Speaking of Music Again: Oliver Sacks

We’ve been contemplating the mysteries of music over the past few weeks, since our conversations with Gunther Schuller and Richard Powers. What makes a piece of music “great”? It can’t just be revolutionary rhythms or technical difficulty. From where does that inexplicable effect of music on our emotions come?

The andante had just ended on a phrase filled with a tenderness to which I had entirely surrendered. There followed, before the next movement, a short interval during which the performers laid down their instruments and the audience exchanged impressions. A duke, in order to show that he knew what he was talking about, declared: “It’s a difficult thing to play well.” Other more agreeable people chatted for a moment with me. But what were their words, which like every human and external word left me so indifferent, compared with the heavenly phrase of music with which I had just been communing? … I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been — if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened — the means of communication between souls. It is like a possibility that has come to nothing; humanity has developed along other lines, those of spoken and written language. But this return to the unanalysed was so intoxicating that, on emerging from that paradise, contact with more or less intelligent people seemed to me of an extraordinary insignificance.

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past: The Captive, the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation, page 260 in Volume III of the Vintage edition, 1982.

OliversacksMusic uniquely among the arts is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly. It needs no mediation. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him. [Henry Purcell’s opera, from 1689] Everyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.

Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia, p. 300.

I was always doubly tantalyzed by music: first of all by its patterns, its symmetries, its proportions, its mathematical perfection and abstractness; and and second by the excruciating pleasure which it could produce, and the sweet pain which was beyond words, beyond concepts, beyond expression by anything else…

Oliver Sacks, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Cambridge Forum, November 5, 2007

As Paul Elie argued elegantly in his Slate review of Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, there seem to be two Oliver Sackses. In our conversation, we welcomed both the observant clinical neurologist and the patient with 70-plus years of soaring, passionate musical memories:

Language of the heart, and language of souls. There’s part of me which sort of rebels against words like the heart and the soul and transcendence, and yet, and yet, one can’t avoid them. Interestingly, Williams James never uses the term ‘soul’ in The Principles of Psychology, but he continually used it in conversation and correspondence and of course he uses it, it’s central, in The Varieties of Religious Experience

I had a dream the other night. In dreams one escapes from the shackles of one’s own reason and reductionism. And in my dream I dreamt some Fauré; I didn’t know what it was, though when I woke up I realized it was his Requiem. But this in fact went with a vision of star nurseries, the sort of thing which the Hubble reveals and galaxies being formed. I don’t like words like ‘the beyond’ or ‘eternal’ but maybe one can’t avoid them. I may soften up here, but I’m not sure what to say…. Again, my feet are … I’m narrowly, childishly planted in the clinical. I can’t talk about transcendence, and galazies. I think of my patients, you know, who on the whole do not speak in cosmic terms.

Oliver Sacks, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Cambridge Forum, November 5, 2007

Perhaps the essential question here is what neuroscience (still ragingly conflicted about, for starters, the place of music in our evolutionary history) is contributing to the delicious mystery of music. Will any discovery in the brain circuitry of music trump Proust’s reflections on the experience of sound?

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  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Great intro Chris, and wonderful show.

    Jazz washes away the dust of every day life – Art Blakey. I would say music and other ambient sound/noise apply as well in washing away the dust of my every day life. Music, ambient sound, noise, etc, is one aspect of my life that continues to expand, it never contracts. The taste buds seem inexhaustible, no matter what sounds come my way. It responds with generosity whenever I need it; even if I’m merely whistling, humming, drumming on my chest or desk, listening to the weird hum of the refrigerator, or creating mind sound. Music gives much pleasure, potentially towards ecstasy. Pleasure of this nature has the capacity to bring the evolutionary mechanism and spiritual being into complete accord.

    Regarding music and color: Kandinsky was very keen on the relationship between music and painting. There are links to some of these paintings at the bottom of this page.

    Regarding animals and music: just a brief reminder for Chris that the only time my cats actually listened (appeared to be listening?) to any media appliance was during the ROS Samba School. They would start to become fidgety until the drumming kicked in, then very focused attention. Maybe they associated the sounds with some weird predation or mating experience? Who knows what goes on with cats?

    Finally, laughter is quite literally a musical instrument for me. And no human being plays the instrument better than a giggly baby or child. I find my self incapable of staying in a state of unhappiness and defy the smile, defy the joy, when in the presence of a child engaged in a flight of laughter; a gentler instrument, a more joyful music I have yet to hear. Thanks for this show Chris.

  • hurley
  • mynocturama

    I’ll toss this in:


    A link to info on the book “The Singing Neanderthals” by Steven Mithen.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Thanks hurley, that was awesome. I couldn’t stop laughing and smiling. The stuff infectious. I’ll have a double of what ever that child is having. Awesome…

  • hurley

    OCP, Happy that struck a chord. What do your cats think? A pity I won’t live long enough to vote for him for prezident, as GBW might say. That baby seems to have all the right answers i.e. a hilarious scorn.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    hurley, the cats were in their usual non-nonplussed mode. They’re embarked upon their most sacred activity: Napping. Twenty three and a half hours a day. They eat like President Taft and nap like President Coolidge.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    An erroneous exposé into the self indulgent pathos of one man’s effeminate, as he puts it, “swooning” in the music he hears in his head. In one sentence Oliver Sacks shows which side of the cognitive theory debate he is on. He says, in the interview with Chris, “…Whereas [John] Lock and other such philosophers thought there was nothing in the mind which hadn’t come from the senses, I think there are ‘clearly’ – there can be things in the mind, starting with color, which don’t come from the senses – and this goes right up, to um, to heaven”. “Conceptual plagiarism” is not illegal because it is impossible to demonstrate a connection between the subject and the alleged source. In Judaism it is said that the soul has no oxygen, and that it is therefore “outside the forces of nature”: as when Sacks claims that his impressions “Don’t come from the senses”. As a luminous writer, clinician, and Jew, how could Sacks be “unaware” of the proximity of his statement to the Judaic precept? Might he have “borrowed” it to pen, or rather spin a treatise around his own neurosis – that perpetually elusive essence and invisible mystical substance of the ether which Sacks stumbles to describe, but yet insists is there?

    Sacks, Judaism, and cognitive theory have a lot of explaining to do as far as their “direct pipeline to the eternal” is concerned.

  • mynocturama

    Borderline nonsensical as usual. And by that I mean both borderline and nonsensical.

  • GodzillaVsBambi

    When fed into any search engine the similarities between the term “outside the forces of nature” (a clearly Judaic precept), and Oliver Sack’s trashing of John Lock, and, as he put it, “other such philosophers”, together with his statement that these colors “don’t come from the senses”, is plain and obvious for all to see. If I can do it, anyone can do it.

  • Bobby

    Thanks, OCP for your opening post. I’ve been sitting here looking over those Kandinsky pictures.

