In reading Richard Brody’s piece in the New Yorker, Coltrane’s Free Jazz Wasn’t Just “A Lot of Noise,” I started thinking about my introduction to musical styles and landscapes that had not always been a part of my vocabulary. In my case — and this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who reads this blog — it was the Grateful Dead who kicked open many, if not most, musical doors for me.
The concept of “free jazz”, as it’s often called, is one that eludes many and oftentimes is used as the main illustration as to why one might not like jazz.
“The idea, roughly, involves playing without a set harmonic structure (the framework of chords that lasts a pre-set number of bars and gives jazz performances a sense of sentences and paragraphs), without a foot-tapping beat, and sometimes even without the notion of solos, allowing musicians to join in or lay out as the spirit moves them. Lacking beat, harmony, and tonality, free jazz cuts the main connection to show tunes, dance-hall performances, or even background music to which jazz owed much of whatever popularity it enjoyed.”
It was through the vast and varied musical explorations of the Grateful Dead that I was opened up to many different forms of music. The Dead were not only a band that encompassed almost every style of American music from sea shanteys to jazz, from cowboy songs to blues to disco and beyond, they were also musical explorers oftentimes taking their audience into realms of dark and light that challenged the outer edges of sound. Music of the soul.
My bother-in-law, after being dragged to a Dead show by moi, exclaimed when it was all over, “They did things with their guitars no one should ever do.” For him, the deepest spaces didn’t consist of music, but of noise. It wasn’t transcendent or emotional, it was confusing and wrong. And though I didn’t share his opinion or reaction, I understood it. I wasn’t always open to those particular musical spaces. But like learning a language one might not believe they will ever attain fluency in, with regular exposure, connections begin to take place, circuits in your brain start to piece things together in a way they hadn’t initially and one day you realize that you understand what’s going on, it’s now inside of you, a part of you!
Very exciting stuff, indeed. The Grateful Dead were all about these musical explorations. They also simply loved music. All kinds. So their shows weren’t just playing songs or just exploring free jazz concepts, they were a grand tapestry of all of the above, weaving in and out as the moment and emotions and inspiration dictated. A true musical journey that, if you could find your way in, offered so much in return for your simply showing up with an open mind.
Many people in my world have extremely limited views of what they consider “music” and what they consider having musical value. It saddens me often as it is never easy or fun to have people demean and degrade something that moves me so deeply. Though I understand that it oftentimes comes from either an inability or a lack of desire to understand what is taking place. It requires one to let down their defenses and go to places that may seem vulnerable or frightening or that might challenge one’s sense of self-worth if that journey feels like a struggle at first, if you feel outside of the experience. It is oftentimes easier to discount its value than it is to admit you don’t get it or that there is something yet to be learned. Not connecting to something, not understanding it, is an opportunity to learn, to expand. And while that should in theory be exhilarating and attractive, it can also push buttons and elicit fear, anger and frustration.
My girlfriend was told by a close friend of hers when we first started dating, that she should leave me because I liked the Grateful Dead. My head spun when I heard this and yet, it was also familiar. This wasn’t the first time I’ve run across people who have such intense reactions to this particular type of music, and to the fact that it is so wildly popular and successful, that there is an outright rejection not only of the music itself, but of the people who connect with it.
The truth is, you do not have to connect with all forms of art to recognize that it has value. I don’t know, if it wasn’t for the Grateful Dead, I may never have found my way in to free jazz forms. To me, like to so many others, it might just sound like noise. But it doesn’t. It’s not. And for that I am so very thankful because the joy I receive from these inner musical journeys are downright life-affirming. It’s what allows me to maintain my faith in humanity. If we can create that, if we can explore those spaces, then we are capable of more than we know as those spaces feel like the tip of an iceberg that goes far deeper than we can ever imagine. For me, it brings us closer to what it means to be human, to have a consciousness in a universe whose very existence is beyond our grasp. That can be both a frightening and an exhilarating invitation.
For me, the combination is downright irresistible.