Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Methods of a Jazz Evangelist

Since my "Jazz Now" post over a month ago, the project over at NPR's Blog Supreme has amassed quite a mass of comparable lists. It's very exciting to now that there are quite a few jazz evangelists out there. If the music can drive so many to pester friends, family, and unsuspecting blog readers, then the music is far from dead.

Today, Patrick Jarenwattananen gave his final take on the whole project. Much to my surprise, he devoted a section to the setup of my last post--making recommendations based on prior musical tastes:

"This is an interesting thought, and a different tactic than I tried. I like to think that a heartfelt, intense jazz recording defines its own rules in a sense; gifted musicians bend familiar sounds to their own twisted ends. I also credit people with complex musical tastes, and assume that people assess aesthetics based on individual musicianship. So to that extent, I tried to make varied picks based on recordings which I think most listeners could appreciate if they were willing to sit down and engage with the music.

But does that work? Does one enthusiastically-recommended size fit all? Obviously, in "proselytizing" for jazz, you need to keep your audience in mind. (Ideally, you'd be able to answer their feedback too.) At the same time, the mere presentation of musical breadth in modern jazz is, I think, pretty useful. In introducing jazz to a new listener, it's important to remember that many neophytes think that jazz refers to a narrowly specific set of sounds. Directed listening that emphasizes musical diversity: that's as close to an consensus formula as I can get you."

As a sort of response to Patrick's thoughts, I'm going to talk a little bit about why I try to tailor picks based on what my friends already like.

My reasons for personalization come from personal experiences of evangelizing jazz to my family and friends. After giving my brother and his girlfriend a mix of jazz at their request that I thought was accessible, he told me afterward that he thought Pat Metheny sounded too "new-agey," Brian Blade Fellowship "too smooth," and that Kurt Elling's voice was ingratiating, though he did enjoy Brad Mehldau's cover of "Wonderwall" and Maria Schneider's "Green Piece." His tastes are learned and diverse, so I expected, as Patrick writes, his assessments to be based primarily on musicianship.

However, although we would like to think otherwise, any potential jazz listener brings a lifetime of preconceptions and predilections to their music, particularly in terms of timbre (see Daniel Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music for a bit on that). Just the fact that potential listeners haven't listened to much jazz and probably in a superficial situation (i.e. restaurant background music) means that they have different expectations of what the music's purpose is and what characteristics make music good. If a jazz tune I show a friend has some sense of familiarity, particularly in terms of timbre or rhythm, then his or her initial judgment of the tune is much more positive, leading to repeated listens.

But do these personalized recommendations cheapen the music and/or pander to the listener? Certainly not. The recommendations that I make aren't just albums to be used as a gateway drug to the "real" stuff, but are great albums in and of themselves that have mounted substantial playcounts in my iTunes library and in my car stereo. These are the albums that got me into modern jazz when the "newest" jazz album I had was Buddy Rich's "Keep the Customer Satisified" from 1970. Most importantly, which Patrick also touches on, we as jazz evangelists must be earnest and enthusiastic in our recommendations and receptive to our audience. It's not like we're trying to force feed this music because it's good for you, rather, we're seeking someone with which to listen to this great music. We are not critics in an ivory tower, but fans and practitioners in the trenches. It's all about building a jazz community from the ground up.