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Who Listens To Jazz?


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That jazz has not gone the rock way, nor gone through an agonizing transmogrification into a totally unrecognizable format altogether, is a great credit to the jazz fans.
Again a departure from our usual topics of discussion – exactly who listens to jazz? In other words, what are the jazz ‘fans’, ‘fiends’ and ‘fanatics’ like? You or me, are the common garden variety of jazz fans: may their tribe increase by leaps and bounds. J-fiends are those who have, surreptitiously entered the jazz room from anywhere but the main door –who like only one narrow band from a galaxy of jazz styles and will not lose an opportunity to let fire and vitriol rain down on some of the more intellectual leanings in jazz e.g. free jazz, avant-garde, even some part of the New Age music. You could include ragtime, boogie-woogie and swing into those categories too. J-fanatics will kill for jazz. These last-named two categories crawl back into the woodwork when the sun comes up, but are known to be rampant at social gatherings or at the watering holes for the musically inclined. In their full regalia, and with their hair bristling before the kill... they are best avoided by the rational jazz fan or the more reserved jazz lover. By the way, the jazz lover is more apt to be a loner: that’s the only difference between a jf (jazz fanatic) and a jl (jazz lover).

At the bulk of jazz has survived thanks to the jazz fan. Long after the record labels have sold off their businesses and commercial executives who once ruled the roost and went to the extent of mauling and mutilating the natural playing style of hundreds of jazzmen during the latter part of the heyday, when funk and jazz-rock had opened up two entirely new exits, it was up to the jazz fan to keep the interest alive. That jazz has not gone the rock way, nor gone through an agonizing transmogrification into a totally unrecognizable format altogether, is a great credit to the jazz fans. They attended live concerts, they spent their pocket money on discs, tapes or CD’s and most of all they spread the good word around...

Whether we like it or not, once a highly qualified economist told me, to my utter surprise, there is an enormous power in the faint rumors you see starting from the corner shop where people converge to buy cold drinks or cigarettes. Technically it is called ‘micro-economics’, and it not only exists in reality, it happens to be powerful enough to upset the seats of powers and bring about a seachange in the life around us. Probably the same invisible power rests in the unvoiced, unprinted and unbroadcast opinion of the neutral jazz fan. Awesome power indeed in the hands of those who are not aware of it...

I have frequently been advised by total strangers to put down that CD by Joe Sartriani or Yanni or some such new ‘phenomenon’ hitting the jazz world every few months, saying it is not jazz. Many similar good Samaritans, total strangers at record stores, have pulled Kenny G.’s recordings from my hand saying it is not jazz. The cold and incisive non-interference policy on part of the Europeans may look askance at such freely distributed advice but in the Asian context, this is a fact of life. It is part of your Karma, you gotta save the drownin’ man, duh man! In sharp contrast, many a times, recordings by unknown groups, recommended to me by unknown people have turned out to be worth their weight in gold. One such recording that comes to my mind was by a European jazz-rock band Embryo –which provided undiluted fun to me for years till someone pinched the cassette from my collection. Nucleus was another such band which recorded very original jazz rock and the sole copy from my collection again vanished like Saddam Hussain leaving no trail. Recently I downloaded a webpage with some details and a photo of the aging jazz-rockers, God bless the internet –it seems to be the answer to everything these days. That’s a good jazz-rock band I would put at par with Focus.

Jazz fans, so tell me some of my astute and people-watching type friends tend to subscribe to a particular brand or type of people. The serious jazz fan then (this is what I have culled from many a hot debate on the subject with a variety of persons) appears to be a person with clear cut ideology and rather strong opinions. He/she is not going to listen to or accept demurely some bullshit about any aspect of life in general without piping in with his / her two-penny bit. The SJF (Serious Jazz Fan) is also likely to be rather good at whatever he/she has adopted as a profession be it software engineering or selling records or teaching at the university or running a small business or technical consultancy... it’s more than likely that the SJF who’s stuck to jazz for decades happens to be a specialist in some field.

The SJF will also tend to be extra-ordinarily attached to one particular period in the checkered history of Jazz....the swing era, or the funk period or the bebop, whatever. When the general talk slithers on, and tends to tilt away from his / her pet period in jazz, the softly mewing entity, purring ever so contentedly in a corner, could bare its claws and scratch wildly too... pretty close to the jazz fanatic. If you happen to meet a Miles Davis worshipper, try and ask a seemingly harmless, perfectly logical and in all manner a simple question: Just what is so great about Kind of Blue ? The Dumb Dude sort of simplicity is not going to help you, whether real or pretended. If you get your face clawed out of recognition instead of a simple answer, you should work out the answer yourself...

