Friday, July 25, 2008

Jazz & Accessibility

The kind of music celebrated here has never had mainstream appeal, and it never will. It may have a great influence on mainstream music, but most folks just aren't going to be turned on to Miles Davis's ESP or John Coltrane' Live at the Village Vanguard. The simple reason is that the music makes considerable demands on the listener. You have to be able to hear a lot that isn't explicitly stated, and recognize the heart of the melody even when the band is playing all around the periphery. I am not saying that jazz fans are smarter people, just that they have a taste that is unlikely to be shared by most listeners. The same is true of a lot of other musical genres, like Indie Rock. You don't hear that on the radio in South Dakota.

I have written about this in an earlier post on Lee Konitz, where I compared bop to poetry, another art form that always has a small audience. But some jazz is a lot more accessible than other jazz, and the listener may well want to know the difference in order to tell whether a recording will fit within his or her own comfort zone. Otherwise valuable resources, like the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, aren't much help on this. It is as though the most dedicated Jazz listeners don't seem to be aware of the difference.

I have long toyed with the idea of creating an accessibility scale, and here is my first attempt. It may be useful especially for the fan just getting into jazz. The scale is from A1 to A5, with A1 being as accessible as any popular song, and A5 being all but unintelligible to some members of the band.

A1 jazz might not be recognized as jazz by some fans, but it is at least a useful boundary. Put a lot of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett here. A1 jazz will include jazz standards, but will stick closely to a melody that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who doesn't have a tin ear.

A2 jazz is A1 jazz with at least some improvisation and jazz exploration thrown in. Most of Dianna Krall falls into this category. Straightforward melody is most of what she sings, while the band is allowed to get in some genuine bop in between verses. Or the singer may remain pretty close to the melody, while swinging wide now and then. Cassandra Wilson and Joni Mitchell have recorded a lot of A2 jazz. This can be very beautiful stuff, but it is not what any jazz lover would call adventurous.

A3 jazz is the level of straightforward bop. The classic form begins with a melody clearly stated, and follows with a series of solos that improvise on that melody. Most of the core library of bop falls around the A3 mark, as I think it should. Miles Davis first quintet, Cookin', is a fine example, as is Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else, or almost anything by Bill Evans. Despite his well-deserved reputation for weirdness, most of Thelonious Monk's recordings are easily pegged as A3 jazz.

A4 jazz is where a lot of listeners lose the drift. Here the recognizable foundations of most music, melody, chord changes, harmony, and often pretty sounds get left behind for the exploration of pure musical ideas. No figure of modern jazz is more firmly associated with this kind of music than Eric Dolphy. For example, a fine piece of A4 jazz is Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, and sure enough, there is Dolphy playing his alto. But a good way to test the distance between A3 and A4 is to listen to one of the Miles Davis Live at the Blackhawk discs, and then chase it with one of the Live at the Plugged Nickel sides. With the former, one of my favorite live collections, you can always tell that you are listening to Oleo or No Blues. At the Plugged Nickel, it often doesn't matter what the name of the song is, and you would be hard pressed to name it from anything that is going on during the number. Don't get me wrong, a lot of A4 jazz is pure genius, and I listen to the Plugged Nickel on a regular basis.

A5? Well, there is Ornette Coleman, or Albert Ayler. But it is best to consider this as a boundary rather than a genre all its own. This is sometimes called "free jazz," but it often seems to free itself from music entirely. In a pure A5 document, very few listeners could tell the difference between a right note or a note rightly played, and one that is neither. I think that A5 is probably the point at which the music is disintegrating, but may only mean that the demands it makes on me are not demands that I can meet.

Now, having laid this out, I am not at all sure I can maintain it. Most jazz will fall between the clear points. If Cookin' or Relaxin' are right on A3, the Blackhawk is moving in the direction of A4. But maybe this will be of more help than the traditional categories like hard bop, free jazz, or avant garde. If not, well I wasted a good hour's thought. But we'll see.


  1. Ken,

    I think you have a lot of unstated assumptions here, and are perhaps projecting your own tastes a bit too broadly. There are an awful lot of younger listeners who are instantly smitten by On The Corner or Dancing In Your Head or Spiritual Unity, who would not give Diana Krall or even Bill Evans the time of day.

    It's not that accessibility isn't worth talking about, but I do think you need to take into account where people are coming from. Just because someone is a jazz neophyte doesn't mean they will always respond best to tippin' standards with straightforward vocals that hew close to the melody. That's not a very good place to start for, say, a Sonic Youth fan.

  2. DJA-

    I think Ken may be attempting to universalize accessibility. I think he's on the right track - in the end, accessibility is a measure of mass appeal. Anyone, whether he be primarily a fan of Sonic Youth, the Beatles, Einzurstende Neubauten, or Mozart, can recognize that there are ratios that audiences accustomed to Western music will fall into.

    For example, for every 10,000 fans of the Beatles, you'll have 1,000 fans of A Tribe Called Quest, 100 fans of Emerson Lake & Palmer, 10 fans of Bela Bartok, and one fan of Albert Ayler. I'm not making any judgments on the artistic merits of these acts, but I think these kinds of ratios hold up, generally.

    If we're talking individuals, then it's purely subjective, and I agree with you. I've found in my musical life that accessibility is purely a function of the musical path I'm on. I listened to a lot of really, really harsh avant garde stuff in college (Russell Haswell, Otomo Yoshihide), and even though I used to have tons of that stuff, I no longer consider it accessible. I also find a lot of fusion inaccessible, even though it's frequently melodic to some degree.

  3. dja and ben: thanks very much for the comments. This is exactly the kind of conversation I hoped for.

    I don't doubt that some listeners encountering jazz for the first time will be more attracted to A4 jazz, precisely because it is more "out there," or has some consonance with the alternative musics they are accustomed to. But for precisely that reason, they may want to know the difference between the various kinds of jazz. They will want to go first to Coltrane's more adventurous works, or to Cecil Taylor. So I think the exercise is worth it.

    I agree with Ben that accessibility has it's subjective element. The first time I heard Brahms First Piano Concerto, it seemed mysterious to me. Now it seems transparent. Nonetheless, I think that accessbility is an objective standard. Almost anyone can get Diana Krall, even if it bores them. If Eric Dolphy is instantly accessible to someone with ears trained by an alternative musical genre, it means that their ears have been trained well.

    I find ben j's observation that a listener may "lose" access to some sharp end music over time fascinating. I suspect that may mean that some of the more experimental musics have a very limited role. They show us the boundaries, and give pleasure for that reason. But then we go back to something more substantial. Or maybe we just get old and lose our stamina.

    I am inclined to think that some music is objectively more substantial than other music. But that maybe just my Platonic bias.

    Thanks for the comments. Please keep them coming.