21 February 2011

On Exclusivity

When Esperanza Spalding was awarded the Best New Artist Grammy last week, surely somewhere some Esperanza fan was secretly lamenting the fact that the entire world now knows who she is. If jazz fans share a [defect], it is a sometimes regretful fetishizing of the little-known. For some of us, a (very) small part of the joy that comes from listening to jazz is the knowledge that we are hip to some artistic stuff most people have missed. And when the rest of the world catches up to you, it can be disappointing. "I knew about Esperanza before she won a Grammy" showed up once on my Facebook newsfeed this week, and I'm sure I'm not alone in the regard.

We can't help it. Jazz is in a cultural place partly of its own creation, outside the mainstream (for the most part) except as a curious historical artifact or marker of artistic respectability, depending on the situation. It takes devotion to seek out and learn about jazz. You can't "get it" all at once, you must work at listening to the music to fully appreciate its majesty. That's what we tell anyone who claims not to understand jazz, at least.

Case in point, I like to tell people that my younger brother was hip to Herbie Hancock before I was. He is two years younger than me, and in eighth grade or so he started picking up Herbie's Blue Note work, and went into some varsity level Herbie before I even comprehended what Herbie was doing. He was especially fond Empyrean Isles, the 1964 album that introduced Cantaloupe Island. But that now-standard aside, the disc is a knotty piece of postbop, whose advanced harmonies, polyrhythms, and melodicism are not readily apparent to most listeners, much less the sixteen-year-old version of myself. But Ted had it around, along with Takin' Off, Maiden Voyage, and Head Hunters (the only non-Blue Note in his collection at the time, to the best of my knowledge).

But within a year, I had heard Herbie enough to start to absorb what he was doing, and now Empyrean Isles is among my favorite albums of the 1960s. And I feel better about liking it having had to work at it. The fact that I only slowly warmed up to it means little intrinsically, but it deepens my affinity for the album, knowing that others may not have the stamina to work their way up to an album like this.

And there can be nothing worse (or more inconsequential) than learning one of your perceived little-shared favorites becomes popular all of a sudden. But here's the deal: Don't complain about it on Facebook. Seriously, you look like an asshole when you do that, please give it a rest. Thanks!

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