Editor’s note: Today we’re thrilled to introduce Sriram Gopal as CapitalBop’s first columnist. Over the past five years, he’s written regularly for DCist, shining a light on all sorts of local musicians and world-famous artists who pass through town. Here at CapitalBop, we’re offering him a platform to explore more theoretical, in-depth terrain, which he’ll do in his new, monthly column: Swing District. It will appear from now forward, on the first Thursday of every month.
“I don’t get jazz.”
“But, it doesn’t sound like anything.”
“There are no words I can sing along to!”
These are trepidations that jazz lovers often hear expressed by folks who find this music intimidating. This being my first column for CapitalBop, I’d like to offer the hesitant listener some guidance on forging a connection with improvised music. After all, while jazz may appear to be opaque from the “outside,” the notion that one needs to have a formal understanding of music in order to appreciate it is completely false. There is a lot of inspiration to be garnered, even for people who don’t know the difference between a Lydian or Phrygian mode, or can’t count out a 7/8 time signature. So if understanding the intricacies of music theory isn’t necessary, why do so many listeners shy away from jazz?
Forests have been razed trying to answer this question, but here are some thoughts, summed in a few sentences. First, jazz doesn’t get the exposure of commercial music, so it’s not going to fall into the listener’s lap. To a certain extent, the audience must go to it. Jazz also places demands on its audience, the central of which is patience. Just getting through your average tune will likely take far more time than the typical three- or four-minute pop song (although back in the 1940s, Charlie Parker could say a whole lot in three minutes – but that’s for another column). And just making it through a performance isn’t enough. Jazz requires active listening. Unfortunately, the attention jazz demands is totally contradictory to how creative expression is presented and consumed in 21st-century America. Finally, let’s face it: Some of the blame has to go to jazzers themselves. I’ve been to far too many shows where the musicians hardly acknowledge the audience, let alone actively engage with them, so it’s no surprise that the casual observer might believe the music to be pretentious.
So admittedly, listening to jazz poses some challenge. But overcoming the initial hesitation yields great rewards. Use fast food as an analogy. Sure, it’s predictable, tastes good – at least to many – and is cheap, but it’s so much more rewarding to sit at a table with a knife, fork and well-prepared food. One requires more effort than the other, but we all know which undertaking is more fulfilling. Likewise, scatological humor has its place, but clever satire always outlasts the average fart joke.
Fortunately, D.C. offers a uniquely welcoming environment to the nascent jazz consumer. Continue reading