    Hurley, I discovered that baby video a few months ago. I love it! To continue with the idea OCP said: “Music gives much pleasure, potentially towards ecstasy.” I’ve thought similar things when watching that baby laugh – or any baby laugh – in that they have the ability – dare I say spiritual authority – to put one into a state of Grace; to release you – if momentarily – from whatever issue that plagues your mind. It’s beautiful.

  • Glad Sacks nuanced his take on mediation. Wished he would have elaborated on different ways music may be mediated.

    Actually, sent him a message about this. Would be really nice to hear from him on the subject.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Hey Bobby, it’s a delight to meet up with a fellow traveler here on ROS regarding the tonic benefits of laughter. Wishing you much laughter and joy to come your way … those Kandinsky pictures are something I really connect with and have spent quite a bit of time gazing upon as well.

  • ghostofdali


    Happy you pointed out Oliver Sacks’s “nuance” with respect to the topic of mediation. I found that portion of the interview to be a pretty good demonstration of Oliver’s waffling ability. In my own opinion, I think that music not only “needs” mediation, but it actually IS mediation. Earlier in the quote, Chris read, “one does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneus to be moved by her lament for him.” I happen to think one’s knowledge of the story certainly enhances the power of that lament, but more broadly “one” does have to possess a lot of knowledge.

    It may seem (or be) nitpicking, but it seems to me that “one” must at least know that when someone is “laid in earth” that they’re dead and being buried. Just because it’s something that virtually everyone knows (though there are exceptions and qualifications), it doesn’t mean that “one” need not know it. Also, a knowledge of English would be more than helpful – those archetypal “Pygmies in the rainforest” that Oliver mentions would probably have a hard time responding in the poetic manner that he assumes is innate.

    I think your assessment of this discourse as “old school” is spot on, and it’s sort of disappointing to me that new technology such as neuroscience is still stuck trying to answer the questions of the 19th century paradigm.

    I enjoyed your blog, by the way. And yes, Nicholas Cook’s “very short introduction” is REALLY insightful.

  • rahbuhbuh

    has anyone actually read the book? I was curious about it even before listening to this interview, or until Sacks said something along the lines of “my definition of music is V_______ to Shostakovich” in reaction to the question about the brain’s reaction to polyrhythmic Afro Cuban Jazz. One stutter and fumbling hesitation undermined a lot of the interesting notions discussed. To neglect rhythym for melody or tone seems very limited. Does his book incorporate more than western “classical” music into the text?

  • Yo, Rahbuhbuh et al. I read every word of the book, which is completely absorbing but — when you push me — somehow unsatisfying. There were two uncomfortable elements of Dr. Sachs’ talk, and you’ve hit one of them smack on. How can a very smart and modern generalist’s take on music express something like exclusive contentment in the Monteverdi-to-Shostakovich strand, at the expense of every other kind of human music we’ve come to know in the last century: through Bob Marley and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, through Chano Pozo and John Coltrane’s Eastern explorations and innumerable other extensions of our aural curiosity, pleasure and understanding? The second point was what I would still call Sacks’ “squeamishness” in the realm of the spiritual. In Cambridge — at the civic space in Harvard Square known as the First Church, he began by voicing some uncertainty about the church setting of his talk, “between reverence and blasphemy,” he said. And he declined several invitations to make some connection — as so many do — between music and the language of souls. I find this standoffishness odd most especially when Sacks says also at the outset that he reveres Bach above all, or in a tie with smoked salmon among his most favorite things in life, since childhood. This is Bach the kapellmeister, the composer of the St Matthew Passion and “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring,” the man who wrote at the top of his manuscripts “Jesu Juve,” that is: Jesus, help me. It seems to me quite impossible to separate Bach, for example, from the belief and, yes, churchiness, in which his music was conceived and heard for the last 300 years or so. I wish I’d caught Sacks in conversation when he said that he sticks with the clinical because that’s where he finds his patients, and that they don’t deal much in the cosmic. But of course they do! The most famous patient in his book, the man struck by lightning in the phone booth, is drawn back to music, performing and then composing, by a very articulate spiritual impulse to worship and have some communion with God, in ways that hadn’t been possible before.

    No, I am not asking Sacks somehow to be converted by music from what he called his “Jewish atheism.” But I wish I heard some of the awe that Steven J. Gould, the late great anti-creationist, used to gush on the subject of Franz Josef Haydn’s last oratorio: “The Creation.” Gould loved to sing “The Creation,” and there was no squeamishness at at about recognizing it as a religious work as well as a statement of the science of Haydn’s time and, above all, a musical feat of genius. Or maybe I was looking for an echo of something Oliver Sacks himself wrote in an early edition of his great first book, “Awakenings.” On the ineffable, uncompromisable and perhaps forever untraceable seat of human individuality, Sacks was his amazingly eloquent self — self, indeed, as only he could be. He was talking about his patients but of course he was talking about all of us, even as we listen to music:

    Thus, in answer to questions about the existence and integrity of the Self in severe mental disease, I believe that though one can be “beside oneself” or “lose oneself” for years on end, the Self itself is still present, always present, intact, entire, however withdrawn or buried it may be. I think that all psychotic distortions and splinterings of the Self are relatively superficial, even though they may dominate the clinical picture. I think the ravages of physical and mental disease are both superficial; that there is something unfathomably deep beyond their reach; that this is the best and strongest and realest thing we have; and that once upon a time this was called the Soul. [my emphasis]

  • rahbuhbuh

    there seems to be too much stock and faith given to fMRI too early. so few studies containing so few subjects (compared to other fields’ experiments) dealing in such complex “why do we _____?” questions have been given so much coverage. people want it to be The Truth so greatly, we are eager for books explaining us to us. i just hope books like Sacks’s are asking more questions with new data informing better hypotheses rather than claiming answers.

    regarding the interview, i ask this as uncritically as is possible: do you believe he skirted those faith and soul questions because:

    1. he does not feel himself up to the challenge of the putting the abstract quality of soul/heart/being/blah to the proper words? this cannot be the case because Sacks discusses music which is abstract, and “moved by” or “drawn to” which implies something in him unplaceable shifted. he deems himself enough of an authority to publish the discussion of faith in others, so is it an incapacity?

    2. he doesn’t want to risk delving any further into the philosophical, religeous, or theoretical than he already has by publishing a pop neuroscience book? were the omissions for the sake of his professional dignity, his status in the eyes of his peers?

    3. he’s too polite to call faith and souls poppycock?

    4. he doesn’t want to give the press arguments to claim he is pro or anti religion in worry of alienating potential readers/customers?

    if he detests the label “soul,” what terms did he use in his book? music moved something in patients which may be connected to certain areas of the brain. what does he call it? or was his grammar tricky enough to write around a soul synonym?

