why did he play like that? How? He was a consummate eccentric and original, seeming to delight in the surprising note or strange clonk at the odd time, while remaining swinging, fun and accessible - perfect.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

On the other hand some things just don't survive the translation from rock to jazz or back again – in rock and pop there’s always been the whole simplicity and rawness thing as a mark of vitality and authenticity – virtuosity in rock happens, but has never been cool, really, whereas in jazz it’s practically essential. Meanwhile, while jazz clearly has its own silly fashions and image trappings - I was astonished to see the camera pan onto the audience at a Mingus concert in 1964 to reveal six or seven young men dotted about wearing "tea" shades indoors, at night - but even so, jazz has simply nowhere near the all-too-often style-is-as-important-as-substance nature of rock and pop. But that’s refreshing, as you find yourself able to jettison so much of the cultural baggage in the migration - there is a real freedom to entering such a new world as an outsider: You can shrug off the tired old conventions you are used to, but don't have to take on the native snobberies and etiquette of the new world if you don't want to.

To go broader on that point, delving into jazz that was largely being made in the 50s and 60s offers just a tiny bit of mental relief from the zeitgeist of millennial Britain (which much as I appreciate, can get maddeningly samey and stifling on occasion, it's got to be said) – the decades-old transatlantic jazz world is a recognisable one, but there is still a difference in how things are valued and interpreted, the importance not quite placed on the same things in the same way. It puts your own time and culture, and its ephemeral nature, in perspective - as any sustained brush with history does, of course.

A Love Supreme

Finally, I’ve found the mother of new, rich seams in my ongoing mining of all things music. When I discover a new old band or artist I tend to hoover up their back catalogue in a matter of months before I get restless and go looking for something new. This will keep me going for years. It's not just the music, it's everything that surrounds it - there are whole new terms providing me with endless amusement (“Third Stream”, ffs; “New Thing”, ffs). I've even found myself getting interested in the instruments in a way I haven't before - the family of the saxophone and how each member works; the existence of pocket trumpets and bass clarinets which, while not a shock, have simply never been on my radar before...

You think you know the world - but when you delve into that labelled box you thought you had pegged, with no need to know any more about, it's contents prove so rich and diverse you find yourself overwhelmed – and realise just how little you know and how limited your worldview is. Neither box nor world will ever look the same again, and that's a pleasant surprise and an optimism-fuelling lesson.

What if everything is like that? I'm pretty sure everything is like that.


  1. I'm sure you've listened to it if you've been hitting the Monk, but 'Monk's Dream' is one of my favourite of his.

    I've never heard of Eric Dolphy though.. some recommendations?

    And lastly, though he may not be quirky enough for you, Ellington is the composer supreme in my view.

    Blues In Orbit and Ellington Indigos are just joyous listens.

  2. The albums "Monk's Dream" and "Straight, No Chaser" (both containing versions of those numbers) were what did it - though I've had a Best of the Blue Note Years (really early versions of some of his classics) since, well, Uni days, which I was always intrigued with, hence plumping for Monk on my whim. I've kind of stuck to post-bop and the late 50's/60s avant garde explosion so far, but expect I will work my way back. Ellington is on my radar. EVERYONE loves Ellington, and half of them worked in his big band at some point...

    Dolphy was a genuine discovery for me cos I had no idea who he was when I saw him on a Mingus live TV thing and immediately thought "F me! Who's that?!" The first thing I read was that he died just months after what I was watching, which I assumed meant he never really made it past a promising young side man. What a shame, I thought... before I quickly discovered he was considered one of the leading lights of avant garde jazz alongside Ornette and Trane (but rather than crazy free blowing his stuff tends to sound more deliberately odd and angular) - he pops up everywhere, extensively with Mingus, a bit with Trane, but with dozens of others, and yes, he did a bunch of albums as band leader too, mostly starting with the word "Out" (Outward Bound, Out There, Out to Lunch!). This is him with Mingus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cimpUKVAbY8

  3. See, three months in and I'm already capable of being a jazz bore.

    1. Well I love Jazz, I know full well that being a Hardcore Jazzbore is my destiny.

  4. I downloaded a Monk collection about 8 years ago, during my last musical expansionist phase when I was getting into classical. I really liked the Monk but for some reason never followed it up. I peeked into the box of delights you're describing and then just wandered off. Likewise with Sidney Bechet, I bought a 3-CD set of him yonks ago and it's given me great pleasure over the years but I've never gone further - perhaps because so much of the jazz I've been incidentally exposed to (mostly while cruising radio) has conformed to the stereotype of impenetrability. Charlie Parker I tried, didn't really see what was so amazing. Mingus too. But it's probably time to try again.