Jazz 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 conditions.

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 signify?

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 than rubies.