Thursday, May 17, 2012

Against the pantheon

On a recent episode of “30 Rock”, a character declared that there are three things nobody likes to talk about: soccer, jazz, and I forget what the third thing was, because the whole line was such a stupid, pandering joke – better suited to “Family Guy” than “30 Rock.”

People world-wide love to talk soccer…and jazz is a favorite straw man for lazy comics who, on the other hand, are happy to share with audiences their hilarious obsession with Beyonce, or maybe now it’s Rihanna.

Granted, there are a lot of people who don’t like jazz; but jazz, unlike Rihanna, is pretty easy to avoid. With a little effort, you can probably avoid hearing jazz for the rest of your life, so why the hostility?


If jazz has brought some of this acrimony down on itself – and it has – the fault lies with the pantheon of great jazz recordings.

Let’s say you grew up when I did – the 1970s. The acknowledged great days of jazz are over. Rock and roll is still going strong, and anyway, there’s nothing else for kids to listen to but rock and roll. So you listen to rock and roll radio, and then you get the notion you want to start buying records (or maybe 8-track cartridges). How do you decide to build your collection? Well, you don’t; you just start buying 8-tracks. You like “Slow Ride,” so you buy an album by Foghat.

The same is true nowadays for indie rock or rap or Top 40 or country or Christian – only the format has changed. (Well, that and the “buying” part.)

But, if you think you might be interested in jazz, or your child or niece or nephew might be, you have to confront the pantheon. For starters: Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew, A Love Supreme, Time Out – four albums I can live the rest of my life without hearing again.

If you give your jazz-curious nephew A Love Supreme, it could be you’re a sadist…or simply unrealistic. In any event, you haven’t done jazz or your nephew a favor.


The problem with every list of “essential” jazz recordings is that the albums listed are not entry points into the music. They’re always game-changers. What kind of listening experience is that for someone who doesn’t know the game yet?

The bulk of jazz recordings are blowing sessions from the fifties and sixties: the leader, most often a pianist or reed player, would throw together a small group – the ensemble determined by some combination of who the leader had gigged with recently, who happened to be in town, who wasn’t junk-sick or locked up, etc. – bring an original tune or two and arrangements of a couple standards and something currently popular from Broadway or a crooner on the radio, and record six or eight tracks in an afternoon session or two.

That off-hand quality is part of what makes jazz great. Let The Rolling Stones hidey-hole in Nice for two years arguing over every note of their work-in-progress; Stanley Turrentine can cut an entire record while Jagger decides what truffles to have with lunch.

Getting your hands on a bunch of these workaday recordings is a better introduction to jazz than the great deathless masterworks by Davis and Coltrane that are pushed on everyone and leave many (if not, apparently, most) feeling that jazz is just too hard to follow – or even ripe for hatred.

Here are a few titles from the (non-curated) pig-pile near my CD player. You could do worse, and Monk and Ornette will wait for you.

Just Wailin’ Herbie Mann (New Jazz, 1958)
Luminescence!  The Barry Harris Sextet (Prestige, 1967)
Good ‘n’ Groovy Joe Newman with Frank Foster (Swingville, 1961)
When Farmer Met Gryce Art Farmer and Gigi Gryce (Prestige, 1955)
McPherson’s Mood Charles McPherson (Prestige, 1969)
Forrest Fire Jimmy Forrest (New Jazz, 1960)
“Smack Up” Art Pepper Quintet (Contemporary, 1960)
We Three Roy Haynes/Phineas Newborn/Paul Chambers (New Jazz, 1958)
Jimmy & Wes The Dynamic Duo Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery (Verve, 1966)
Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges (Verve, 1960)
Soul Station Hank Mobley (Blue Note, 1960)


Feral Boy said...

Yes, in a global sense, Jack's claim about soccer (futbol!) is not true. But the claim about jazz surely is; while many people enjoy listening to some variation of it, only a few pedantic bloggers are want to discuss the jazz. But, more importantly, the line isn't supposed to be true: Jack Donaghy (sp?) is a die-hard Republican, upper-class, corporate tool, and the statement is consistent with his character's blindered world-view.

Feral Boy said...

Speaking of 30 Rock...
I was an early fan of the show, but this current season has been abysmal. Last night's episode - the one you quote - seems to be a return to form: smart quips, delivered at break-neck speed.

Feral Boy said...

Wait, what were we talking about? Oh, JAZZ!
You're definitely right about Love Supreme. I listened to that album the other day and was not impressed. Well, not an album like in the oldey-times - it was 128kb/s files played (alphabetically is how I do it) on the combination mp3 player / toaster oven in my kitchen, while I watched Oprah and made French toast. Now, the French... they like jazz, right? And soccer, too, I think. And cigarettes. Are you making this blog in France, Mr Boland?

rocky dennis said...

I agree for the most part, except Kind of Blue and Time Out seem to have wide appeal. Part of the problem is jazz listeners tend to be music snobs. Even jazz singers are looked down upon by some jazz enthusiasts as an inferior form of jazz. I think Ella and Diana Krall are good points of entry. Swing or more danceable forms of jazz should also be an easy listen. Woody Herman and Count Basie were popular back in the day for good reason.

re: corporate tools, the irony is jazz and classical music are kept afloat largely by corporate support like other fine arts, because of their cachet.

Feral Boy said...

...and jazz bloggers are kept afloat by the good citizens of Livermore. Get back to work!

Joe said...

Monsieur Garcon - I mean, Mr.Boy - I agree with your assessments of the Jack Donaghy character and the inconsistency of the show, but I still insist the soccer/jazz line is evidence of the latter. When Jack sneers that his Kabletown boss is "the only white man still driving a Cadillac," it's funny and true to his character's background. Jack knocking soccer and jazz just sounds like one of the writers grinding an ax; his character is always ready to fake an interest in something to impress some superstar CEO.

Joe said...

Mr. Dennis: Kind of Blue and Time Out do have wide appeal, but I bet they are mostly played when there are guests for dinner.