The SJF will treasure his/her small collection, predominantly featuring that favorite period with a jealousy straight out of the Harry Potter world. Many will not lend their records or CD’s for any purpose, but prefer to sit an hour chatting with you while you try harder and harder to focus on the flow of music by, say Thelonious Monk or Ben Webster or Duke Ellington... and realize it’s well nigh impossible to filter the waterfall of words out. The SJF will have his own petite crocus of similar minded folks with very similar likes and dislikes. That’s something peculiar to jazz fans –their dislikes are as important as their likes. Those who are not into jazz, but still remain fascinated by it, find this fact somewhat upsetting. It’s like defining something which is not there. “What Kenny G. plays is not Jazz” so goes a famous quotation most probably by Wynton Marsalis or some such other diehard of the traditional jazz variety. Here he is trying to define jazz by what it is NOT. This can be mighty confusing to the non-jazz fans.

The SJF may or may not be a bookworm: but when he/she is, God help you. It is likely that jazz trivia and seemingly useless bits of data ooze from all pores in the body, much like an advanced case of a Caucasian getting steamed in a sauna slightly out of control –do not cross him her. That will increase the trickle into a roaring flood or a dam-burst, and you really don’t want to go off jazz altogether, do you? Getting into arguments with the headstrong, when it comes to jazz history, as fuzzy as the World War I trivia and other such flotsam and jetsam that has faded into oblivion long ago, is not a wise idea either. Accept the statements, or goad them into neighboring zones wherein your databank does store some bits or bytes that could be life-saving. Parties and social gatherings where the hosts happen to be pretenders to the throne of jazz fans or jazz lovers are fertile breeding ground for perennial arguments. And like the wag O. Nash said in his masterful pithy manner, "candy is dandy / but liquor is quicker." It’s quicker to flare up the hidden homicidal instincts of the jazz fiends, a fact that one should not lose sight of in company of the wild animals, oops, read that as party animals.

The SJF when you get close enough, is apt to confess to you that he really doesn’t know much about the Blues, or Swing or Free Jazz... but then I have warned you before. The SJF is likely to be hung up on one particular period of jazz: perhaps the funk period has the largest ability to absorb jazz fans. No one, whether a jazz fan or not, can help liking a number by say Horace Silver or Jimmy Smith or Lambert, Hendrix and Bevan sort of collaboration on The Watermelon Man. Those whose feet go tapping to such numbers, realize that good music can transcend all barriers and to the jazz lover, a much smaller community of hermit like creatures, this is rather vital and crucial. I mean, Miles Davis backed by the Michel Legrand orchestra playing his guts out on "Summertime" in a breezy manner that brings a smile on the face of someone whose never heard a single jazz composition for half a century of existence on this blue planet, is crazy, isn’t it. Who wants to dissect, analyze and label the style here? I definitely do not want to. Miles, may his soul rest in jazz-filled peace in some remote corner of heaven, was the most versatile and inventive of all jazzmen that ever breathed fire into their horns. Going through his discography, listening to him patiently opens up more experimentation and dalliance with other forms of music than any other single jazz musician had ever dared to... someone with smaller stature than him would have been laughed right off the stage and studio in no time. Audiences can be as cruel as school kids.

Jazz fiends and fanatics come from all strata of the human society, but they tend to be encrusting the top creamy layer more often. Proudly possessing a closed mind is not affordable to the struggling middle classes nor the occasional miracle of rags-to-riches types either. But those born with a silver or platinum spoon in their mouths, tend to become abrasive, sometimes outright nasty in defending their own weird choice of music. That applies more to jazz fiends than jazz fanatics, because over the years I have seen the fervor of the evangelist in case of the fanatics, who will sacrifice just about anything to absorb jazz or spread it or help others absorb it... they are a curious breed. J-fanatics are basically jazz fans but some inward obsession, some inbuilt lacunae in their social development has rendered them overtly defensive about some ephemeral aspect of their own persona, their choices, their lifestyles...whatever. I mean one can choose any old topic to be defensive about, whether it is the adopted lisp or the useless dithering or identifying one with some lost cause or supporting an autocrat when he is universally unpopular or... with human ingenuity we have found enough causes to flood the world wide web with as much as there is fish in the ocean. To put it more lyrically here it is:

Jazz fans, jazz fiends and jazz fanatics
Comprise cool cats, weirdoes and lunatics
Work or duty they don’t shirk
Crawling back into woodwork
Hiding in places like beer can attics...

Well then on this happy note, let me sign off for today. It’s been nice talking to you folks. Keep those emails coming in. I love to hear from my fans, frankly I didn’t realize so many of you serious musicians read me with a degree of regularity till scholars like Bret Battey and Kalyan Pathak of USA and engineers like Massimilano Pau of Italy wrote to me recently. Yes Pau, I am amazed to realize there are so many engineers interested seriously in jazz, I used to think I am cat’s whiskers in that aspect, but that’s a happy fallacy. I have also noticed there is this tiny crust amongst the new breed of obscenely successful software communities worldwide who feel proud to possess a serious interest in jazz. May your tribe increase too...

Who’s the most exciting new guitarist on the jazz world according to you, after Pat Metheny? Someone who’s breathed a fresh air into the esoteric art of strumming the strings with all ingredients one would expect from good solid long-lasting ‘timeless’ jazz? Do let me know.

Till next time then.


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