Smokin' At the Half Note
I work at a jazz club and one of my co-workers studied jazz guitar in college. We bond over that on occasion. We don’t talk about it all the time but every now and then we fall down a deep dark jazz well. The other night a musician in the club’s weekly house band walked in, waved, and greeted us: “What’s new, fellas?” As soon as he was through the doors, David turned around and said; “what a great tune.” I claimed Clifford Brown’s recording of the song – “What’s New – as my favorite and David claimed Wes Montgomery’s take with the Wynton Kelly Trio and down the rabbit hole we went.
I never learned that one. Neither did I, but I transcribed all of “No Blues.” I did a couple choruses from that one but spent about a month on “Misty.” Adam Rogers makes all his students learn Wes’s solo on “Unit 7.” I love that tune.
That music is a language is a shabbily worn cliche. College professors and band directors light up in gray-carpeted rehearsal rooms and talk about how jazz is different; jazz is a conversation. There’s certainly some truth to that. Musicians interact ten choruses into “Come Rain or Come Shine” in a way that others simply don’t. Knowing how musicians chatter and respond enhances a listener’s ability to enjoy the music enormously. (See “No Blues” at roughly 9:17) But there’s a big reason why the comparison never quite holds: The figures and lines and patterns and calls and responses don’t actually mean anything.
Without a metaphysical discussion of the nature of language, when I use the word “door,” everyone pictures the same object to a reasonable degree of variation. I can describe it more or less and bring people along, more or less. The first line of “Ornithology” doesn’t actually carry with it any meaning. The combination of intervals immediately recalls the song itself in the mind of a jazz musician, but no particular image or object or action. It doesn’t describe; it merely points. In that way, it can be a language only in the way the barks and calls of a dog are verbal. The correlation is obvious but they’re not the same – and the association is a little degrading to an art form that claims nuance and sophistication.
Evident in the comparison of music to language is a tendency to downplay the parts of art that are pure experience, knowledge, work, accumulation of effort in favor of those that feel like magic. Jazz becomes a language that some people speak and some people understand; alchemy that turns the vibration of inanimate objects into stories and sentences. But what makes jazz a language, even in a rudimentary sense, is the degree of experience the speakers have in the music. It’s a lexicon, a topic of enormous depth, a nearly infinite maze of tributaries, pits, and caverns.
When I was in college and practicing for four or five or six hours every day, I relished the idea of jazz as a language I could learn. But the more important language is the one that musicians speak when they’re off the stage; the stories and trivia. The further removed I become from active performing, the more I realize that jazz is less like a mysterious cosmic language and more like an insular comic book culture. The terminology is still more specialized, the tradition still deeper, but the idea feels more cohesive to me the more conversations I have about transcriptions and records and solos.
Musicians love to romanticize jazz, but it’s a subculture. Aside from the shallowness of the analogy, treating jazz as a musical language with musical vocabulary is like teaching grammar with the goal of reading a technical manual or James Joyce or a Reddit thread. The idiosyncrasies overwhelm. Even the most extraordinary ear is worth little without a favorite Wes Montgomery solo or favorite recording of “What’s New.”