Monday, June 16, 2008


Let’s follow up on the insights of Lew Prince, specifically on how, by paying meticulous attention to who came into his music store he defied the experts in St. Louis, and drove them out of business by creating, according to all who go there (me included), the best music store in the world. This of course wasn’t his main point—it wasn’t even his point at all to talk about his success. I was doing the interview, and in the middle of our typing on Google chat he calls me and asks me what the hell is going on, why am I asking about his business. So we get to talking jazz, as in the audience—defined as the thing that used to be a big part of the jazz culture but now barely exists—and he says, in perfect metaphorical form, that the problems of jazz are directly attributable to the jazz musicians’ lack of empathy with their audience, that is, the musician just wanted to get up their and blow and didn’t care a rat’s ass about what the listener might feel. The listener, acting as any normal human being who is being ignored, simply went elsewhere.

The musician, responding as any normal person would, rationalized the whole process and insisted that the music is actually Art, and it is beyond the limited artistic appreciation of the average American, further alienating the audience, further pushing the musician into playing for the sake of art (I’ll forgo all puns, you’re welcome), and giving energy to the death spiral in which jazz finds itself. I was rehearsing for a little demo this past week—bass, guitar, vibes. The bass player happened to remark how he just wants to stop playing when a horn player solos for 25 choruses—I just want to tell him, the bass player said, to call me when he’s done. I said the same thing--call me when you begin to actually play something. We were both talking about the hypothetical Monday Night Jam Session at any given night spot, and why you will never see us at said jam session. The point is, if even the rest of the band can’t stand it, how is the listener going to respond?—because that negativity is going to come across, and that is not why people listen to music.

So, here we are at the question of the day, when playing music, or if you must say it in the following way—when creating art, is the art compromised if you really consider the audience in this process? Will considering the audience force you to end up sounding like Kenny G or Chris Botti? Because I think even these two musicians will admit that no one actually listens to their music as much as many people have their music on while they are doing something else, such as making dinner. There’s no such thing as that catchy little tune by either that you can’t get out of your head—that pops into your thoughts as you are walking down the street.

So here’s where we are, with this question: Can you make great music and still connect with an audience? Because the jazz audience is shrinking and has been for decades—and the music hasn’t gotten any better than it was when it was the sound of our nation and the audience was something close to the number of every living American.

I have a modest proposal. I’d like to define point at which art and entertainment meet, and I suggest that if jazz musicians strive to hit that spot, there’s a chance for the rebirth of jazz.

Here it is. There was a recent study revolving around brain mapping. Of the many wonderful things science is mapping, the genome for instance, the quantum world, the grand landscape of spacetime comprising the cosmos, there are those that are busy mapping the brain. When you read something, or figure something, or math something, different parts of your brain ‘light up’, become active. Here's a bit from a recent article, summarizing a mapping experiment done while folks were watching movies:

To stimulate subjects' brain activity, the researchers showed them three motion picture clips: thirty minutes of Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"; an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents "Bang! You're Dead"; and an episode of Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." To establish a baseline, subjects viewed a clip of unstructured reality: a 10-minute, unedited, one-shot video filmed during a concert in New York City's Washington Square Park.
The results showed that ISC of responses in subjects' neocortex--the portion of the brain responsible for perception and cognition--differed across the four movies:
• The Hitchcock episode evoked similar responses across all viewers in over 65 percent of the neocortex, indicating a high level of control on viewers' minds;
• High ISC was also extensive (45 percent) for "The Good, the Bad an
d the
• Lower ISC was recorded for "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (18 percent) and for the Washington Square Park, or unstructured reality, clip (less than 5 percent)
"Our data suggest that achieving a tight control over viewers' brains during a movie requires, in most cases, intentional construction of the film's sequence through aesthetic means," the researchers wrote. "The fact that Hitchcock was able to orchestrate the responses of so many different brain regions, turning them on and off at the same time across all viewers, may provide neuroscientific evidence for his notoriously famous ability to master and manipulate viewers' minds. Hitchcock often liked to tell interviewers that for him 'creation is based on an exact science of audience reactions.'

Well, Hitchcock had no exact science other than his own observations, his close monitoring of his own feelings, and the knowledge of good story telling. And he knew what he liked. He didn’t like his first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, but the Jimmy Stewart version was an unquestioned masterpiece. When the studio system collapsed the best he could do, afford really, was Frenzy, and by then he knew it was time to retire. And how many of us have practically memorized North by Northwest.
So I suggest that we try to play what we love rather than trying to please those who insist that we play all of the changes—since their brains don’t light up as brightly as normal folks, or that we play what we love instead of trying to sound like Miles or Trane. And if it turns out that the jazz player doesn’t really love jazz, fine. Because at those Monday Night Jam Sessions, I’m pretty sure the musicians don’t really love jazz, since the music is literally turning people off, especially the rhythm section. And what you want to do, brainwise, is turn people on.