Tag: listening habits

Turn the Volume Down, Now

Conceptual photography. Somebody's holding a red signal horn very close to an ear.

Loud music is often irresistible. I live in a noisy city, and many of us seek even more noise for pleasure. Not too long after moving to New York in 1981, I went to the now-defunct Palladium to hear Einstürzende Neubaten (“Collapsing New Buildings”), a German industrial rock group founded in 1980. Knowing little about them, but lured by the promise of amplified found objects and scrap metal, I walked through the door and nirvana appeared: gloriously, the stage was crammed with all sorts of metallic objects, including a decrepit shopping cart and a tire-less bicycle wheel. But the next morning when I wanted to recall it with pleasure, the constant low hum in my head kept throwing interfering punches.

In early 1999, Siouxsie Sioux beckoned with a solo show at Irving Plaza, which I later found out had the reputation as New York’s most ear-shattering club. As soon as she began, despite the exhilaration of being with friends, I knew that it was going to be another deadening, over-amplified evening. Sioux was magnetic, slightly anarchic, a charismatic joy. But the sound level was inescapably mauling. It was the first time in many years I felt assaulted, rather than persuaded.

In his 2009 article “The Seductive (Yet Destructive) Appeal of Loud Music,” Dr. Barry Blesser describes the physical stimulus of loudness and tries to explain why it is so attractive, comparing music to other stimulants—both legal and not—and illustrating why it can function as a “self-medicating drug.” He also describes the sacculus, a small part of the inner ear which is part of the body’s impulse-delivering chain to the brain’s pleasure centers. (Blesser has three degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught electrical engineering and computer science from 1969 to 1978. He is also the co-author of the 2006 book Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture.)

Blesser argues that while turning up the volume is tempting, at a certain point (typically above 90db) those pleasant physiological effects are annihilated by the sheer decibel level—no matter what the music being played. It is the sonic equivalent of being served—or rather, forced to eat—one overindulgent dessert after another. Audio engineer Bob Katz puts it another way: “Loud music only sounds ‘better’ instantly. If it’s constantly loud, it becomes fatiguing.”

Another example—this time from the jazz/funk world—happened just three or four years ago at a memorable New Year’s celebration in Washington, D.C. The 9:30 Club has been dubbed the “best medium-sized rock venue” in the country, for its intimate atmosphere and fine acoustics—like a high-ceilinged gymnasium. I have been there often. On this occasion was Trombone Shorty (a.k.a., Troy Andrews) and his group Orleans Avenue. Andrews is an extravagantly talented musician who plays three or four other instruments in addition to the one that gives him his stage name. But when the concert began, the volume was akin to a pneumatic drill at close range. My anxiety skyrocketed. Briefly I thought about leaving, but it was New Year’s Day, the ticket was paid for, and beloved pals were nearby (what Blesser refers to as “social synchronization of brain states”).

After maybe 45 minutes, I fled to the back of the club (which offered little solace) and eventually darted outside to wait for my friends. The searing brass glare didn’t stop. And it didn’t stop the following day, either. I thought, This is it—you’ve done damage that can never be fixed.

This issue is hardly one strictly related to amplified music. A typical loud orchestral concert registers 120-137 on the decibel scale. John Corigliano’s Circus Maximus, for large wind ensemble, concludes with a gunshot. The loudest sustained volume effort of an orchestral concert I recall was in 2000, when Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall performed Edgard Varèse’s Amériques, a work with an enormous percussion array. On the decibel scale, this one was likely at 140 or higher. But the entire piece is 15 minutes, not two hours.

In the classical realm, I confess a love for elephantine orchestration: Bruckner, Mahler, Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. As one friend observed years ago, “An orchestra is the most remarkable acoustic device ever created.” He was right, but that machine can also produce sounds capable of severe damage, especially at close range and over time. In the last decade or so, in response to increasing volume levels, some orchestras have placed clear plastic acoustic baffles in front of brass or percussion sections to stop the sound from deafening the colleagues in front.

And the usual suspects among instruments—electric guitar, percussion, trumpet, trombone—are not the only ones to watch out for. The benign-looking piccolo is oddly one of the biggest offenders: since it is shorter than the flute, the sound emitted is closer to the ear and can inflict significant hearing damage to the person playing it. (Not to deny pleasure to those who like Sousa marches, but perhaps they should feel slightly guilty.)

