Dr. Jazzlove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Supreme
by John McFerrin
As has been the case for many a self-professed “rock lover” through the years, I had little use for jazz as a whole into my late 20s. I didn’t exactly mind its existence, but I only had interest in consuming it second-hand, through rock musicians that either came from a jazz background or who had been influenced by jazz in regards to compositional or playing style. The idea of actually listening to a jazz album for fun seemed completely foreign to me; I had a couple of Miles Davis albums on mp3 that I had listened to once or twice, but they seemed far too diffuse and too focused on superior instrumental technique at the expense of discernable melody and structure for me to enjoy them. In late 2008, though, I decided that I hadn’t given the genre a fair chance, and I asked my brother and some online acquaintances to offer me recommendations, both for individual albums and for overall listening and purchasing strategy. By the end of 2009, I could reasonably be called a jazz enthusiast, and my jazz collection and love for the genre has continued to expand at a steady pace ever since. In this post, I want to share some insights that I have picked up through the years that might help somebody unsure of how to proceed when venturing into the vast rewarding world of jazz.
Jazz is essentially a conversation; between instruments, and between the present and the past
One of the mistakes I initially made in trying to understand and appreciate jazz came from attempting to judge it against the standards of rock music, with its heavy emphasis on clearly stated and memorable melodies, and finding that it often came up short by those standards. I realized later that, in many cases, jazz listening should focus primarily on the dialogue between instruments, each providing their own commentary on the primary themes in a given piece. This conversation aspect has a more general application as well; full appreciation of the best jazz pieces and albums requires appreciation and understanding of the jazz that had come before and the way in which the artist chose to react to and advance beyond what had come before. It is certainly possible to appreciate a given jazz album without full context of the environment that produced it, but I have found that jazz, much more so than rock, tends towards a feedback loop in which learning more about jazz makes it more enjoyable, which in turn prompts me to want to learn more about it, and so forth.
Don’t overly focus on one era or one style
A common path for rock fans seeking to enter the world of jazz is to buy a handful of Miles Davis’ (admittedly awesome) jazz-fusion albums from the late 60s and early 70s; almost as common is for them to go no further, or maybe also pick up a copy of “Kind of Blue” for good measure. A jazz collection that stops with Miles Davis (let alone with just his fusion albums) is a sadly wanting collection. I have and enjoy many Miles Davis albums, but I made a conscious decision early on to diversify not only away from Davis to his contemporaries, but also to those who came before him (and, to an extent, those who came after him). A jazz collection should not just contain Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and not just them plus Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck; it should contain Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman, and Count Basie, and Bix Beiderbecke, and Benny Carter, and Sun Ra, and Dave Holland, and Ornette Coleman, and so many others. It should contain fusion, yes, but it should also contain 20s swing, and bebop, and hard bop, and free-jazz, and so very, very many others.
There is no shame in trusting experts …
The jazz world has its fair share of snobs, no doubt, but it also draws many fans who want to help other people find their way through a world that can seem very daunting to the novice. Aside from recommendations from family and friends, one of my primary resources for targeting new directions to take my jazz explorations has been the “Core Collection List” of the Penguin Guide to Jazz. While I have certainly found great and enjoyable jazz albums outside of this list, I have never been disappointed by a recommendation from this list, and I have covered more ground with this list than I possibly could have without.
… but “Ken Burns’ ‘Jazz’” should be taken with a boulder of salt
The Ken Burns documentary “Jazz” aired in 2001 to considerable acclaim, and while it does a remarkable job of covering the history of jazz through the first 2/3s or so, it suffers from a fundamentally flawed thesis. The primary contributors to this series beyond Burns were Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis, who each have extremely conservative views concerning the very nature of jazz, and the documentary presents these views as universally accepted truth when they are actually hotly disputed. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are presented as the heart of jazz, with Miles Davis presented as a very talented performer and composer who fundamentally lost his way (as an example, the final episode presents the thesis that seeing Sly & the Family Stone at Woodstock wrecked Davis in such a way that nothing he created from that time forward could rightly be called jazz). Armstrong and Ellington are certainly critical figures in the history of jazz, but this dismissal of Davis should bother somebody who watches the documentary.
Jazz is cheap!!
While not true for the most major figures, such as Davis or Coltrane, recent years have seen the discographies of many important jazz musicians presented in a way that will satisfy both the budget-conscious and the storage-conscious. As an example: I have in my collection 18 Thelonious Monk albums, released from 1954 to 1961, presented across two 5-CD sets that each take up as much space as an old-style 2-CD case, and which can be purchased for the combined price of less than $35. I have similar sets for Art Blakey and Bill Evans, and these sets have not only provided me acclaimed albums from the “Core Collection List” but have also introduced me to some minor gems that I might have otherwise overlooked. As the overall demand for jazz has continued to drop, these kinds of budget-conscious collections have increased in prevalence, and this is good news for anybody seeking to dive into the deep end with someone they haven’t heard before.
The most famous albums to novices are not necessarily the best starting points
In 2008, as a Christmas present, my brother bought me the following three albums as a jazz starter set: Cookin’ by Miles Davis, Mingus Ah Um by Charles Mingus, and The Sidewinder by Lee Morgan. Even if A Silent Way and A Kind of Blue ended up becoming two of my very favorite albums, they likely never would have gone beyond mp3 albums I listened to once or twice without these three albums (which constitute an AMAZING starter set) to help me get used to jazz overall.