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Coltrane and the Common Man

My roommate’s friend Travis, who is as musically unsophisticated as anyone you’d be likely to know (“Miles Davis? Never heard of him”) came into the apartment inebriated while my mp3 player was on, with my entire music collection on shuffle. He became fascinated with every jazz piece that he heard, and waxed nostalgic about his days as an elementary school alto sax student. John Coltrane’s “Leo,” from Interstellar Space came on, and I thought, “Here we go.  Let’s see how this one grabs him.”  He was absolutely enthralled, from start to finish.

I wonder if any Jazz purist I’ve known, with his thoroughly well-nurtured taste for fine music, would have reacted with as much enthusiasm.  Prevailing wisdom among the snobs is that Coltrane peaked just before 1963, and then began alienating his audience.  And maybe that’s what’s killing Jazz; a majority of its paying audience represses Jazz’s own innate tendency to progress.

Someone told me of a survey that was conducted of preschoolers’ reactions to various classical works.  Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was among the works most well-received by the children, largely because of its expressive sprechstimme vocal style.  This is the same piece at which my university colleagues turned up noses in revulsion. It’s a small tragedy that humans with little more than a purely genetic instinct for musical style would have more fun with Schoenberg than a typical undergraduate music major.

It seems that a little musical education ruins the experience of listening to highly expressive works; because students are encouraged to comprehend, when all that is often required is to simply listen.

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