Jazz Therapy Tuesday April 3, 2007

There’s a funny section in Jonny King’s book What Is Jazz, when he describes his early student appreciation of the music. “Nearly comatose from another insufferable Renaissance history class”, he says, he returns to his room and was “instantly transported away from lectures, exams, and crummy furniture” courtesy of the great Miles Davis. Roommate one barges in and makes derogatory remarks about his hierarchy of favourites. King is “flustered and annoyed”, and resorts to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and turns up the volume. He is then “jarred out of his reverie when Andrew across the hall charged into the room. ‘What the hell is going on in here? It sounds like someone’s strangling a chicken’. At that very moment Trane was dwelling on a screeching high note, and I wondered how Andrew, or anyone, could not get it? Why was the music I love so opaque to many people?” (xii).

Indeed. I recall with fond amusement moments of early jazz enjoyment, that really wound up a former girlfriend. She couldn’t stand it.

I must admit, there are times when I feel the same way about some of the music. It’s so concertedly discordant, revelling in the violence of shrill intensity, my feeling is turn that shit off! At other times though (just recently), it’s great fun and consoling. Isn’t that interesting? – a rhetorical question. What gives, with music that is deliberately cacophonous and indeed, perhaps, like strangling a chicken?

Like many adolescents I found an outlet in loud thrashy stuff, in my case with a brief dalliance with Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin et al, and a more sustained appreciation of punk. The Stranglers were my favourite, alongside the Clash and the Jam. I still do like that stuff, in moderation, when in the mood, and enjoy its trajectory which leads, in my opinion, to great bands like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and to some extent to Razorlight.

Some jazz is spectacularly sexy, cool, and soothing; check out Miles Davis and the ballads of Charlie Parker. Other jazz, thinking of both Coltrane and John Surmon, is as intense and wild as any heavy popular music. In particular the screeching saxophone assaults your senses, and does one of two things. Either you think ‘yeah, baby!’ or you think turn that shit off! And it really depends on your mood. Generally, I’m inclined towards well formed peaceful stuff in which I find solace and aesthetic pleasure: a general feeling I have towards most art. Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue rules. At times though, fed up with the boss/significant other/overdraft/whatever, I think we can appreciate wild jazz (a term I have never heard used) as a cathartic release. Life is like that; it’s not all silky piano and gentle melody. And there’s something about wild jazz which is more sophisticated than punk; I understand it in a similar way but it provokes a different kind of feeling. It’s not angry for one thing, at least not in the same way, which is what most heavy/punky popular music is. Rant about this, rant about that, is pretty much its methodology. So what gives with ranting? It doesn’t change anything and if you’re beyond your adolescent rebellion years, a screeching sax is similarly cathartic but rests on a feeling about life with no illusions: politicians are shit, everything’s too expensive, taxes don’t make for a high living standard, chavs are taking over the country, primitive Middle East crap is imposing on the Western world, and I like neither football nor reality so-called TV. Oh yeah, and the skies are frikkin cloudy again.

But angry, moi? – no point, not as a sustained attitude. But still, in the adversity and bullshit of life, some stuff isn’t nice and that’s where wild jazz fits in. So I was listening to a Coltrane screech, and noticed it was expressing how I was feeling. It wasn’t nice, actually, but it was how I was feeling. And when I noticed this, it put a smile on my face: yeah, baby.

I find this with jazz, more than any other music. It involves my attention in a manner which is psychologically enlivening, even educational. I listen to it closely, as I listen to nothing else. There’s space within it that allows this, emptiness, compared to other music which I find musically and thematically full.

In the introduction to Jazz: A History Of America’s Music (2000), musician Ken Burns says “I play it day and night, in the car, as I go to bed, as I write now, its sophisticated rhythms and elegant lines simply medicine”.

Jazz therapy.

Here’s a good example of (1) a great tune and (2) seeing it live. My favourite moment is when Coltrane come in with his sax, where a YouTube comment said he “puts a crease in the world”:

BBC Radio documentary

Jazz photography


  1. aimee · Nov 22, 02:43 AM · §

  2. James Lomax · Nov 22, 10:31 AM · §