consumption and the "other" senses
I take it as given that, when turmoil takes over, jazz fans have the luxury either to
withdraw to their music rooms or to congregate in their favorite taprooms or living rooms
for a dose of the thing that keeps us alive. My habit is to withdraw, because the music
helps me think through uncertainties when I don't feel especially celebratory, and I
regard even the most melancholy ballad, when I am in company, as a celebration of sorts.
That sort of thing, for me, is best kept private during sorrowful times, for I show no
grace in celebration when my mood is dark.
Heaven knows the world has afforded us ample opportunity for some hard thinking during the
past three weeks, and it is a matter of some comfort to me that there is a global
community of music lovers who are using the same balm on their psychic wounds that I am
using on mine. This is as close to an illustration of a "vibe" that I can offer.
It is a kind of shared intuition triggered by shared experience under a shared set of
Now, we all know the old mythology that surrounds the notion of intuition, which often has
been described as the "sixth sense" or the "second sight." This
quasi-sensory component of the musical (read: jazz) experience has followed me around like
my back pockets for my entire musical life. For example, I find it impossible to hear the
opening strains of Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso" without imagining a dollar
bill floating down a clear stream, and "'Round Midnight" always brings a
memorial whiff of the perfume favored by an old sweetheart. I possess an interior catalog
of such responses to particular tunes to rival the contents of the Bibliotheque Nationale.
To our auditory response -- for hearing is requisite to apprehending melody -- I already
have added the senses of sight and smell. And, I can add taste as well. Because I wasn't
within a mile of a gumbo the first time I listened carefully to "Didn't He
Ramble?", my response to the tune has little to do with the standard view of New
Orleans' ethnicity. Rather, I was sitting in front of a crowded bandstand in a famous
Hungarian restaurant in Toledo, Ohio, enjoying a wonderfully spicy sausage and a Dutch
beer, mingled tastes that have returned to me with each subsequent encounter with the
tune. I've eaten that meal hundreds of times over with the same relish. What does this
To me it signifies blending the music's two qualities: what it is and what it means. Now
the question becomes even more abstract, because, strictly speaking, it doesn't
"mean" anything. It merely "is."
The connotation -- the suspect "meaning" -- is a highly personal response, the
type of response that drives one man to dash for cover and another to sprint to the
military recruitment office when a brassy martial tune issues from the parade ground.
The denotation -- the "is"-ness -- is what we hear, shorn of the collateral
adornments of mind, emotion and sense. Sounds pretty sterile, doesn't it?
But it is precisely at the juncture of these two qualities that the musical experience
begins to become precious, providing the listener is canny enough to start with an
understanding of what the music is rather than what he wishes it were. In a unique way,
the personal response is the expression of the listener's desire for it to be something
else. But, if it is based on a firm understanding of what the music is, the response does
not harm the piece.
The initial acceptance of the music -- any music, but, specifically, jazz -- on its own
terms is required, otherwise a listener is unable to distinguish between the relative
merits of, say, Bud Powell and Cecil Taylor. And that, I submit, does damage to both
musicians' work. A more gnomic exercise would involve Mozart and The Ramones, but the
principle still would hold.
And what of tactility in music? That's an easy one for musicians. I play stringed
instruments and brass ones and percussive ones, so I know how it feels to produce sounds
like the bass run that introduces the theme of "So What," or the slippery piano
introduction to "Take The 'A' Train" or the lip-straining (for me) altitudes of
"Laura" as assayed by trombonist J.J. Johnson. But even a non-musician who loves
music knows the feeling of the tongue warbling against the roof of the mouth while he
whistles, or the impact of the hand on the knee as the foot meets the floor to the rhythm
of "Cherokee," or, even, the various textures involved in the dexterity required
to operate the average 21st-century stereo.
I submit that any music -- and jazz, in particular -- has the power to engage all the
senses. While the neophyte may claim only the ears, the experienced listener knows that
the other four senses are engaged in the ritual that makes music precious and necessary.
And that is why music is the greatest of all the arts. We may balk in the understanding of
poetry or drama or painting or sculpture or photography for a variety of reasons having to
do with those particular arts' shortcomings -- or our own -- to engage all the senses. But
music never shirks its unique talent for plugging us in to the vibe that is worth more