Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Give the people what they want?

In all honesty, I can't STAND "Take the 'A' Train."

It grates on me almost as much as "Satin Doll," which is my #1 most hated song. I love me some Duke, but I could honestly live out the rest of my life never hearing either one of those two tunes again!

I was just raging about "A Train" the other day to Joseph. Which is why I sat in complete shock, giving him my dirtiest teacher glare, when the other night at his Garage hit, near the end of his second set, I heard the iconic piano intro to "Take the 'A' Train." "WTF?", I glared with my eyes. He gave me a "give the people what they want" shrug and launched full on into the opening melody.

"Yeah! Take the A Train!" exclaimed the boyfriend of my friend whom I was sitting with.

"Excuse me," I muttered, deciding this was the ideal time for a bathroom break.

A few minutes later I returned to the bar, and became cognisant of an increase in noise level. Why are these half drunk trendy twenty-somethings sitting next to me all of a sudden so rowdy? And my awareness was shifted back to the band, where the pianist, Brooks Hartell, was banging out a 6 chorus, perfectly crafted, fantastically inspired stride piano solo, and the people were actually cheering him on!

I shut my eyes and for half a second felt transported back into "the day." The day when the unknown pianist sat at the out of tune piano at the local speakeasy playing for the non-musicians who actually liked the blues licks and improvised solos, inspiring them to dance and become rowdy, giving "jazz" the reputation of being devil music. This is what is must have been like, when people liked jazz and appreciated jazz, and the music was more about the sounds as they happened and less about the harmonic analysis or intellectual composition techniques.

We jazzers certainly like to (dare I say) over-think our music. There has been a lot of discussion recently regarding the place of vocabulary (read the comments) and education (IAJE's bankruptcy) within the vast, yet vague world of jazz. These are complicated issues with circumstantial answers. And yet I can't help but feel that we as jazz musicians, whose very nature is intrinsic to making order out of chaos, bring on the complexities of our genre ourselves. Our world is very small, very young, and currently very under-appreciated. It's hard for us to just let music be music, be it bebop, third stream, dixieland, big band, avant garde, or any other sub-genre of jazz. We feel the need to understand and define every aspect of the creation of the music, the social impacts of the music, the education or "street cred" of the music, and the category that the music falls into. Our egos are easily bruised and we look to one another for validation.

It is because of this jazz trait that I can't let "The 'A'' Train" go. I can't help but ponder the popularity of the song. Is it because it's about a subway line (an unreliable one at that!) in NYC and everyone (including New Yorkers) are fascinated with anything NY? Is it because Duke did an exceptional job of promoting this song back in the day so that it became ingrained in everyday life? Perhaps it was the educational system who chose this song as it's token jazz tune, thereby brainwashing America into thinking it is the only good jazz tune. Or maybe it's because that opening line is just so damn catchy?

Why? WHY! my over analytical brain screams! Duke, and others, had so many great songs, why was THIS the one that is recognizable by almost every non-musical person out there?

And then I think...

What does it matter? Aside from perhaps wanting to discover a magic formula for making my own tunes so popular, does it really matter why audiences love "Take the 'A' Train?" At least it's a Duke tune and not some crap like "Yakkity Sax."

And the thing is, it does work like magic!

For the first set and a half, Joseph and his quartet played a great balance of standards and originals. It was wonderful playing, but they really could have been up there reciting scales over and over for all the patrons of the restaurant cared. No one applauded after solos, and no one acknowledged the band when they were introduced at the end of the set. That's not so abnormal, as the venue is after all a restaurant and bar, not a jazz hall. However, after hearing "'A' Train," the now drunk twenty-somethings were all into the music, cheering for all the tunes, and even staying for all 4 sets. All of a sudden the music was alive to them, and there was an energy and communication in the room. Isn't that what we as musicians, any musician regardless of genre, strive for? A connection to the listener?

Now I think it's safe to guess that the drunkards did not stick around because they were instantly transformed into active jazz listeners, eager to interpret the improvisations and arrangements of the tunes to come. But it is highly likely that the music created such an energy and vibe that fit the mood of the pending hook-ups, that the crowds stayed, if not for the genius of the music, but for the environment it created. I think we need to realize that our music does still serve that function. While we with our educated compositional minds do yearn to express and communicate various personal agendas with our music, we need to remember that if we want to call our music jazz, then we need to embrace the historical roots of jazz as (deep breath)... entertainment.

The word "entertainment" has a negative connotation these days. I hear "entertainment" and I think Britney Spears, cheesy chick flicks, and rag mags. But entertainment is defined as "something affording pleasure, diversion, or amusement, esp. a performance of some kind."

Our music is amazing in that it has the ability to be intricate, multi-layered, and in need of a (musically) intelligent listener to fully grasp the fullness and genius of the music. At the same time, the music can appeal to those who simply want to be diverted, pleased, and amused. We need not always have both goals within the same song, set, or performance. I do think there is a time for a more serious concert performance, and a place for the "lite" set. I also think it is possible to achieve both at that same time. Regardless of the your intent as a musician, I don't think we should value one goal above the other.

It is for that reason that I feel a bit ashamed of my elitist reaction to "the 'A' Train." My snobbery doesn't help the cause of jazz, or the essence of music for that matter. I won't quit trying to perfect the high level of expression and storytelling I hope to achieve through my compositions, but when it comes to playing for a young crowd, on a Saturday night, at a bar, after a long work week, isn't it okay, especially if it helps reel listeners in, to just count off a swing beat, and give the people what they want?


Ryshpan said...

When this debate comes up, I think of something Greg Osby said out at the Banff Centre, that jazz has become music for musicians, often losing sight of the fact that music is meant to communicate. Duke's well-known ballads - "Mood Indigo," "I Got It Bad," "Sophisticated Lady," Strayhorn's "Lush Life" - are communicative but they're far from simple, easy tunes. As Osby said, "If I wanted to hear people stick the Giant Steps matrix everywhere, I wouldn't leave my practice room!"

Restaurant gigs are funny, and it's interesting what grasps people's attention. Anytime I do my poor white-boy impression of Richard Tee's two-fisted gospel piano, people take notice, even though they probably don't know who Richard Tee is and I'm not particularly good at it. There's a certain energy in it that cuts across any intimidating boundaries and preconceived notions of what jazz is supposed to be.

Anonymous said...

Great Post. Yeah this is an interesting topic, and one that I return to every time I play a standards gig. With the right attitude, it can be a lot of fun to even go for cheese. I hate "Satin Doll", and so does everyone else I play these gigs with, so we play it every time just to see what happens. At a Sunday Brunch gig with 2 guitars and trombone (?), we played standards and often stretched them out into free playing and/or hymns or drones, and the audience loved it just because of the energy. They didn't even notice when we ended by playing "Waterfalls" by TLC, "Heart Shaped Box" by Nirvana, and "Say it Ain't So" by Weezer.

No matter how much thought goes into a song's conception, if it comes out sounding cool, than it worked. If not, then you should probably re-examine...or something like that.