Thursday, 4 November 2010

Jazz - Why can't I 'get it'?

The scene: An Oscar Peterson concert about 30 years ago. Myself in the audience.
He starts playing piano. (I think it might have been 'Deep Purple'.) He's playing it straight, just as it was written. I think to myself "Crikey, this is so good." I settle down in my seat letting the glorious melody waft over me. He plays it once, straight through, his small group accompanying him unobtrusively. Then......
He starts from the beginning again, only this time, it's, well, different. I feel a bit let down. Why did he stop playing the way I liked it? But, hang on. There are mumbles of satisfaction from the audience - "Oh yeah......Mmmmm" - a few smatterings of applause, even audible laughter, heads start moving this way and that. I look round and see practically everyone else wearing what appears to be beaming smiles, almost ecstatic. The man himself turns to the audience with a wide grin and gives them a wink of complicity. But it wasn't meant for the likes of me. I was totally not part of it, excluded, shut out from this 'conspiracy' of shared pleasure. And so the rest of the concert proceeded in like fashion - me sitting there, cold and unmoved whilst everyone else was in raptures of delight at the master's dexterity in giving them just what they'd come for.

So it's been all my life. I have a passion for most types of music, - in particular classical, pop (well,, say 1950s up to around 2000) and musicals (Good heavens! Who would have thought it?). Country and Western I can listen to with ease and pleasure - rock, yes, up to a point, though not Heavy Metal (predictably). But jazz (I mean true jazz - 'trad' jazz is no problem) has always been a 'blind spot (deaf spot?) to me which I wish wasn't there. I've tried and tried over many years, not just attending the occasional jazz concert like the one I've just described, but also deliberately listening to jazz programmes on the radio. All the time I'm unable to tune in to that special jazz 'wavelength' in the brain which clearly gives so many people so much pleasure that I want to be a part of also.
I once met in Germany an American guy about my age, a serious jazz aficionado, and told him of my feelings of 'inadequacy'. He suggested concentrating on listening to the bass line rather than the embellishments that went on above it, which (he said) should automatically carry one along. So I tried that method. I mean really tried. But all to no avail. No matter how I listened it was always the same feeling of not being able to 'tune in'. In fact I was shut out.
I haven't re-attempted to overcome the problem for some years now and am wondering whether I ought to give it just one more go. Or maybe I ought to accept that I'm too old now and that if one hasn't 'got it' yet, one never will.
It still bugs me a bit that there's obviously something there that's giving pleasure to so many millions, yet because of some 'blocking' I can't be part of it. Well, perhaps I just ought to accept that we're all different. I bet there aren't many around who'd care for me to lecture them on the sublime, supreme perfection of Bach's choral and keyboard music - and why should they?


  1. Oh yes, of course.

    But descriptions of types of jazz leave me cold, I'll freely admit. I'm one who knows what he likes when he hears it with jazz and I can't possibly tell you what sort of jazz it is I like and which sort I don't like!

    Incompetent, aren't I?

  2. I don't really know how to comment other that to say I don't get it either. Contemporary jazz, that is. I like the old stuff, and I love the blues, gospel, R&B.

    If I was you, I would just accept that like so many others you just don't get it, and stop spending time trying.

  3. No, Micky. You're not incompetent. It's just so damned frustrating knowing that there's pleasure out there that people like you are experiencing while I'm shut out of it. There's a whole section of life which I'm missing out on.
    Larry, sounds like you accept it and can let it go. Wish I could too but it's like an itch that needs continuous scratching.

  4. Ray, I'm missing out on it, also. Maybe I shouldn't say "missing" because the word implies that I should like it and I don't. Taste is very subjective and jazz is not my cup of tea. Therefore, I will happily decline.

  5. Paul, wish I could be as philosophical about not understanding jazz as you are. I suppose part of the problem is that in classical music when I persist with composers I thought I disliked I eventually 'saw the light' and eventually came round to really admiring them. (Stravinsky, Britten and Verdi are just three cases in point.) But I must accept that the time available to one is finite and that as one gets older it becomes ever more precious and not to be wasted on vain pursuits.

  6. In your comment, you mention that you saw the light in your dislike of certain classical composers, Stravinsky being one of them. In my area, The New York City Ballet is in residence for a few weeks in July and I attend performances as many times as I can. Stravinsky is a major part of their repetoire. When I plan my schedule, I try to avoid performances where he is featured - no small chore - as he is everywhere. I have really tried over the years to get myself to enjoy his works, but I just can't get over it.

  7. I am right with you on this, Ray! I do not enjoy jazz, and have tried. I also like most other styles of music, but jazz just won't "take" with me.

  8. Paul, I blush with apologies. I've only just noticed your last comment. Sorry - but thank you very much for bothering!
    When I was at school, some 50 years ago, I always felt left out because my school-chums were classical music lovers. But Stravinsky they all sneered at. When I 'educated' myself to 'get into' classical music by forcing myself to listen to it until I learnt to recognise particular works, I carried their anti-Stravinsky prejudice right through most of the following decades because I thought that they being more knowledgeable than me, they must be right. But about 20 years ago I self-challenged my previous feelings and really started to listen to him. I was absolutely astonished - the aural equivalent of scales falling from one's eyes. I'd now certainly go out of my way to attend an all-Stravinsky concert. (But they don't put them on as they'd be poorly attended - alas!) I still find 'Le Sacre du Printemps' absolutely astonishing every time I hear it. It just never palls.
    I wouldn't claim to have any superior appreciation of his music any more than I feel inferior to not understanding jazz. But I do wish I could share some of the joys of the latter. Maybe you feel left out in a similar way, perhaps? - or can you just put it behind you?

  9. Mark, we are obviously kindred spirits on this one. But with your cultural connections I would imagine that you also feel quite some frustration at being 'shut out' from this world, maybe even more than me - especially as we both know that there's definitely something of value there. I still hope I'll eventually 'get it' - but time available is getting short for me.