In 2008 at Issue Project Room, the group Either/Or presented Rhys Chatham’s Two Gongs (1971), with David Shively and Alex Waterman. I had brought earplugs, which as I wrote at the time, were not just “recommended” but “mandatory.” (Thankfully, the group’s director, Richard Carrick, darted out before the concert and returned with an entire box of them.)

The roughly 40-minute piece is purity itself: two massive Chinese gongs of slightly different timbres being struck, starting at a soft murmur and escalating to the aural equivalent of a tsunami. Volume aside, much of the interest comes from the varying pitch of the two instruments and the oscillating frenzy they produce. If you want to experience gongs—the essence of “gong-ness” at its most elemental—this is the way to do it. (In retrospect, a small room that seats 100 people may not have been the proper venue; a larger one would have been able to allow the full resonance of the instruments to bloom, with perhaps less discomfort.)

Chatham’s exercise may be bundled with a certain mischievousness, and I confess a few chuckles at first at just how absurdly loud the sound became. But very soon my fingers were pressing over my earplugged ears; my hands were glued to the sides of my head for the duration. (Yes, exiting was an option, as the gradual trickle to the door showed.) And even with those layers of protection, the clangor was still making me feel like a participant in some government-sponsored experiment on the physical response of human cells to sound waves.

Over decades of listening, ear parts gradually age and deteriorate. But this is not the same as what the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), refers to as “noise induced hearing loss” (NIHD). And despite both multiple causes and multiple outcomes in different people, NIHD is preventable.

Lining the inner ear are microscopic, sensory hair cells topped with equally small projections called stereocilia. When sound travels past them, normally they vibrate and channel the sound into the brain. But when sound overwhelms them, they wither and die. They do not grow back. The NIDCD notes that 85 dB is the tipping point: music at this level played for a prolonged time will cause damage. An MP3 player at its highest setting will register 105 dB, 20 dB higher than the aforementioned tipping point. A classical concert may have peaks of 120 dB, and a rock concert can be around 150 dB. Imagine the effects of this for two hours each day. Now imagine six or eight hours a week, and the losses begin to pile up quickly.

I have nothing against amplification, per se. Amplification is an invaluable tool to help shape sound and make it suitable for spaces that may otherwise have little to offer to musicians or audiences. But to increase music’s volume to the point that any pleasure is lost—beyond what human physiology can tolerate—seems pointless and will cut short a potential lifetime of listening.

I feel lucky. Dozens of friends and acquaintances—many much younger than me—have reported mild to severe tinnitus, which the American Tinnitus Association defines as “a sensorineural reaction in the brain to damage in the ear and auditory system.” There is currently no remedy. (Some report that machines producing white noise are of some help.) Of course, loudness can occur at non-music events: a sold-out football game, exposure to heavy machinery, being near a firecracker.

For a recent concert by the Momenta Quartet, violinist Alex Shiozaki wrote a program note about the Japanese concept of “ma,” which means roughly the space between two events, or negative space. It can also refer to silence, most famously espoused by John Cage. Silence or lower volume levels are crucial to shape, as is contour. Constant loudness is not exciting, it’s numbing. In the final movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, the overwhelming detonations are effective for many reasons, some posited far in advance, but the quiet moments that surround them give them even greater impact.

Hearing music is one of humankind’s greatest pleasures: the subtle coo of Ella Fitzgerald, the sandpapery cackle of Janis Joplin, the acidic strut of Beyoncé, the granitic textures of Xenakis, the pared-down clarity of Bach’s Cello Suites, the trombone ecstasy of yet another New Orleans-based group, Bonerama. (They have a Beethoven track that is killer.) The sting of an electric guitar is a beautiful thing.

Most people, barring genetic intervention, can hear and experience music until very late in life, even if high frequencies are diminished. One friend in his mid-80s has hearing possibly more sensitive than mine—a phenomenon that may be more common than documented. Discussion on that issue will wait for another day.

I’m not arguing against “loud.” Loud is fun. Loud is even ecstasy, under the right circumstances. (Soft is good, too, perhaps especially appreciated by city dwellers.) But I’m pleading: an onslaught of extreme volume is unnecessary for a peak emotional experience, and it destroys the ability to hear sounds of all kinds.

And if it leaves you unable to hear anything at all, really, what’s the point?

Bruce Hodges

Based in New York City, Bruce Hodges is a regular contributor to The Strad and Musical America, and North American editor for Seen & Heard International. He has written articles for Lincoln Center and London’s Southbank Centre, and wrote a long-running column on recordings for The Juilliard Journal.