  • ghostofdali


    I’m glad you focused us in on the “Monteverdi to Shostikovich” comment, as it was really the crux of why I felt this discussion was “old school.” This very narrow definition of music is really ineffective in the larger discourse – as Chris asked:

    “How can a very smart and modern generalist’s take on music express something like exclusive contentment in the Monteverdi-to-Shostakovich strand, at the expense of every other kind of human music we’ve come to know in the last century…”

    I’ll tell you my answer to that question, and it relates to the four permutations of rahbuhbuh’s faith and soul question. It’s all about being a specialist. It sounds like Oliver Sacks is only willing to stay in the comfort zone of a clinical neuroscientist, claiming insufficient expertise to really weigh in on the tough questions of other fields. Of course someone in that comfort zone would only accept the narrow definition of music, as it has been the umbilical cord to the old world that American aristocrats and intellectuals have refused to sever.

    There’s a reason for ending the line at Shostakovich (or even earlier, as many do, at Mahler) – and that’s because it will effectively exclude American composers whose affinity to that reflexively constructed lineage. The tradition gets in trouble if we’re allowed to include composers like Charles Ives, who was significantly older than Shostakovich but who seems to be implicitly absent from the narrow definition. It we’re to include those American composers, that would open the flood gates to all sorts of riffraff – J.P. Sousa, W.C. Handy, Gus Cannon, Willie Dixon, Bob Dylan…the list goes on and on. That’s not to mention the musicians from outside the US whose music and livelyhood were created here.

    What’s the key difference between those vagrants who fall outside the classical definition of music and the Monteverdi-to-Bach lineage? I’d say it’s Bach himself. By year, he falls almost exactly in the middle of the dates from Monteverdi’s birth to Shostakovich’s death – and was (directly or indirectly) the student of all composers prior and the primary influence of all composers after (at least all the ones afforded membership in the reflexively constructed lineage). As a node, Bach the symbol is the uniting element that holds the narrow definition of music together. Those who can get to Bach in three steps or less are in the club, those who can’t are not.

    From Chris’s second point:

    “It seems to me quite impossible to separate Bach, for example, from the belief and, yes, churchiness, in which his music was conceived and heard for the last 300 years or so.”

    I think this shows the way Bach as a symbol has been parsed, in order to broaden its ability to connect to other composers in the constructed lineage. His life and work have been viewed in a variety of different ways, to a variety of ends. In his life, he was certainly revered as a performer – for his ability to improvise brilliant preludes and multipart fugues with amazing ease and dexterity. But as a composer, it seems that he was highly undervalued and his compositions were almost immediately obsolete. His work was his devotion – as Chris put it, “Bach the kappelmeister…the man who wrote at the top of his manuscripts “Jesu Juve”…”

    Juxtapose this identity to that of Paganini, a later generation performer, the man who supposedly sold his soul to the devil. Paganini’s image is not associated with religious humility at all, but rather with all the excesses of secular popularity. The times had changed, as they have several times from then until now, and as they will continue to change.

    Finally getting back to Oliver Sacks and the questions of faith and soul – it’s not a time when a neuroscientist can talk openly of such things. After all, one thing we’re sure of is that the “soul” is located in a different place from the brain. We can’t say it’s in the heart anymore, but it’s still around someplace. The image of a neuroscientist does not include talk of faith or souls, or at least it didn’t in times past – perhaps those days are over, Jonah Lehrer?

    The plague of specialized knowledge is another, but related, old world inheretance. I think that it’s where Oliver Sacks’s “squeamishness” comes from. He seems to be only comfortable in the clinical world, backing off from any questions that he would assume can only be answered by a “professional” from another field. It doesn’t have to be this way, and I think mynocturama’s reference to Stephen Mithen’s “The Singing Neanderthals” is a fine demonstration of another author, who makes it clear from the outset that he’s not a musician by any definition, who is able to write about music in a meaningful way by drawing on work from a variety of disciplines. Oddly enough, this is coming from a very old-world British archaeologist. I haven’t read Oliver Sacks’s book yet, but I hope too someday soon. It does seem as though it will be somewhat unfulfilling, though.

    Apologies for the long-windedness, but this is obviously not a sound-byte topic.

  • Nick

    I’d prefer that Sacks himself weigh in on this soul question, but I’m hardly optimistic. Instead, or in the interim at least, here’s my layman’s conjecture.

    Chris’s quote of Sacks seems to me to be using the metaphysical/religious concept of ‘soul’ more metaphorically than literally:

    Thus, in answer to questions about the existence and integrity of the Self in severe mental disease, I believe that though one can be “beside oneself” or “lose oneself” for years on end, the Self itself is still present, always present, intact, entire – however withdrawn or buried it may be. I think that all psychotic distortions and splinterings of the Self are relatively superficial, even though they may dominate the clinical picture. I think the ravages of physical and mental disease are both superficial; that there is something unfathomably deep beyond their reach; that this is the best and strongest and realest thing we have; and that once upon a time this was called the Soul. [my emphasis]

    Yes, I could be mistaken (a chronic risk when trying to distinguish metaphoric intent from literal), but, the way I read it, Sacks is offering a plain-English sketch of a neuro/psychological feature, an “emergent property”, perhaps, of human consciousness: the “self”, the sense of “I”-ness. The central-processing center of our brain/nerve/senses matrix, the executive-level identity-reference-point and Decider, if you will, common to most if not all humans.

    I say “most if not all”, because I’m not as sure as Sacks seems to be that every human’s sense of self can survive any or all neuro/psychological abnormalities and/or traumas. For example, if we can’t communicate with the profoundly retarded, we can hardly be certain those persons have anything resembling our commonplace sense of personhood/identity/uniqueness. If a sense of ‘Self’ is absent (or too minuscule to measure), does that mean the ‘soul’ is absent too?

    I doubt Sacks meant this. I guess instead he was using ‘soul’ as a common-concept/conventional-wisdom analogue to what he means by the ‘Self’, or as a kind of metaphor for it—but since ‘soul’, in its most common meanings, is putatively immortal, it can’t be an exact analogue, I expect—especially coming from a self-described atheist. I’m no less atheistic than Sacks; and, when it comes to ‘soul’, I’m completely agnostic: “without knowledge”. I’ve never really understood what the noun ‘soul’ purports to name. Perhaps Sacks is equally agnostic on ‘soul’ – hence his inability to answer Chris’s question. (Inability differs substantially from unwillingness. And as for ‘squeamish’ I think ‘armadillo’, in the Lehrer thread, had it right by understanding it as ‘politeness’. I doubt Sacks would have treated a question about the link between, say, “music and Samsara” any differently.) Which brings me to this—

    ghostofdali writes:

    After all, one thing we’re sure of is that the “soul” is located in a different place from the brain. We can’t say it’s in the heart anymore, but it’s still around someplace.

