Monday, January 22, 2018

I Don't Like It, But Is It Good?

In the spring of 1968, when I was a freshman in college, I went to an Archie Shepp concert with my then-boyfriend, Peter. A bus picked us up in front of Converse Hall at Amherst College and took us to Springfield, Massachusetts for the performance.

Among the crowd waiting for the bus, I noticed E., whom I'd met earlier that year, when he was dating a girl in my dorm at Smith College. I remember saying hello to him before we got on the bus. I knew he was a musician, but not much else.

 Archie Shepp, Lecco, Italy, 1967
I didn't enjoy the concert. Shepp played in a style that combined avant-garde free jazz techniques with African rhythms. To me, the result sounded like a discordant mess. I could tell that Shepp was very skilled on his instrument, the saxophone, but I couldn't relate to what he was playing. Yet, I knew he was regarded as talented and innovative by jazz critics. I wondered what was wrong with me, that I didn't like him.

On the return bus trip, I got into an argument with Peter. He hadn't liked Shepp, either. But I insisted that just because we hadn't enjoyed the music, that didn't mean it wasn't good. Maybe it meant our taste wasn't developed enough to appreciate Shepp's talent.

I saw E. sitting a few rows ahead of me on the bus. Knowing he was a musician, I imagined that he had appreciated Shepp's skills at some higher level. I wished I had gone to the concert with him, so he could have explained the music to me.

By 1972, E. and I were living together. He had a large record collection and we wiled away many hours listening to all kinds of music. I hoped E. would help me develop good taste. I was still plagued by the worry that when I didn't enjoy music admired by critics, it was because I was too much of philistine to appreciate the finer things in life.

One afternoon, E. played a Miles Davis album from Davis' abstract period. Although I didn't know much about jazz at the time, I did know that Miles Davis was an icon of the genre. Yet, as with Archie Shepp, though I could tell Davis was a masterful musician, I didn't enjoy the music. Davis' cool improvisations kept veering away from anything melodic, which I yearned for. The album definitely put me in a groove, but it was a pretty depressed groove. And, once again, I blamed myself for failing to "get it."

"Is this good?" I asked E.

"Do you like it?" he replied.

"Not really," I acknowledged. "But that's probably because I'm too dense to understand what I'm hearing."

E. disagreed. He felt that what mattered was how I innately responded to the music.

"If you don't like it, why force yourself to listen to it?" he said.

Not long after this conversation, we moved to California, where E. got a job as a music critic for the Palo Alto Times. I accompanied him to many performances and heard everyone from Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, and Ella Fitzgerald to Cecil Taylor, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Vince Guaraldi. Between hours of listening and hours of talking about the performances with E., I finally got the musical education I'd longed for. I came to appreciate and even enjoy some types of jazz, particularly jazz-funk, with its strong rhythms and catchy riffs.

It took a while, but ultimately I stopped worrying about what other people might think of my musical taste and listened to the artists I enjoyed. Here are a few examples of jazz performances from the seventies that I loved the first time I heard them and still love today. You may not agree, but of course I'll understand — it's all about what sounds good to you.

Eumir Deodato's "Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)," from his album, Prelude:

Hampton Hawes' "Go Down Moses," from his album, Northern Windows, with the inimitable Carol Kaye on bass:

Keith Jarrett's "The Rich (And the Poor)," from his album, Treasure Island: