Who You Callin’ “Jazz Snob?”

Reflections on what being “open-minded” musically really means.

Doodle in Paint, by R.B.
Doodle in Paint, by R.B.

I’m often accused of being a “jazz snob,” a description I tend to accept wholeheartedly without even thinking, let alone feeling injury. To me that’s like being called a “card carrying member of the ACLU,” or someone from the “intelligentsia.” That’s an insult?

But in fact, it’s not exactly true. I grew up like anyone else from my generation, choosing what to identify with musically, from what I was exposed to – be it the TV of the Sixties; FM radio of the Seventies, or the music my older siblings played at home.

Early on, music played a huge role in my developing personality, and I went through several phases of obsession with the Beatles, then the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. My brother, being six years older, had a record collection that was a constant source of inspiration, so as soon as he would leave the house, I’d sneak into his room and play his Credence Clearwater Revival, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Who, and Van Morrison records religiously.

I read about music obsessively, and that research led me to a lifelong fascination with “Black Music,” first blues, then soul. Being raised in the multicultural neighborhood of National City didn’t hurt either, I remember the glee I felt when encountering a tiny record store on my way to school ran by cats who might have been early Rastafarian’s in like 69-70, where to their disbelief, I purchased records by Bloodstone, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and Albert King.

In high school, a lost neighborhood soul led me to Wes Montgomery and Shuggie Otis. I can proudly say that I was hip to the original “Strawberry Letter 23,” back when it first came out on his debut record in 1971.Six years later, with the Brothers Johnson, it became a huge hit. A guitar teacher lent me his early B.B. King records on the Kent label from the late 50’s early 60’s.

Digging the Allman Brothers made me check out T. Bone Walker and Elmore James, and living in the hood introduced me to James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire, Santana and Tower of Power. My brother’s ongoing interests exposed me to Jackson Browne and Poco and many of the other country-rock groups.

The first three records I ever bought with my allowance money at the age of 11 were James Taylor’s Fire and Rain, Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?, and the first Santana album. That same year my mom talked my brother and brother-in-law into taking me to see my first live concert: Led Zeppelin at the San Diego Sports Arena. “Whole Lotta Love,” had just hit the charts.

So my point here is that pop music is a huge part of my background. I spent hundreds of hours absorbing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Carole King’s Tapestry, the Allman’s Live at the Fillmore East, Steely Dan’s Katy Lied, and Royal Scam among others.

Getting exposed to jazz was the single most important experience in my life but it didn’t come instantly or easily. I didn’t start out digging Coltrane or Woody Shaw immediately – I needed “gateway drugs” to enter that phase. Since I played guitar, Wes, John McLaughlin and George Benson were especially helpful because I could relate directly to what they were doing.

Seeing Jean-Luc Ponty live in 1977 really turned things around for me, and from then on it was jazz (as I understood it) full time for me. As surely as fusion drew me in, knowing that other musics existed proved irresistible, and eventually I had to know the music of Coltrane, Dolphy, Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

And as I was learning that music and what it led to, there were always musics from other disciplines pulling me toward their expressions. I began to develop an appreciation for contemporary classical music – Stravinsky, Bartok, Shostakovich, all the way to Steve Reich, Phillip Glass and many others.

Seeing John McLaughlin with Shakti in 1977 was another game-changer for me, and I began a continuing appreciation for the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions of India, Balinese Gamelan music and I also saw how the blues was the connective tissue between folk music of many cultures.

Somewhere in between I developed a fascination with the music and lyrics of Joni Mitchell, a pursuit that has yielded so many profound insights. Hers not mine. After reading a review in Rolling Stone, I picked up Bob Marley’s Natty Dread in 1976, a full decade ahead of the reggae fad of the mid to late 80’s.

ECM got me interested in the Hilliard Ensemble, a vocal quartet that specializes in music that is hundreds of years old, and I continue to be excited about the unimaginably rich gifts that a real study of African music will expose. Likewise, I’ve been exploring the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Milton Babbit, Elliott Carter and K. Stockhausen.

But jazz is the broadest single genre of music I’ve ever encountered. There is a world of difference between Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, and another world of difference between Parker and John Coltrane. In fact, there is a world of difference between the Coltrane of 1958, 1961, 1965, and 1967. I still find it amazing and totally disheartening that people who love Bird and Monk have no knowledge or affection for Muhal Richard Abrams and Henry Threadgill. People say that jazz died in ____ (fill in the year), but it only died to the extent that at a certain point you stopped listening to the ever evolving innovators. It’s nice when the Lincoln Center honors Ornette Coleman or Charles Mingus, but seriously, man, isn’t that shit about 40 years tardy? Where are the celebrations of Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell?

Oh well, this is turning into considerably longer of a rant than I’d originally intended.

Getting back to the original point, yeah, call me a jazz snob, and I doubt I’ll have time to correct you, but before you do, make sure that any of the artists I’ve mentioned in passing are ones that you have listened to yourself, carefully. “Open-mindedness” has many different layers and levels.