    I’d like to ask ghostofdali – and Chris too, and anyone else interested, ftm – for a definition or description of ‘soul’. If you’re certain this thing exists (albeit not necessarily where it resides within a human being) then you must have some sense of its properties or identifying characteristics. So please tell me: what, exactly, are its properties? Characteristics? Its telltale ‘footprints’, if you will? How would a soul-agnostic (like me, or perhaps Sacks) recognize it? What clues or evidence should an open-minded scientist (like Jonah Lehrer) look for if she wanted to discern it? Do all persons have one? Animals? If, heaven forbid, a future mischief-maker armed with the know-how and technology to clone a human-chimpanzee hybrid did so, would a soul inhabit (or emerge within) the poor, misbegotten being?

  • ghostofdali


    I think most of us would have preferred Sacks himself to weigh in on the question, but I’m not optimistic about that happening either. I think you caught me trying to be smart with that last quote – I’ll try to clarify what I was getting at. Most importantly, I don’t assume that there “is” a soul, I was just trying to say that it’s probably not going to be found in the brain. In your first quote of Sacks, it seems to me that he’s making a point about the terminology being outdated. So what I was getting at, and what I apparently left out, was that IF someone is looking for the old idea of a “soul,” neuroscience isn’t where it will be found, and it seems to me that’s what Oliver Sacks was saying as well.

    What we now call the “self” or the myriad of other vague or ambiguous terms does include the old notions of the “soul,” but there’s different spins on it and I think a workable definition for all is not attainable. My own definition, which is all but guaranteed to differ from Oliver’s and anyone else’s, is that the soul is the internal property of the person. Internal in a broader sense, meaning that it is decidedly not a physical property of the body. It’s everything that you and I “are” besides the organs, flesh and bones. Do animals have it? probably. Does everyone have one? I don’t know. Would apes-ma have one? That all depends on how good a job the cloner did, I guess. If you can only clone cells and organs, then I wouldn’t call that a good clone.

    But again, I wasn’t writing about MY soul, I was writing about THE soul…the old idea that has passed into obsolescence since science ran it out of town.

  • Potter

    Nick- It is possible that the soul “exists”( define exists) but without a definition or a physical place to reside. It may arise through the emotions or the intellect or around when there is no path through.

    Soul for me begins with trying to understand the concept of soul at first through Emerson many years ago trying to understand the Oversoul. I come to it more recently and in a more real way practicing meditation, trying to get to my own by letting go. But in between those two I come to understand soul through my relationship with my sister. I used the word “essence” as a synonym for soul. I think that there probably are as many definitions of “soul” as there are of God if you ask for them. Putting feelings and senses such as these into words is perhaps harder than making music or a painting about it.

    My sister (now gone) had schitzophrenia, There was the really bizarre way she acted and thought. After she went, all my experience of her seemed like surface over some inner force. Her life lasted only 36 years. She lived most of it with her handicap unable to make sense of this world as we do. You don’t normally have cause to focus on and appreciate how much you rely on your sanity, your ability to make sense of things. I’d sooner give up an arm than my ability to make sense of this world knowing my sister’s life.

    When she died I had a feeling of who she was more than I ever had. I was always reacting to her on the surface, unable to understand her or make real contact for more than fleeting minutes at a time. When she died I suddenly could feel that whole life- her soul- and how it struggled in this world. It was not her mind which was confused , disjointed, nonsensical, unable to concentrate. It certainly was not her emotions which were flattened. It was her essence or her soul, stripped of thought and feeling, that drove her forward- a determination to survive, to see her life through to it’s end with all her handicaps knowing somewhere she was ill. She knew in her soul, beyond her emotions, beyond her thoughts. Or I should maybe say behind her emotions and behind her thoughts. So it is only though feeling her soul that I come to feel for her and her struggle.

    I think we feel another soul most at their death.

    Interesting that in this interview it was said that William James rejected such terms in his writing, but in his everyday life he used them. It’s a shorthand inadequate way, albeit old fashioned ( as per ghostofdali) to express something that’s hard to put into words.

  • Potter

    What was meant by mediation?

    For someone such as myself who talks about not wanting any mediation, just the experience, I do find myself benefiting tremendously from these interviews. The exposition (what is written and talk) around non verbal works of art especially for me have always been an instant turn off. Interviews with musicians can be boring- like listening to sports figures drone on about the game they just played. Well almost. Musicians can be at times more interesting. Writers can be even more interesting which you would expect because of their ability to express themselves in words ( like Norman Mailer). These interviews and shows on music, on Coltrane, Ellington, Corigliano ( that pre ROS interview stuck with me) however have been really wonderful.

    I majored in art history and I was fortunate enough to take courses with two really great art historians. It was all mediation… and I loved it… it opened me in ways I never would have been on my own. So I have some nerve talking like this. But it’s hard for me to read the words an art book. When in a museum, if I read the labels on the wall that’s quite enough almost too much. Never tried one of those audio things. It seems to me they would get in the way of my response/s.

    The subject of mediation came up instantly in this interview. It was said or quoted, by Chris, that Oliver Sachs said that music needs no mediation. Later in the interview Sachs attempted to reverse that; music needs mediation he said- everything needs mediation (my bold) he said, but a strange sort of mediation ( again my emphasis). And then the subject was dropped. I wish it had been purse so I bring it up here.

    Chris asked- “What is your sense of what is happening inside a person that has been transformed by music?” ( I think I have that right). “What the hell is art about”? “What does it do?”

    What really endeared me to Sachs but again left me in the lurch was his answer: “I don’t know”.

    Somehow I feel more comfort sitting in a room of people who can say that. Still the question is a juicy one. I wish we could have a go at it.

    Can we talk about mediation itself? Is there such a thing with music as no mediation? If you go to a concert, the music is all mediated, interpreted.

    But there is also the “issue” with me of of using words to describe music or painting. This can get in the way or, I admit, it can really broaden, prepare you, make your experience that much more.

  • Potter

    correction: “I wish it had been pursued so I bring it up here.”

  • Bobby

    Nick says:

    “I’d like to ask ghostofdali – and Chris too, and anyone else interested, ftm – for a definition or description of ‘soul’. If you’re certain this thing exists (albeit not necessarily where it resides within a human being) then you must have some sense of its properties or identifying characteristics. So please tell me: what, exactly, are its properties? Characteristics? Its telltale ‘footprints’, if you will?”

