RECENTLY I LISTENED to three John Coltrane pieces, two from albums, one from a TV show, to figure out why his music always leaves me cold. Yes, I am a heretic, dislike Coltrane and a lot of contemporary jazz, and now have alienated nearly everyone reading this. If you want to experience even more outrage, keep reading:
First, Coltrane seems to focus on the instrument more than the music. In other words, the musical statement he makes to me is, “I have complete command of the instrument and bombard you with fast sixteenth note runs because I can.” I would prefer that statement to be, “I am confident I can play anything on the sax but I only want to do it tastefully, melodically, and display the fireworks on those occasions when the music seems to require it.”
The second reason Coltrane leaves me cold is closely related to his playing so many notes: I find him a master of musical obfuscation; his repeated torrents of notes and scales obliterate the tune’s melodic content. That detracts from, rather than enhances, the music. Melody is and always has been the essence of music regardless of contemporary opinions to the contrary.
Third, Coltrane has an unpleasant tone. I would equate it to a classical virtuoso who owns a Stradivarius but chooses instead to play a plastic violin with rubber strings.
Finally, where’s the emotional content? Enduring music always is about emotion. Maybe you are so evolved that you can hear it in every note. Good for you, and I’ll bet you can see the king’s new clothes, too. To me, Coltrane offers intellect, perhaps emptiness, but very rarely does he speak to the human soul.
Coltrane was a schooled musician. The ability to study a tune’s progression, extrapolate from it, and run scales or intervals over the modified changes requires a lot of practice and expertise. It expresses an understanding of harmony and may reveal an intricate weave of notes that, in proper context, could coincide with the melody. But that’s a parlor game, a kind pointless mental exercise that might appeal to the intellect of an engineer or a mathematician. It overlooks the emotion of a less technical listener. If you want to play melodically you have to stay reasonably close to the melody.
“But how about his fans?” argue Trane’s disciples. “They number in the tens of thousands!” (At that point I would ask, “As opposed to billions who walk away shaking their heads?”) The rebuttal might go on: “Those tens of thousands must be more evolved, right? Geniuses even. A Gordian knot of notes and phrases must strike something deep within them the rest of us are incapable of appreciating. Why else would they like the music?”
That’s where rebellion, recalcitrance, and being “cool” enter the picture. Never underestimate the importance of rebellion and being “cool”. The tobacco industry thrives on it. Hundreds of millions of people smoke even though everybody knows smoking destroys the human body. But smokers do it to declare their independence, to flaunt science, to spit on fact, and to create a perverted “cool” image.
A lot of jazz, in a way, is like smoking. A huge number of bebop musicians, for example, were heroin addicts. Their style sprang from the rejection of traditional harmony, phrasing and, eventually, straightforward rhythm. Bop was a musical statement of rebellion and chaos, still the cornerstones of its successors.
Personally, no matter how terrific its technical side may be, I find much of contemporary jazz sophomoric and pretentious. It’s as though the musician says, “Yo! I’m playing the tune but, unless you’re as hip and evolved as I am, you can’t recognize it. That makes me smarter and cooler and more musically evolved than you, and it also shows I got better chops. Admire me or be primitive.”
And here’s the inevitable rebuttal: “Yeah, but their music is beautiful.”
Maybe to your ears, but it’s often beautiful in the same way as the bleak devastation from a wildfire. In the long run, most of us prefer a lush green forest and a clear blue lake.
As a musician, a lifetime of experience has shown me the vast majority of people can hear sound but not music. A doctor or physicist may hear those sounds, count the notes per measure, and quantitatively declare one musician’s technical skills superior to another’s. Therefore, by scientific analysis, the musician able to play the most notes per measure must be the best.
And that is one reason why the majority of today’s jazz audience consists of white collar males, often in the professions. Appreciating beauty in music requires other qualities. Perhaps that is why only twenty-percent of the jazz market is female.
Most jazz listeners either find the music intellectually “interesting” or think it’s “cool” without knowing why or how.
I don’t mean to suggest many jazz musicians aren’t talented, learned or even, in some cases, quite tasteful. I only want to explain why the world’s entire jazz community numbers in the thousands rather than the millions or billions.
So, after decades of listening to and analyzing jazz, I choose to approach music in general and jazz in particular in a very different way than John Coltrane and many of today’s musicians. To me, the essence of music is beauty, melody, and positive emotion. A large majority of today’s world would disagree. I am very comfortable with that, perhaps even delighted. (I remember when all my colleagues said I was wrong about something else and, three years later, every one of them had gone bankrupt while I was enjoying one of my best years.)
I also think everything is basically simple; people make things complicated. Simple nearly always beats complex and it is far more difficult to express complicated ideas simply. Less usually is more. Beauty and classical harmony, in the long run, have outlived chaos and dissonance. And, in the arts, positive emotion ultimately tends to surpass intellect.
Contemporary civilization scoffs at elegant simplicity (while embracing primitive simplicity and oversimplification), classical anything, positive emotion, and the true essence of beauty. Only a fool would say the world hasn’t gone nuts. And only a fool would argue many qualities the jazz world currently rejects ultimately are what separate an evolved human being from a brute.
Yeah, I know most jazz fans today must think I’m either a simpleton or insane, lack evolved taste, or am too tin eared to appreciate true genius. That’s more or less what my bankrupt colleagues thought.