[JPL] You Aren't Too Dumb To Like Jazz

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Sat Aug 28 21:29:26 EDT 2010

  by Patrick Jarenwattananon

One of my pet peeves in this jazz racket I'm caught up in is when people 
describe complex music they don't understand as "overly intellectual," 
or one of its variants: "brainy," "highbrow," "mental masturbation," 
etc. The implication is that "normal" human beings aren't intelligent 
enough to "get" jazz, as if the music required naturally advanced-level 
mental faculties to begin to appreciate.

I'm on the subject because of a few comments in our recent musing on the 
"jazz boyfriend" phenomenon and The Dolphy Test. They're actually quite 
charming, friendly comments, but I am puzzled about the sentiments 
within. This is from Megan Bartlett (megggers):

     This May I married my Jazz Boyfriend. As the non-jazzer there are 
many reasons to accuse me of not "getting it" or not being an 
"intelligent listener." My offenses include, but are not limited to ... 
complaining about 28 min. songs and when asked how I like Lovano's set 
at The Vanguard replying with, "I was too grossed out by the jazzgasms 
everyone was having to listen" (you know --- the head bobbing, facial 
contorting and moans that are required to listen to jazz). Sometimes my 
Jazz Husband makes me feel like a Jazz Widow. ... I'm too dumb to like 
jazz. But when its 1am and we walk into the club where my husband is 
about to play ... I'm smart enough to know the tenor will be the most 
beautiful and complex thing I've ever heard.

This is from Lin Harraway (coffeeiv):

     My husband and my second child love jazz, especially the kind where 
the musician takes off on a solo and leaves the theme --- and me --- in 
the dust. I'll have to admit that I am not smart enough for this type of 
music. I need someone to remind me of the melody at least every sixteen 
measures or so. If my husband had used this as a litmus test early in 
our relationship, he would have expelled me --- except for the fact that 
I allowed him to kiss me for hours while this type of music was playing.

Ok, so I may personally plead the fifth when it comes to being a "jazz 
boyfriend." And I also hear Bartlett and Harraway on long, meandering 
solos: Sometimes I lose track too if the music isn't captivating. (Not 
all jazz is good, of course.)

But it strikes me that what Bartlett and Harraway are complaining of is 
slightly misdirected. It doesn't make you "dumb" or "not smart enough" 
if you don't like something you've tried repeatedly to engage. And if 
you don't understand it, shoot, any musician will tell you: Jazz takes a 
lifetime to learn. It's really hard!

Jazz, as a whole, requires a bit of buy-in. Much of it is instrumental, 
and for people who listen to music for lyrics, that component often goes 
missing. Performance conventions can be uncommon: applauding in weird 
places, sitting down, being really quiet. Sometimes jazz composers also 
like to write complex harmonies, meters and forms not usually heard in 
pop music. But even before you get to "complex even for jazz" music, 
some of jazz's most treasured central precepts --- swing, 12-bar blues, 
"rhythm changes" or AABA form, solo improvisation --- are unfamiliar to 
many of today's music listeners in the first place. All things 
considered, the deck is stacked against jazz.

That said, many jazz musicians manage to transcend these things nightly 
to convey some greater beauty or depth or joy. Like any other musicians 
in the Afro-Western tradition, they're trying to communicate some 
emotional or spiritual feeling through notes and grooves. They're trying 
to create something affecting with what they do, trying to convey some 
sort of artistic statement. They're just choosing a medium --- 
improvised, often instrumental music --- which is uncommon to many human 

One of the most interesting comments, at least with respect to my 
thesis, comes from Evelyn Chester (EvelynChester):

     It's funny that you describe the Dolphy piece as "jarring" and 
"spiky". I was expecting something completely different than what I 
heard. But maybe if you didn't grow up with jazz (which I did), it would 
be jarring. To me, this mostly sounded like my childhood.

If I absolutely had to choose a piece of jazz music to describe as 
cerebral or the like, Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch would be a good 
contender. But Chester's comment rebuts me there, to some extent. She 
says: Well, not if you're already familiar with jazz.

Dr. Jazz
Dr. Jazz Operations
24270 Eastwood
Oak Park, MI  48237
(248) 542-7888
SKYPE:  drjazz99

More information about the jazzproglist mailing list