    Nick, when I was a philosophy student in college I made the mistake of asking my professor if I could do an independent study of the ‘evolution’ of the soul; I wanted to know how its definition had changed throughout history. (I say mistake, because anyone who’s studied philosophy knows – particularly as a naive college kid – you’ll be won over by a theory in class believing it to be logically sound, claim it as gospel, and just when you’re about to convert your friends and family, your professor suggests you wait until you’ve read the next theory. Behold! It argues that the previous theory is false, gives reasons why – usually convincing, and then suggest you convert over to it! Four plus years later, you’ll leave school owing $60,000 and have no clue WHAT to believe. “I knew I should have taken the blue pill. Damn you, Morpheus.” That being said, you might start with these two books:

    The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul by Francis Crick

    Whatever Happened to the Soul: Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature Edited by Nancey Murphy

    I ended up favoring the idea of nonreductive physicalism, the view that we are simply physical beings but that our mental state, i.e. our soul, is a property that only emerges out of the complexity of the brain, i.e. as neurons increase in number as well as contact with other neurons, a new property we call soul/consciousness arise/emerges. However, soul/consciousness could not have been predicted by simply studying neurons, (we are, after all, more than the sum of our parts) it also cannot be reduced to/understood by simply studying a bunch of neurons either. An analogy I’ve heard before is regarding the transparency of water; that though it’s a property associated with water, it only emerges when water molecules come together, that we could not have predicted this property would come about, nor could we define it by studying a molecule of water. I hope that makes some sense. (I admit I haven’t thought about the details in years, not to mention it’s five hours past my bedtime.) You might also look up Epiphenomenalism and Supervenience. But don’t say I didn’t warn you 🙂

  • Potter

    So to find the soul you can’t think too much; that scares the soul away. The harder you think the less you can know/feel it.

  • Regarding the soul, its substance, purpose and relationship with consciousness.

    Recollecting that Jesus said, “the Father and I are one”; and that God is alleged that have given his name to Moses on Mt. Sinai as “I AM THAT I AM”; consider this excerpt from wikipedia concerning Meher Baba’s conception of the soul.

    Begin excerpt: Meher Baba upheld the concept of nonduality, the view that diverse creation, or duality, is an illusion and that the goal of life is conscious realization of the absolute Oneness of God inherent in all animate and inanimate beings and things.

    Meher Baba compares God’s original state to an infinite, shoreless ocean which has only unconscious divinity — unaware of itself even though there is nothing but itself. From this state, God had the “whim” to know Himself and asked “Who am I?” In response to this question, creation came into existence. In this analogy, what was previously a still, shoreless Ocean now stirred, forming innumerable “drops” of itself or souls.

    Each soul, being formed by God’s whim to know Himself, contains within itself the same desire for self-knowledge. In pursuit of the answer to that question (to gain conscious divinity) each soul evolves consciousness through experience of each form in seven kingdoms of evolution, i.e. stone, vegetable, worm, fish, bird, animal, and human. The impressions gathered through experience of these forms in turn seek expression. This need for expression of accumulated impressions gained through the medium of a particular form eventually cannot be accommodated by the form the soul identifies with, necessitating that the soul abandon that form and associate with the next most complex form through which the impressions can be expressed. By this process increasing consciousness is gained.

    In this way, the soul experiences (by associating with) and discards (by dissociating from) forms in all the evolutionary kingdoms. According to Meher Baba the final form of the soul’s evolution of consciousness is the human form, through which medium full consciousness is attained. Only human consciousness, which is full consciousness, is capable of achieving awareness of its own divinity.

    However, although consciousness is full upon the attainment of the first human form, the soul’s ages-long accumulation of impressions gathered through evolution prevent it from identifying itself as God, its true being. Instead, human consciousness is preoccupied with expressing its impressions by seeking sensual experiences. Ultimately, however, through the soul’s travail through numerous human incarnations encompassing the whole range of opposite human experience (e.g. man/woman, rich/poor, powerful/weak, etc.), the impressions accumulated through its evolution, as well as those gathered in its human lives, begin to thin and the soul’s awareness of a reality beyond its own immediate desires is stirred. This is the beginning of the end of the soul’s separate existence. The soul then begins to traverse an inner spiritual path, or involution, through which it gradually eliminates all impressions which cause the appearance of separateness from God.

    Once all impressions are gone, the goal of knowing itself as conscious divinity is attained. The drop (soul) once again becomes merged in the Ocean (Over-soul). That is, it realizes its true divine indivisible and eternal nature. It has now answered the question of “Who am I?” with “I am God.” End excerpt.

    Where is he missing the mark? Was this guy reading Emerson?

  • nother

    Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.

    – Chris’s main man, Victor Hugo

    The lone wolf howls…for another. Otherwise he’d just brood inwardly.

    I’m currently experiencing the wretched process of unrequited love and music has played a part in every stage of my quaint little saga. As I began to fall, I savored my ravishment with the crooning of Sinatra and the swooning of Pachelbel.

    Soon Eros had me in her grips and damn, it felt as if all my senses had a new awakening. Under my skin, the joints were jump’n and I purposefully kept my eyes and ears open for any stimuli that might organize the sweet internal chaos.

    Music can be that.

    It’s the difference between scoffing down some mystery meat in the dark, on the run, out of a paper bag – or savoring that same meat (which turns out to be roast chicken, cooked by Julia Childs) in a warm candlelit sidewalk café at dusk – after you’ve just watched her passionately prepare each ingredient.

    It was the same roast chicken in that paper bag, but it was not the same experience tasting it.

    That’s what music can do for my soul, it illuminates that which I might have missed, and for God sake, I don’t wanna miss a beat! I want to savor every last bite.

    Alas, the object of my affection has moved on, but I am still right here – eating something more akin to McDonald’s chicken McNuggets, than Julia Child’s roast chicken.

    But don’t fret for me, I have some buddies keeping me company – my man Smokey reminds me that Everybody Plays the Fool, Bob confided that he’s Love Sick, Sam is hopeful that A Change is Gonna Come, and Miles…oh Miles.

    The eternal gift of these musicians and their music is fellowship – listen and you will never be alone. I am not alone.

  • Hey, Nother, Check this out. The great Sonny Rollins says so much for this thread and the other conversation with Oliver Sacks and commenters about the nature of souls, and the related mysteries of art. He could even be taken to be saying something about the heart connection. “It’s hard to delineate music, just what happens when and how you play — it sort of happens by itself, music does. Jazz is a great healing force, and a great social force. People all over the planet can be reached through jazz..” And then: “it’s all about making the invisible visible” he says.

  • nother

    Sonny…oh Sonny!

    I might not be able to define the soul with a chart but there is one thing that I find certain:

    The soul is enriched by the sharing of it.

    Sonny is generous with his serene soul, and when you let him in, you find that his soul functions like a mirror to your own better angles – It’s a revelation! And the fallout finds me wanting to share my own humble soul…thus creating a snowball effect…thus creating a spirit.

    The great ones make other souls around them rise up and play above their selves. I’m watching Kevin Garnett do it this year with the Boston Celtics, and in the past it’s been Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson, ABE, MLK, JFK, Miles, and Sonny. Not just their teammates or band mates but anyone who is open to their generosity – including you and I.

  • Bobby


    If Benjamin Franklin were alive today, I’m confident he’d declare: There is nothing certain in this world except death, taxes, and Christopher Lydon’s gift to bring Jazz into any conversation. 🙂 Admittedly, I’ve never had a desire to pursue Jazz. But when you write, People all over the planet can be reached through jazz, I feel obligated to take the challenge. So, can you — anyone really — recommend some Jazz pieces/composers for the beginner, pieces that would instruct this Grasshopper in the fine art of Jazz? I have faith in you, Chris. After all, you did introduced me to Emerson, my multivitamin for the soul. An essay a day, and for that I’m eternally grateful.

