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Branford Marsalis Speaks, I Agree

JON-ERIK KELLSO is a very good jazz trumpet player in New York. A couple of days ago he posted excerpts from a Seattle Weekly interview with Branford Marsalis. Branford had noticed the music in old records “always sounds better” than that in new ones because, as with classical music, it has strong melodic content.

Branford may have overlooked some relatively recent albums but his overall opinion is accurate. Melody, today, is out of style; virtually all contemporary music is about rhythm, technique, “intellectual” content, and (unbelievably) the performer’s appearance. In that sweeping indictment I include the popular genres, jazz, and even orchestral music.

But how can that be? As my former clarinet teacher, John Neufeld, once explained, “There is no more music business. A few people still may earn a living with music but, as an industry, it is gone.” What do we have instead? An entertainment business, something very different from the music business.

Back to Marsalis: He says jazz aficionados spend a lot of time talking about harmony, as though they are members of “a private club with a secret handshake”. He considers that a mistake. He goes on to say critics might claim a jazz album to be “the most important music since such and such.” But then he asks how we can really apply the word “important” to something most people have never heard.

Let me go a step further and say such critics and aficionados are fools and nincompoops. That group also includes many music educators.

By now some if not all of you must think I’m a real jerk for daring to state such an outrageous opinion. Who the hell am I to write such a thing? We all know aficionados and critics are experts, right? How could they possibly be wrong? After all, nobody should appreciate or accept anything unless a “big name” expert validates it, should he? Well, if you really believe that then maybe critics and aficionados are not the only fools and nincompoops.

Marsalis then points out how “normal” people always react to music’s emotional content. He warns musicians, “If the value of the [tune] is based on intense analysis of music, you’re doomed.”

Let’s see, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and most other Swing era jazz musicians appealed to emotion rather than intense music analysis and they were very popular. Then along came Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and the bebop guys (all remarkable musicians, by the way); then such later prodigies and technical whizzes as John Coltrane. Their music invites intense analysis but, as clever, intellectual, technical, and perfect as it might be, often de-emphasizes melody.

So what happened? Jazz quickly lost popularity until it all but disappeared. Today, melody and (dare I use the word?) beauty in jazz are out of style.

Why do you suppose that is? Let’s go back to the fools and nincompoops comprising the majority of the jazz writers, critics, and educators. Branford Marsalis summarizes their thinking much more succinctly and poignantly than I ever have: “Everything you read about jazz is: ‘Is it new? Is it innovative?’ I mean, man, there’s 12 fucking notes. What’s going to be new?”

But when nincompoops lead, fools follow. The “jazz world” bought into that nonsense decades ago and still sits around saying, “That guy must be good. Did ya catch that run of sixty-fourth notes? How about the way he played a sharp nine in measure thirteen? Genius, man!” Meanwhile the rest of us were bored to tears and took refuge in something more pleasant and emotionally satisfying.

Branford goes on, “So much of jazz — it doesn’t even have an audience other than the music students or the jazz musicians themselves and they’re completely in love with virtuosic aspects of the music, so everything is about how fast a guy plays. It’s not about the musical content [or] whether the music is emotionally moving or has passion.”

Wait a minute. Didn’t I just write that?

But the emphasis on virtuosity has a reason: Fools and nincompoops are unable to judge music as art but easily may quantify it. It’s like sports. The fastest guy to the finish line is the best and nothing else counts. Of course, music isn’t a sport but fools and nincompoops somehow overlook the distinction. Incidentally, it also isn’t a math problem.

Okay, great. Branford Marsalis and I agree. Music should appeal to emotion rather than intellect and, although it’s in the ear of the beholder, I suspect he would include the concept of beauty in music’s appeal. The irony, however, is that American culture (and that of much of the rest of the “civilized” world) has degenerated to such an extent that maybe none of that matters. For most of us, music is something in the background to banish silence and all popular music is vocal.

Branford concludes, “…If [music has] emotional meaning, [it] will translate to a larger audience [with] the capacity to appreciate instrumental music … ’cause a lot of people don’t.”

Actually, most people now lack the capacity to appreciate instrumental music. And that is why the business of music is gone, why the melodic and popular jazz we once knew is dead, and why fools and nincompoops celebrate whatever it is they celebrate.

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