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Confessions of a Music Snob

David Berger



I frequently think and talk about conflict and resolution in music. The greater the contrast between the opposing points, the more satisfied we feel when they are resolved. This is a major reason for my disinterest in pop music. The lack of disagreement creates superficiality. Jazz and classical music are by nature thornier and require more from the listener. If we can hang on, we are rewarded.


I'm not saying that all jazz is good or even worthwhile, but certainly the best of our genre challenges us and makes us earn our reward. Having the music playing while we are engaged in conversation or in some other activity isn't going to do it and may even be distracting and frustrating.


I've noticed that the music in restaurants tends to be pop and, for the most part, goes unnoticed by diners. It increases the overall noise level, making it more difficult to carry on a conversation. As much as I love jazz, if they were to play Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker over the loudspeaker, I would be tempted to stop talking or listening to the conversation and dig the music. Maybe I'm just not good at multitasking.


I recently went on a few dates with a woman who called me a music snob.  Ooh, that word, "snob!" Whenever I hear it, I think of Great Expectations, when Pip, who has been living in the city and has become a young gentleman, goes home and shakes his blacksmith brother- in-law's hand, and for the first time, notices that Joe’s hands are dirty.


I admit that my musical tastes run to jazz, American Songbook, folk music (including blues), and what we used to call classical music.  Although that includes a helluva lot of music over the last 400 years, it doesn't include much more—Indian, Japanese, Tibetan, aboriginal, all other world music and pop.  I may not have much interest in any of those musics, but I can listen and understand them to a certain extent.


On the other hand, people raised on pop music, who are, by and large, musically illiterate, rarely have any understanding of music. They listen to the words and have no idea what the instruments are doing.  They are unlikely to be able to identify the sound of any particular instrument. For most, the music is on in the room while they do or think about other things. They are not actively engaged and, apart from the lyrics, couldn't tell you anything about how the music is put together.


They don't listen to instrumental music.  It's all about the words and how the groove makes them feel. It's as if they were watching a foreign language movie without subtitles and only following the visual action. In this scenario, I think they would miss a lot of what the movie has to say (especially any subtleties), and they would not be able to tell which films were better than others. This seems superficial to me.


Don't get me wrong; I love lyrics and singers. I love writing arrangements for singers and conducting for them. The purpose of the orchestrations is to help the singer tell the story of the lyrics. In fact, the melody, harmony and rhythm are all about that as well. Music is a team sport. Focus and priorities are important in its success.


I'm drawn to vocal music that has an interesting relationship between the voice and the accompaniment. Frank Sinatra's extreme success was due in large part to his acting ability; we believe he is the guy in the lyrics. Although he was particular about who wrote his arrangements and, to a lesser extent, who played them, I find most of his charts to be bland and conservative. Notable exceptions would be those by Neal Hefti, Quincy Jones and Billy Byers--three top jazz arrangers. I’m not ruling out all the other arrangers, but their batting average was far below the Mendoza line. Their music shuns conflict in favor of sweetness, blandness, and predictability.


Although I don't think Tony Bennett is as good a singer as Sinatra was, for the most part, I like his arrangements more. They are more interesting and create more drama. They compel me to listen. I don't know who had the good sense to hire the likes of Al Cohn and Johnny Mandel, but those kinds of arrangers helped Bennett to tell a more interesting story with more emotional depth. Sinatra had to bring that on his own.


I'm a big Nat Cole fan, even though his arrangements are barely serviceable, and he is a bit removed emotionally. His musicality is on the highest level. Remember, he is one of jazz's piano greats. My favorite recordings of his are with his trio.


I'm also crazy about Sammy Davis, Jr. He was always swinging, which was an outgrowth of his fabulous tap dancing and early life in the jazz world. Marty Paich wrote a pile of great arrangements for him—tentet, big band, and orchestral. Listen to Thou Swell, Birth Of The Blues, and Lost In The Stars. My only complaint about Sammy is that, at times, he can be a bit affected. As far as talent, I don't think anyone could beat him. He was a master of impressions, but unlike other impressionists, he had his own unmistakable style. He didn't often make you want to cry, but he certainly could. Just listen to Lost In The Stars.


Then there is Ray Charles--another great musician. He's totally swinging and tears your heart out—frequently at the same time. He wrote the arrangements and many of the songs for all those wonderful Atlantic sides from the 1950s—clearly his best work. Many of the later big band charts are pedestrian with the exception of the two country and western records, which were arranged by Gerald Wilson, the record with Betty Carter, which was arranged by Marty Paich, as well as anything by Ray’s buddy, Quincy Jones.  Although Ralph Burns and Al Cohn wrote many of his orchestral hit records, like Georgia On My Mind, the orchestrations are too schmaltzy for my taste. Be that as it may, Ray rises above all that. I can't imagine anyone else being able to do that.


Joe Williams never became the pop icon these other singers were, but, in the jazz world, he is synonymous with swing and blues. He rose to stardom with Every Day I Have The Blues—Ernie Wilkins' great chart for the Count Basie Orchestra. After leaving Basie, he recorded one of the greatest jazz vocal albums of all time with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. The charts (by Thad, Bob Brookmeyer, Bob Freedman, and Roland Hanna) are extremely ambitious and challenge both the excellent players and Joe. Incidentally, all the recording sessions were done between 2:00 and 5:00 AM after Joe finished his nightclub act.


These are just a few of the top male singers I grew up listening to. They seemed to be everywhere in the 1950s and ’60s. Their singing and arrangements made a huge impression on my own arranging for singers. I love telling stories. If singers and lyrics can help me, I'm all for it. Most jazz bands don't use singers anymore, which eliminates a dimension of the music and an avenue to the audience. And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a shame.

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