    Speaking of listening, the deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie gave a speech at TED titled: How to listen to music with your whole body. Definitely worth it!

  • Nick

    Bobby, if you’re coming late to jazz, as I’ve been doing over the past couple of years, you might want to start with the form of it that was, for a brief but glorious couple of decades, America’s popular music: Swing.

    I find it much more immediately accessible than the bulk of modern jazz – and, what’s more, I’ve found that since I’ve gained a basic familiarity with Swing, modern jazz is becoming (albeit slowly) more palatable. More listener-friendly. Because pretty much all modern jazz evolved from Swing, just as Rock is entirely indebted to its musical mother the Blues. “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” is not only one of the greatest jazz tunes of all time, it’s also a defining characteristic of, or a canonical motto for, jazz as a genre.

    The easiest way to sample Swing (that I can think of) is also entirely free – go here: The Swing Years and click the Listen link in the box just above the Current Playlist. Now, not every song you might hear there is Swing – much of it is Swing Era pop and show-tunes, and even a track or two of Classic Country – but the program’s host, Amanda Wilde, builds her weekly four-and-a-half hours around the true giants of Swing: Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Benny Carter, Woody Herman, Jimmie Lunceford, Charlie Barnet, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Louis Armstrong and many, many more. (One great advantage of that radio-show stream is that once you’ve heard the DJ detail the previous set, you can find those songs on the playlist and then listen to the rest of the show with the playlist as a crib sheet. This allows you to immediately KNOW who and which songs you fancy much more quickly than you might otherwise be accustomed to from listening to regular radio.) It’s a truly great program (we hear it live over the air out here in the Puget Sound region every Saturday night), and I am personally indebted to it and to the host for turning me, a lifelong inveterate and unapologetic Motor City rocker (the most rock-arrogant variety), into a proselytizing Swing nut.

    I’ll draw up a brief list of suggested recordings – Swing 101, I guess – and post a link to them here tomorrow.

    Also, I liked your response to my ‘soul’ query above and am hoping to respond to it before this thread’s scent goes cold.

    PS: the Swing Years stream that’s running now (until Saturday night, when it’s updated by that night’s show), features a terrific opening hour – a fine taste of real Swing: Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Artie Shaw, Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James (all in a sequence), Coleman Hawkins, Slim Galliard, Art Tatum. Then, later: Lionel Hampton (my current favorite genius), Barney Bigard, Stuff Smith, Django Reinhardt & Stephan Grappelli, Fats Waller, Mezz Mezrow, The Mills Brothers (another sequence); then (here and there): Will Bradley & Ray McKinley, Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan (credited with birthing what eventually became known as R&B), Les Brown, Red Norvo, Sarah Vaughn, Teddy Wilson, Charlie Barnet, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton (again!), George Shearing, Benny Carter, and Bobby Hackett.

    It’s like that every week: nearly over-loaded with musical brilliance.

    Enjoy… 🙂

  • Bobby


    I’m sitting here, reading your post, thinking, “The Swing Years. The Swing Years. Why does that sound familiar?” And then it hits me: “Wait a second! I know that show! Amanda Wilde hosts that show! It’s a local show, straight out of KUOW – my NPR station here in Seattle. I’m not sure I should admit this, but the only time I turn NPR/KUOW off is Saturday nights from 7 PM. – Midnight. I’ll give you one guess what show airs during those hours. 🙂 LOL!!! That being said, I’ll start listening to it this Saturday; and I promise to be as objective as possible 🙂 Anyway, I’ll read the rest of your post – it looks like you wrote a lot – tomorrow! I’m off to bed. Thanks Nick!

  • For Bobby: Duke Ellington was the sequel to Emerson in the philosophical and emotional essentials. I’ve written this before, so I plagiarize myself here: “Duke Ellington cut his own original Emersonian figure for the 20th Century. An enabler who was both major composer and itinerant performance artist, in long forms and short, for dance halls and cathedrals, Ellington was a blues man of surpassing public style and inner ecstasies. It intrigues me that both Emerson and Ellington were towering individualists set each in his own band of eccentric voices–Ellington in his orchestra, Emerson in the Concord circle…”

    Having said that you can’t go wrong in Ellington recordings as you can’t go wrong in Emerson essays… I would give you my very humble and personal and pretty arbitrary starter kit of three songs to listen to over and over… for the conversations going on, the quality of mind and spirit therein, the pleasure and love on display, starting with Duke:

    “My Little Brown Book,” a Billy Strayhorn composition, best recorded (I think) on the album “And his mother called him Bill…” Gorgeous Johnny Hodges soloing and rich Ellington-Strayhorn orchestration throughout.

    “Joy Spring” composed and played by Clifford Brown in the 1950s. Brown was and is often called “the Charlie Parker of the trumpet.” But listen outside of periods or styles to the sheer mastery of the singing energy and affirmation by a man who could do no wrong with melody especially but rhythm, tone, small-group collective beauty.

    “Red Top,” an impulsive, funny, supercharged but light quotation-filled cluster of blues variations by Erroll Garner on the immortal and irresistible “Concert by the Sea” album, also from the 1950s.

    Now if we were near neighbors, Bobby, I would say: hey, take these three out of three million recordings and keep listening to just them until they break through — and they will. Who are these players, where are they coming from, what equipment do they command, what might they be saying to each other, then to themselves, then to us? And keep listening over and over… and then one day you will say, “Holy moley, I get it!”

  • Bobby


    I finished reading your post this morning. If only I continued reading past the first “Swing Years” I would have seen that you and I both call Puget Sound home. BTW, did you know Amanda Wilde when she was a DJ at KEXP? Most of my friends are disciples of that radio station. Anyway, I look forward to reading your list of suggested recordings. P.S. my email is moonkey1@gmail.com If you’re ever in Seattle, perhaps one day we’ll meet up – who knows, a few months from now you and Amanda might be there – like two proud parents – when I purchase my first Jazz recording. “There he goes, Nick. Why, it seems like only yesterday, you’d have to hold him down, while I’d played Coltrane into his headphones, and he’d cry, and cry…” 🙂

  • Bobby


    Thank you. I will certainly purchase those recording; particularly if they’re able to inspire me like Uncle Emerson can! I’m reminded of a that line in Amadeus when Salieri describes hearing Mozart’s Serenade:

    “On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse – bassoons and basset horns – like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly – high above it – an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing a voice of God.” [Emphasis mine]

  • Bobby

    Chris & Nick,

    While were on the subject of discovering music – only to becoming a lifelong fan – I was in high school when I stumbled upon classical music. I couldn’t get enough! But when it came time to start my own collection, I was lost. I asked a teacher for some ideas. “Dvorak’s Cello Concerto is essential.” “Okay,” I said, “but which one?” If only I had a picture of that pained expression that came across my teacher’s face; that “Oh sweet Jesus, tell me he didn’t say what I thought he just said?” face 🙂

  • Potter

    Can we hear beyond our physical hearing abilities?