Gathering Stones

While I was reading Frank J. Oteri’s offering on the novel vs. the familiar (“A Temple for the Familiar”), I was struck by the notion that most of us derive our greatest pleasure from the things we already know. Although I think what Oteri was actually describing was how members of a concert-going audience might most greatly express their pleasure from something they barely know; i.e., live music.

This is probably the result of going through my mother’s effects for the last week. So far, the experience has been like traversing an emotionally charged landscape that, like a never-ending carpet, unrolls to reveal a fascinating design of discovered and rediscovered possessions that belonged to a person I’ve known from the start of my life. But the pattern of this carpet’s design is also reflexive (or maybe reflective) because of a critique of the world written in journal entries that include descriptions of her daily activities, as well as musings on her friends, work acquaintances, and family—including me.

This carpet’s threads are made of paper, porcelain, pewter, bamboo, terra cotta, glass, oak, and leather. Some of the threads are comprised of words, books, computer data, pictures, drawings, and sculpture. There are also more traditional materials, such as silk, cotton, denim, wool, and even some polyester. But the material that currently has my attention is vinyl. It’s not my favorite material for recorded music (I think it’s too cumbersome and fragile, and the frequency response isn’t as good as digital), but I know more than a few people who don’t agree with me on this and I wouldn’t want to try to dissuade them. Besides, this particular collection of vinyl includes the stuff I first understood to be that special arrangement of vibrating air molecules called music. It was in this assortment of classical, jazz, and popular music that, between 1960 and 1968, I found the inspiration to spend the rest of my life making music.

Of course the first records I heard came before that. My brother and I were given our first record player around 1959 with a special collection of 45-rpm discs suited to our tastes. It featured such greats as: Popeye and Olive Oyl (Jack Mercer and Mae Questel) singing “Never Play With Matches”; Bing Crosby singing “The Headless Horseman”; and Doris Day singing “When the Red, Red, Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along.” Soon I began adding to that collection of my own accord with red-hot items like: “I’m A Believer”; “Walk Don’t Run”; and “It’s A Gas.” Around 1965, though, my brother’s and my own tastes diverged (of course, arbitrarily), and I realized that the best way for me to listen to the sides that I wanted to listen to without engaging in protracted sessions of primitive negotiation techniques was to gain access to the Big Machine downstairs that mom and dad used.
Dad agreed to let me use his hi-fi monaural record player (not quite stereo, yet) as long as for every record of mine I listened to, I listened to one of his. This agreement exposed me to the music of Count Basie (with and without Lester Young), Nick Travis, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky, Bach, and Hindemith. I’ll never forget the day I was lying on the floor of the living room, listening to the Andante from Aram Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto in D (after listening to “Pleasant Valley Sunday“). It was during the sublime recapitulation of the theme that I knew music would become my life’s work. (That was the USSR Melodiya recording, distributed in the U. S. by Angel Records, featuring David Oistrakh as the soloist with the composer conducting.) I didn’t just hear the music, but could see it and hold it. Since then I’ve learned that this type of experience–synesthesia–isn’t uncommon among musicians. At the time, though, it came as a total shock. Of course, I had to repeat the experience, so I set out to listen to every record Mom and Dad had to see if it would happen again. It did when I heard Mom’s recording of Pierre Monteux conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka and again when I heard Robert Gerle as the soloist in Hindemith’s Kammermusik No.4 with Hermann Scherchen conducting on the Westminister label. The “flip” side of that album introduced me to the music of a familiar name, Kurt Weill, with his Concerto for Violin and Winds, which had almost nothing about it that resembled the music of Weill that I was familiar with.

In 1968, I began to attend live music events regularly, which introduced me to a different kind of listening experience. Instead of listening to music in familiar surroundings, I was spending more and more time listening to it in novel and unfamiliar settings where it was difficult to hear every note as clearly as I could at home. I realized that “recorded” vs. “live” resembled a binary situation where the listener could dispense with paying attention to the music filling the room and go on to do whatever she or he wanted to do (including listening to the music) in the former, while the latter demanded a modicum of decorum from its audience. As I attended more and more live performances, though, I began to feel less and less of a connection to the aural aspects of the music and more of a fascination with the musicians’ techniques. I found myself watching the musicians more than listening to what they were playing. It wasn’t until I began playing improvised music that the level of involvement with the sound of music in live performance was on par with that of listening to the records on mom and dad’s stereo.

