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Listening to Jazz

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Listening to Jazz

Even since a commentator remarked that some argue that the greatest composer of the 20th century was Duke Ellington I've been listening to more jazz than I usually do. I'm asking myself, could this possibly be true? Really? So I listened to Mood Indigo a few times:

 Well, ok. But then I listened to Thelonius Monk:

Uh-huh. Then I listened to Miles Davis:

And what about Sun Ra?

And I remember reading something Duke Ellington said about jazz and freedom:

Put it this way: Jazz is a good barometer of freedom... In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.

I like that.

You have to understand, I have always had a difficult relationship with jazz. When I was still a teen, the only serious music magazine I could find in my local store was Downbeat, so I subscribed to it for a year or so. I didn't actually have access to jazz performances or recordings so I was mostly reading about music I hadn't heard. Later on, I did get a chance to hear some jazz recordings, but my most intense encounter was when I was hired to play rhythm guitar in a 27-piece big band for a few months. Oh, man, I was the worst jazz rhythm guitarist ever. All I knew how to play was blues and rock and suddenly I had to find an E flat, flat 5th, flat 9th chord? And they only played in horrible keys. And what the hell is a 13th chord anyway? So that was pretty intimidating. Anyway, my path led to classical music from then so I didn't have anything to do with jazz for a long time. The basic aesthetic principles just didn't make any sense to me, even though I liked a few pieces. Some Dave Brubeck, some Miles Davis. And like I said, if the music is about freedom, then it starts to make sense to me.

Plus, these are obviously very serious musicians.

But look, if I have to give an honest comment on the clips above, here is what I am going to say.

  • Duke Ellington, "Mood Indigo". It seems arbitrary or sketchy to me, both in concept and execution but this is probably inherent in the style. 
  • Thelonious Monk, "Lulu's Back in Town". A stiff touch on the piano, so it must be a stylistic thing. But a bit painful to watch if you are used to classical pianists. And the sax is badly out of tune with the piano.
  • Miles Davis, "So What". I liked this quite a lot, but I had the feeling all the way through that the real title should be "F**k You."
  • Sun Ra, "Take the A Train". This guy is way out there, and I liked that insane piano introduction. Freedom, yeah.
Stravinsky's comment on jazz the first time he heard it was that the way it was played was more interesting than the music itself. Still, I think I am starting to get the point, a bit anyway. The thing is that every one of these guys are really who they are, they are strong musical personalities.

But Duke Ellington as the greatest composer of the 20th  century? I dunno, I think I might vote for Sun Ra instead in the jazz field. But I think the ones really in the running are the usual suspects: Stravinsky, Bartók, Shostakovich, maybe Messiaen. Your milage may vary.

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