    Very interesting Bobby that you bring up Evelyn Glennie the deaf percussionist. “Touch the Sound” ( filmed in Scotland) is a DVD short movie about her and how she hears with her whole body. You must see this. My husband came home with it as someone gave it to him at work and we watched it. Then he bought 25 copies and handed them out to people he works with. (For long years he has been producing audio demos and demo shows for a sound system manufacturer and he keeps dreaming up ways to show the value of music in our lives.) Anyway the DVD had a profound effect on me, I can’t begin to tell you all but I recommend it.

    Thanks Bobby for bringing her up- she’s extraordinary.

  • Potter

    A good way to connect to jazz is to tune into a jazz program on radio and, especially if you have a DJ that plays a sampling of the greats. You will find some music that grabs you. Then you go from there. Partly it’s about getting accustomed to it as well- like a new cuisine. I still have a hard time- like with some far out Coltrane- and sounds that scream at me.

    “Red Top” which is on the “Concert by the Sea” album brings back a certain era in my life. I bought that vinyl after I had seen/heard/experienced Erroll Garner at a club in Manahattan during my dating days. I loved him! I listened to that album so much on my stereo, soaked it in, that it is burned into me (using water and fire for metaphor) forever. Hearing anything from that today brings back those days when New York was quite a different place/scene and my life ahead an unknown.I don’t quite know why this music appealed to me early on, perhaps it was it’s freedom and I felt I needed to liberate myself.

    Now I am incapable of hearing anything on that album without those associations. It’s interesting that Chris brings that album up so much.

  • Bobby

    Hi Potter,

    First, I wanted to thank you for sharing that story of your sister. It’s a beautiful reminder that there are times when we don’t have to try and understand someone, but just love them.

    You had also asked the question: “So to find the soul you can’t think too much; that scares the soul away. The harder you think the less you can know/feel it.”

    Someone once compared the soul to a wild animal, i.e. it was essentially shy. And just as you wouldn’t go trampling through the wood to find a wild animal, the same applies to the soul; we need to sit quietly at the base of a tree and be patient; if we’re lucky, the soul may show itself, but even then there was no guarantee.

    Now back to Jazz: Thanks for sharing both your story and suggestions on listening to Jazz. It sounds to me that you and Chris have both, so to speak, been privileged enough to witness the soul – whether it be Jazz’s soul, your soul, or some glimpse of your own, who knows really – pass through the woods. (I suspect Nick may have too, or is at least working on it.) Also, I’ll definitely watch Evelyn Glennie’s Touch the Sound video, if only because I grew up in Scotland as a kid – family moved there when I was five, and lived there until I was ten. I went back last month – twenty-five years later – to visit the small town – Rosehearty – I lived in, population 1200. It was surreal. Nothing had changed except for my old school. It had been torn down about seven years ago, and new one built in its place. And guess who the honorary guest at the grand opening was? Evelyn Glennie! Talk about a small, SMALL world.

  • Potter

    I love that picture of Marcel Proust looking at me every time I come here.

    Bobby- I did not mean to suggest that swing- as Nick suggests- is not also a good route to go to get to jazz. Not all jazz is swing though some swing is jazz ( I am out on a limb here- please anyone correct me). I think of swing as dance music, and again some of it I believe you can call jazz. Chris did a whole show on swing back in the old Connection days.

    I was just playing Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges on a CD called “Side by Side” It has Harry”Sweets” Edison on trumpet and Billy Strayhorn on some piano numbers. To me it’s swing and jazz- definitely you could do a Lindy to it.

  • Nick

    Bobby, sorry it has taken me so long to respond. I was busy – but not busy enough to miss a chance to write about my new favorite music. (As you’ll see when you read all that follows. And it’s much more fun to write about than the usual topics that so preoccupy me!) It just took many days to squeeze in.

    When I first moved (3 years ago) from Michigan into the KUOW broadcast range, I, like you, tended to turn the radio off after the end of Says You! I wasn’t at all interested in that brassy swanky music – that annoying, schmaltzy showy junk my parents had favored and had unfavorably compared my childhood’s 1960’s rock to. But, well, you know how it goes: you’re busy with something or other and you can’t always get that radio switched off before the swank starts up at 7PM. In my first months out here it happened a couple of times, and though I wasn’t thrilled, I found that by the third or fourth time, I wasn’t much annoyed any more. Because, little by little as the Saturdays passed and the “Golden Age Of Radio” blared on, I began to find the music both interesting and amusing. The names of the bandleaders, soloists, and singers began to stick in my memory. Presently Amanda (and no: I’m too new to this area to know her from anywhere but KUOW) played a version of a song I recalled fondly from my early childhood – The Mills Brothers’ “Jeepers Creepers” – and (to my surprise—almost like a zombie of some bizarre new musical species), I googled it. And then ordered on impulse a Mills Brothers compilation with that song on it.

    I also recall quite clearly (and, in retrospect, with no small amusement) thinking while ordering, “This’ll be the ONLY money I’ll ever waste on music that isn’t rock, blues, ambient (good for fiction-writing), or (because I like ‘classical’ music too, as do you) period instrument recreations of 18th century stuff.”

    Yeah, right.

    Glacially, and almost imperceptibly, that Saturday night Swing kept growing on me. Enough so that one day while browsing in a brick and mortar music megastore, I wandered from the rock aisles into the little jazz section. There I found the Duke Ellington “Properbox” – 4 discs for a mere $20, and took a chance. Boy am I ever glad I did. Around the same time, the local library yielded more gems, including the Billie Holiday Properbox. So, I was experiencing growing interest and appreciation, yeah sure, but, at this stage, and despite my recent musical acquisitions, no great epiphany – yet. The music was charming – like a collection of sonic museum pieces – yet I couldn’t quite take it seriously. It didn’t (yet) have any power. Well, of course the epiphany presently came, crystallizing one Swing Years evening when Ms. Wilde played Benny Goodman & his Orchestra’s ultra-bluesy “Why Don’t You Do Right”, sung by the quietly sultry Peggy Lee. (A fabulous, nearly classical arrangement by Goodman’s pianist Mel Powell.)

    That tore it all open, shining a sun’s force of light where once all had been dark, and doing me in, once and for all. From the artful alternating tutti-solo clarinet-tutti introduction through all the sassy you’re-gonna-listen-to-me-you-creepy-cheapskate lyrics (not originally Lee’s, but sung like she’d damn well made them her own) and Goodman’s patented hot clarinet solos and fills, I realized I’d reached the point of no return.