Training one’s ear to have its own listening life while playing forever changed the way I hear music. I now have no problems watching a performer play while giving the music the deep listening it deserves. I have often had my synesthetic episodes while listening to a live performance and, while not as profound as the first isolated times, they happen more often. But listening to recordings that I’ve played on doesn’t offer the experience very often at all. I attribute this to residual stage fright coupled with a sense of self-criticism that may or may not be overblown. But so far only a handful inspire that special place. I can appreciate the serendipity of finding a few in my mom’s collection, especially Kenny Werner’s hard-to-find 298 Bridge Street and Jane Ira Bloom’s Modern Drama.
Listening to her collection while cataloging its contents for its impending sale has given me plenty of opportunities to experience music I haven’t heard. For one thing, her collection is quite eclectic and, while I can take or leave new age and electronica, she liked it. Fortunately, mom was satisfied with having a fairly small number of recordings to listen to, so I only have a few examples to sit through. But the experience of listening again to some of the recordings that she had before I was born conjures a sensation that is somewhere in between familiarity and novelty. I’m not yet sure if it’s the milieu that I’m doing the listening in (her apartment) or whether this will be a new paradigm for these recordings that goes with this eerie rite of passage.

I also wonder what things would have been like for me if, like the musicians of times before Edison’s invention and the ensuing recording industry, I had not been able to hear music on recordings. Would I have ever heard Count Basie? Duke Ellington? Doris Day? David Oistrakh? Would I have even heard of them? Would I have chosen music as my life’s work? And if I had, what would I be playing, composing, writing about? Well, whatever it is, or will be, I know that it makes me want to listen to a not very well-known song, “Gathering Stones,” that Kenny Werner wrote for his dog, Chachka, who had a strange habit of collecting rocks everywhere she went. Quite a bit like us and our records and CDs and such. But I’ll have to wait until I’m back home from Jazz Camp West for that.

Drowning By Numbers

I must confess that my listening proclivities are driven by a quixotic desire for completeness perhaps even more than by my insatiable desire for new experiences. Quixotic, because I know deep down that completeness is not only impossible, but also that it’s not desirable—if I actually was able to listen to everything, then there would be nothing new left to hear. It would be the end of music, certainly the end of new music. But that’s a rationalization, and most human drives operate on levels that transcend reason.

There are few things that gnaw at me more than partial experiences of something. I want to experience it all. So I am still extremely frustrated that I only got to sit through three hours of Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which means I only saw one eighth of the footage, even though I know the work is not meant to be experienced for a full 24 hours and even were I to sit through it all, it is a continuous loop with no intended beginning or ending point. I actually tried to see more of it right before the end of its Lincoln Center Festival run. But on the afternoon I showed up, the line was around the block. I was told that it would be at least 2 1/2 hours before I could get in (which is almost as long as the time I had spent experiencing The Clock). It’s hard to believe: some New Yorkers are actually willing to wait that long; this one isn’t.

On a somewhat more mundane level, it is perhaps even more frustrating for me to listen to a piece of music whose title declares it to be part of a sequence of works and then not be able to hear the rest of the works in the sequence. For example, when I encounter, say, someone’s third symphony, my immediate reaction after hearing it (and sometimes even before hearing it), is to seek out that composer’s first and second symphonies, etc. It gets to be quite a listening project with very prolific composers like Joseph Haydn, who wrote 104 numbered symphonies. (Actually a total of either 106 or 107 Haydn symphonies survive, depending on whether or not one considers his Sinfonia Concertante to be a bona fide symphony.) There have now been several complete recorded cycles of Haydn’s symphonies, so hearing the whole lot is a possible–albeit extremely time-consuming—listening project. (I’ve done it.) However, there have yet to be recorded cycles of the complete symphonies of some of our own most prolific contributors to the genre: Roy Harris (13), Gloria Coates (15), Henry Cowell (21), or Alan Hovhaness (67!). Worse still, though William Schuman composed a total of ten symphonies, he withdrew the first two. There is an archival recording of a radio broadcast of Schuman’s Second Symphony with extremely poor audio fidelity lurking in a private collection, which I’ve actually heard, but I probably will never get to hear his First Symphony.

Despite my interest being immediately piqued by this numbers game, I do find it somewhat puzzling that a composer would want to title a composition in a way that immediately refers back to earlier compositions, especially a work the composer has disavowed. With the exception of a Second Piano Concerto written as a teen (it and its predecessor are now pieces I don’t think very much of) and a Piano Sonata No. 2 (even though I never completely finalized my Piano Sonata No. 1), I have never titled works this way and I doubt I ever will in the future. Employing such a titling scheme doesn’t allow a work to be heard on its own terms. It also implies a kind of evolution: a composer’s seventh string quartet should somehow be better than his or her sixth. I’ve long eschewed such evaluative notions, yet it still irks me to hear a work so numbered by someone else before hearing its predecessors. Again, I’m fully aware that this is not completely sane on my part.

