For someone who thinks of himself as both musical and deeply interested in listening to all kinds of music, I had, previously, studiously avoided listening to jazz. While I had been taught about jazz in high school (Improvisation! Dissonances! Drugs! Trumpets!), I think I had mostly seen New Orleans jazz as interesting but limited, swing (and its various revivals) as quaint and melodious but not very fulfilling and been put off by bebop’s endless “noodling.” Really put off.
My aversion wasn’t a blanket refusal, of course: I had explored certain things because I had found a connection to them, and – as a voracious music listener – it wasn’t particularly hard to find exposure even when I wasn’t looking. So I did have, in my collection:
- Billie Holiday: Because you can’t avoid her as one of the most, if not the most, compelling singer in the history of recorded popular music;
- Louis Armstrong: Because the Hot Fives and Sevens transcend their time and audio limitations completely;
- Django Reinhardt: Because he was an extraordinarily interesting guitar player and his story is one of the craziest of any musician I’ve come across;
- Nina Simone: Because it was easy to find a connection to her through my interest in the blues;
- Bill Frisell: Because he created an interesting, challenging hybrid between jazz and country/folk, and it was a sound that strongly appealed to me (still does), a sparse exploration of popular music in a style not unlike Ry Cooder’s in a way;
- Cassandra Wilson: Because she has a fantastic voice and sang Son House and Robert Johnson songs as if they were standards and created an entirely new, eerie kind of music;
- Keith Jarrett: I didn’t really explore very much of his oeuvre, but I was familiar with The Köln Concert and a few other solo recordings – I thought this was interesting and unusual music that had strong rhythmic and folk/New Age elements that I really enjoyed;
- Madeleine Peyroux: Because on a good day, she manages to sound very much like Billie Holiday, which is to say a lot. She’s an excellent performer of other people’s material and creates a lovely, warm, entertaining sound that draws you in (although I’m not so sure about her most recent effort which features her own compositions);
- Miles Davis: Because, as someone interested in the history of rock, you couldn’t exactly ignore Miles’ late 60s/early 70s electric recordings, particularly the live material, featuring various bands that, frankly, rocked harder than Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin put together;
- The Mahavishnu Orchestra: Because, after exploring Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew you can’t really ignore some of the stuff that came in its wake, and this seemed approachable (although, I have to say, I never felt entirely sure why this was classified as jazz and not prog rock).
Lately, I’ve been exploring jazz almost exclusively (for a month or two, anyway). I’ve discovered countless hours of fantastic music. I’m starting to piece together the history of it as I read Ted Gioia’s The History of Jazzand I feel like a kid in a candy store, discovering this great genre to which I had been closed all these years.
I’ll be reporting my thoughts about my discoveries right here.