    I HAD to take the music seriously. It wasn’t just “charming” anymore. Not “quaint”. Not nostalgic. It was fully alive and powerful. (Maybe I’d just needed all that time to acclimate to mono after a life of stereo and hi-fi…? Nah—I think I just needed more time to acclimate my ear to another musical universe.)

    So that’s when the profligate spending began. One compilation after another. I’ve just now done a quick CD head count and, to my surprise, I own just under 300 Swing, pre-Swing (Scott Yanow calls it ‘Classic Jazz’ – the jazz of the 1920’s through roughly 1931), and post-Swing CD’s. Yeah, that’s a lot more jazz in my possession than I’d realized before tonight.

    Even so, I still feel like a wholesale novice. Partly because I’ve been listening in earnest only for a couple of years now; and, even more, because despite those 300 CD’s-worth of 78rpm recordings, I know full well that my collection is dwarfed by the thousands of songs from the Swing era that I don’t (yet) own. (Not to mention the bebop I’m ever-so-slowly warming to.)

    I’m not yet even halfway to anything approaching a comprehensive library of the music – and not a quarter of the way either, most likely.

    So, please take the following avalanche of words and suggestions not from a self-styled ‘authority’ (I promise you I ain’t) but instead from an neophyte, untutored, barely jazz-literate enthusiast. Here’s the link: Swing 101 (as taught by a tyro).

    Comments, corrections, complaints, critique, and plain old chatter are welcome from all and sundry. (That means you too, Chris.)

  • Nick

    Potter, I’ve been mulling your most recent post in this thread, and have here a seemingly disjointed but ultimately cohesive respsonse:

    “Not all jazz is swing though some swing is jazz (I am out on a limb here- please anyone correct me). I think of swing as dance music, and again some of it I believe you can call jazz.”

    At the risk of simultaneously oversimplifying while displaying my imperfect comprehension of the topic: Swing had both ‘hot’ and ‘sweet’ forms, but, just as within rock’s two-decade growth from the comparative tameness of Buddy Holly to the take-no-prisoners Sex Pistols, the ‘sweet’ derived Swing isn’t nearly as interesting as the ‘hot.’ This is why I adore Lionel Hampton’s big band – even though he’s hardly the first bandleader who springs to mind when one thinks of the genre, “Big Band Swing.”

    The ‘sweet’ stuff – like, say, most Bing Crosby – isn’t really jazz. But then most Bing Crosby isn’t really ‘Swing’, either. I class him as ‘Swing Era Pop’, along with The Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Guy Lombardo, and a slew of others.

    The Mills Brothers, on the other hand, definitely swung, even while producing pop songs with almost no instrumentation aside from their voices and one acoustic guitar. Swing, in my imperfect understanding, was more an approach to, or sense of, tempo – a rhythm and a musical style built on that rhythm.

    To wit:

    “Chris did a whole show on swing back in the old Connection days.”

    I googled it: http://www.theconnection.org/shows/2000/04/20000414_b_main.asp

    The archive’s sound quality is somewhat watery, but it’s still listenable and massively insightful. I grinned at hearing all that Basie in my library – and while having it explained by Robert Levin! (I’ve got Levin on CD’s playing Mozart, so it was doubly special to hear him talk with Chris about Swing, Basie, and Duke.)

    It reminded me that my best Basie set is this: Cutting Butter – The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1939-1942 – which I was damn lucky to find. It swings effortlessly from “The Apple Jump” onwards, and it’s the most flawless, hi-fidelity compilation of pre-stereo recordings I’ve yet heard.

    Anyway, the books with which I supplement my listening either imply or downright declare that Swing is jazz’s great second generation. The first generation is the stuff that Scott Yanow calls Classic Jazz, and that Gunther Schuller analyzes in depth in Early Jazz – Schuller’s first volume of a three volume musicological history of jazz. His second volume is wholly devoted to Swing: The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945.

    But, just as all the rock-era music that uses rock rhythms, chord progressions, and electric pyrotechnics isn’t necessarily rock (remember the dreadful Osmonds?), not every Swing Era musician using Swing idioms was actually performing Swing. (Like the “sweet bands” – Lombardo, Xavier Cugat, etc. – and the crooners).

    Yanow mirrors Schuller, of course, in his contributions to the Third Ear Essential Listening Guide series.

    “I was just playing Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges on a CD called “Side by Side” It has Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet and Billy Strayhorn on some piano numbers. To me it’s swing and jazz- definitely you could do a Lindy to it.”

    I’m no expert, but I’m willing to be that if you can Lindy to it, it’s Swing – and therefore jazz!

    But, then again, the question of “What’s jazz?” seems to answerable only ‘in the ear of the beholder’. I’ve never owned a DVD player, but am about to break down and get one because I want to own this:

    Jazz: A Film By Ken Burns. And while ogling it online today, I began to read the Amazon customer reviews.

    Whew! What a wild discrepancy between gushing praise and seething vitriol! ]


    “I am a jazz musician, son of a jazz musician, am conservatory trained, and this series stands toe to toe with the best lectures by the best music historians and music theory experts I have studied with. If Ken Burns chose to follow a the pillars of jazz in depth rather than give ten minutes to every musician to come along in the past hundred years, we are better for it. If you want ten minutes on each musician, read liner notes. Mr. Burns series will be remembered precisely because it does go into such depth. Bird, Duke, Pops and Dizzie do not come clear to you without much study. We should be grateful for the fact that this series is anything but shallow.”


    “This film is horrible. As many reviewers have pointed out already, the subject matter, which is about jazz music, is not complete. There were very key movements in jazz that were not even discussed. The documentary ends in the early 1960s when the jazz style of bebop was still being played. This is incomplete and a waste of film, because everyone who loves jazz like I do, knows that jazz didn’t end in the 60s. This film was a total waste of time and effort.”

    And a voice of moderation:

    “This is a great series but it is not a true history of jazz. It omits the crucial fact that jazz was driven by songs and vocalists and not by instrumentalists. An example would be the ‘canaries’ who were the singers who got big bands their audiences in the swing era.”

    Soooo…what’s jazz? Apparently, it’s whatever the jazz-style partisan claims it to be!!!


    But this from you is gonna stick in my mind for years, ol’ friend, “definitely you could do a Lindy to it”. I love that! Thanks!

    (And thanks for mentioning that old Connection episode too – I never heard it before tonight.)

  • Bobby


    Thank you! Thank you for sharing your story on how you came to Jazz. Your ‘avalanche’ of words conveyed both the enthusiasm and respect you have for the art form. I enjoyed reading post. I was at a dinner party this last weekend at my parents’ home; I happen to mention your post – as well as Chris and Potter’s – with one of the couples there. Come to find out they themselves are ‘disciples’ of Jazz: they go at least one night a week to a Jazz club here in Seattle. I mentioned a few of the pieces you, Chris, and Potter suggested I start with, e.g. “Red Top.” They of course knew all of them; they then offered to have me over for my first Jazz 101 session. It should be fun. Again, thanks for taking the time to write! I appreciate it.