Perhaps titling works this way is a form of promotion. If someone likes your No. 5, there will probably be four other works they will like as well. The folks in the publishing and record business have certainly capitalized on such a mindset when they’ve issued multiple volumes over time. In fact, legend has it that some record labels in the 1950s issued their “volume two” of a product before issuing “volume one,” thus insuring sales for the first volume upon its eventual release. After all, how many fans are capable of possessing volume two of something without also acquiring the first volume?


First off, my apologies for the title of this week’s post are offered in all due respect to the great saxophonist-educator-composer Mel Martin, who led a band of that name in the Bay Area during the 1970s.

Last week, I attempted to open a line of discussion about how we filter what we hear according to the music we create (I’m assuming, correctly or not, that everyone reading this creates, or has created, music as a part of their daily activities). The question was inspired by a rather lengthy argument I was having with one of my Facebook “friends” (and I hope we still are) about the socio-political messaging of rap music. After more than thirty years, the music still finds detractors who look at it as devoid of significance and/or, believe it or not, social commentary. The post received no comments, but I did get a lot of emails sent to me privately. The most scathing of them stated that “hip hop fits into American music roughly where MacDonald’s fits into American cuisine,” comparing it favorably to “only elevator music and Muzak Xmas carols.” While I think that elevator music (at least the stuff that’s piped into elevators, not the actual sounds that elevators themselves make) is Muzak, I was heartened to read that the person found General George Owen Squire’s invention less palatable than the street beat from the Bronx (actually the most scathing emailer called me all sorts of things, but I’m not goin’ there!).

The only comment (again, privately transmitted) that addressed the “listening with a personal filter” issue was from a singer who mentioned that the way she listened to music changed after she decided to make a go of singing in public. She found that her experience performing to an audience made her start to listen to individual instruments and their synergistic relationships to each other. This is probably the same for all of us who read NewMusicBox.org; I know it was for me when I began working on performing seriously. But two articles from this week investigated aspects of the subject. While I’m not sure if I agree that an ability to reproduce what someone else plays directly relates to how one filters what is heard (though I do agree wholeheartedly that originality stems from an inability to be satisfied with recreating what others have already done), the concept of aesthetic neutrality alerted me to an important facet of my listening that bears directly on rap music.

I have yet to master listening through an aesthetically neutral filter. I still get pretty bored when listening to certain artists (mostly pop artists from the past, such as Paul Whiteman, Annunzio Mantovani, and Lawrence Welk) and Muzak rarely interests me, although I do listen to it when confronted with it. I can remember walking home from work with my bass in one arm and amplifier in the other, hurrying because I had a melodic fragment in my head that I wanted to write down as soon as I got into my apartment on the 14th floor. When I got into the building’s Muzak-equipped elevator, there was a lush string arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” being piped in that, by the time I reached the 14th floor, had wiped the melody I was hoping to compose right out of the picture! (I pieced it back together a few years later and had the honor of recording it when I was on tour in Italy in 2004.) But I find that, for the most part, there is not much music I “don’t like.” There might be some (actually, a lot, and mostly my own) that doesn’t make me want to listen to it again and again, but very little that I reject aesthetically.

What I do find, though, is that there is quite a bit of ideological filtering that goes on in my listening now. When I realized that Glenn Miller had little interest in music as an expressive act, I lost my interest. To be sure, I find his music fairly boring anyway, but the socio-political apathy I understood to be part of his message really turned me off for good. So, when I hear jazz, I hear a music that’s about socio-political issues; e.g. Billie Holiday singing about lynched bodies in “Strange Fruit” or about drug addiction in “Goodmorning Heartache.”
I also admire the messaging of Sly Stone’s “Running Away” or “Family Affair,” although they’re not strictly jazz. These songs discuss aspects of our culture that the American Culture Machine would rather we not pay too much attention to, much like they’d rather we don’t understand just who Machiavelli was writing about in The Prince.

While I was reading through the articles from last week, I stumbled upon a link in the “You might also enjoy…” portion of one of them that took me to an article I resonate with on two specific levels. One is ideological—that is, it discussed the kind of political messaging in music performance/composition that informs my aesthetic filtering. The author, Laura Kaminsky, wrote about performing the first live music concert in Croatia after the cessation of hostilities in 1997 as “an offering of hope.” She invoked the names of Olivier Messiaen (Quartet for the End of Time), Luciano Berio (O King), Igor Stravinsky (Elegy for JFK), George Crumb (Black Angels), and John Corigliano (Symphony No. 1), as well as many others, as examples of composers who include socio-political messaging in their music. The other level of resonance is personal—in 1998, I had the experience of being in what might have been the first jazz group to tour in Bosnia and Croatia after the fighting had stopped. We drove through towns that included the same sights described by Kaminsky. I can still see “the worn faces of the people … the huge craters and pockmarks from bombs and bullets scarring the walls … the homes without rooftops” as if it were yesterday. I also remember the bombed-out bridge that forced us to take a wooden raft as a ferry across a river, and then having to purchase “travel insurance” from a man with a machine gun at the largest open-air black market I’ll probably ever see in my life.

When I read that Kaminsky had dedicated the score of her piano trio “to the victims of ethnic cleansing,” I began to see, in my mind’s eyes, the bodies of African Americans from “Strange Fruit,” hanging from trees by their necks while large groups of white Southerners posed for photographers who would produce postcards of the carnage’s aftermath. I also saw Asian Americans being interred in concentration camps in the Western states. I imagined the Trail of Tears. And then I heard “When Thugs Cry,” by Tupac Shakur, and “[email protected] Da Police,” by N.W.A, and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Also “Fables of Faubus” (Charles Mingus), “Song for Che” (Charlie Haden), “Free New Afrika! Boogaloo” (Fred Ho), and even “Witchi Tai To” (Jim Pepper).* These are all examples of American music that address the theme of Kaminsky’s dedication. The musical elements of these examples have a drive and intensity that I find lacking in Miller, Mantovani, Whiteman, and Welk. It’s music that is meant to open one’s eyes to what is going on every day in America, not to lull one to sleep!

I’ve said before that jazz is America’s music. It’s the case whether anyone likes it or not because in 1998 it was legislated by an act of Congress! I’ve also said that in a little less than five years jazz will be officially a century old. What jazz—musicologically, sociologically, aesthetically, or commercially—is, and always has been, up for grabs. Certainly there is a core music that is “undeniably jazz,” like most of the works of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, or John Coltrane (all of whom recorded politically themed music), but quite a bit of the music that modern jazz players consider essential to learning the music is ignored in the “real world.” Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Lennie Tristano, and Bob Brookmeyer are all important to this music and all had distinct socio-political messaging attached to what they played (or play, in the case of Coleman). There are established artists who are successful, but relatively unknown: Joanne Brackeen, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Werner, Tim Berne, Steve Coleman, Carla Bley, Arturo O’Farrill, Roseanna Vitro, and so many more. They point to directions in their music that aren’t well understood or explored, but are “undeniable” and include philosophical and socio-political messaging that is subtle, but clear. The new breed(s) include many artists who have been working at their craft for years but are still just getting off the ground. Fay Victor, Judy Silvano, Bruce Arnold, Melissa Hamilton, Hilly Greene, Andrea Wolper, Jamie Affoumado, Eric Lewis, Tom Rainey, and Victor Jones, as well as real new faces like Stacy Dillard, Spencer Murphy, Carlos Abadie, Kris Davis, Mary Halvorson, and Josh Evans (again, that’s just a very, very few).

Some of these artists may not even be considered jazz musicians, now or in the future, by the American Culture Machine—but that’s what they’re playing. The controversy seems to center around how much their music is diluted by non-jazz influences, such as classical (Vijay Iyer, Fred Hersch, Mark Dresser), non-European (Iyer, Hafez Modirzadeh, Toshiko Akiyoshi), Latin American (Jay Rodriguez, Chucho Valdez, Claudio Roditi), or even country music (Mark Feldman, Charlie Haden, Les Paul).** But the non-jazz influence is just that, an influence, not a separate style. Many new and established jazz performers, especially African American performers, have grown up with hip hop and rap, an influence that informs their music making. It also informs musicians who work and listen to them as well as audiences who attend their performances, but who were not raised listening to hip hop or rap. The messaging of rap is not lost on any of them and, in my not-so-humble opinion, should be listened to by all of us—closely and thoughtfully.


* All of these titles can be heard on YouTube.

** I know some of these names belong to very established musicians and at least one non-living one (Les Paul at the time of this writing), but all of them have been labeled as both authentic and not authentic jazz musicians at some point in their careers, even though they consider themselves to be jazz players.