Why live music is better, especially jazz

With all the personal, portable, computerized listening devices available these days, music people are turning into recluses. It’s easy to stay at home with YouTube, iTunes, Amazon or a streaming service, not to mention CDs and stereo equipment, and feel your musical experience is complete.

I know because I have all those home musical options myself. I love them. I use them every day. At home, on the train and in my office. But even with my stacks of CDs, playback equipment and online music, I still feel—I feel more strongly than ever—that live music is better. Much better. Let me explain why.

Live music is all-encompassing. Try sitting in a jazz club and ignoring the music. Try doing something else, like reading seriously. Try worrying about your problems during a set of live music. Eating and drinking is possible, but when the music gets going, you don’t even want to talk. You let the music flow into you and go deeply inside yourself. Live music engages totally.

Recorded music is less demanding. I love drifting off into recorded music. I listen when I write, when I grade papers, when I think, when I commute. I listen to as much recorded music as the next person and probably much more. But with recorded music, there is always the option of turning it off, or turning it down, or of letting my attention refocus on other tasks. Live music rivets your attention.

It does that by submerging the self. With recorded music, I’m more in control of what I want to do, think or feel. At home or on the train, I like music behind what I do, but with live music it is in front of me. Recorded music becomes part of me and whatever I’m doing. But with live music, I become part of it. The distinction is crucial. Live music, especially jazz, overwhelms my internal dialogue and sweeps me into its flow.

The sound of live music is more powerful than re-produced music. The sound is better in a club because it is produced right there. Even with a so-so sounding room (which are almost non-existent in Japan’s jazz world), the entire room becomes an amplifier. You are inside a resonating chamber. The room, in a sense, becomes a large speaker. The walls, tables, floor and ceiling reflect and resonate with the sound. The music rounds into complex dimensionality that encircles and embraces.

When it does that, the music becomes a visceral, corporeal encounter. You feel the sound with your whole body, not just your eardrums. In a jazz club, your body takes in the music from your chest, fingers, and feet. The low notes on a bass, the plink of a piano, the rip-blast of electric guitar, the pierce of a trumpet are taken in not just through the ears, but through the body. To get the same effect, ear buds (and I have several great pairs) would have to be attached all over your body, like an EKG.

Music is also highly visual. Watching music created right in front of you is very different from listening to music made in a faraway place. When musicians perform live, communication includes movements, facial gestures, and actions. The audience starts to follow the musicians, like a baby smiling back at a cooing, tickling parent. I love watching other people listening, too. Their reactions and movements add to the pleasure.

This human side of live music resists commodification. It is a temporal experience, not a commercial product. Its shelf life is the moment. It defies mechanical reproduction. Seeing music made is like seeing an artist paint, or a chef cook. It becomes even more amazing to see the process, not just the product. Live music is based on presence. Recorded music always involves absence.

In this age when people record all manner of experiences, unrepeatability becomes more precious, valuable and beautiful. Live music, especially jazz, is unrepeatable. That’s true for all live music, but jazz doubles that by putting improvisation at the center. Unrepeatable experience has even more value in this age of recorded, retweeted, shared, Youtube-ized life. It is like being on a train, compared to watching a video made from the train window by someone else.

Live music is uncontrollable. With recorded music, you can always turn off or on the vinyl record, CD, streaming or digital file. You can skip ahead, rewind and be totally in charge of who, what, when and how you hear. Modern technology lets us pretend we can control everything. Live music reminds us of the value of submitting humbly to direct experience, to give up our pause buttons and volume controls. Live music reasserts the importance of submission as a listener to the power of creation as a performer.

Live music is less dependent on technology. It avoids mechanical processing. Yes, jazz clubs have amplifiers, mixing boards and speakers, but those technologies serve greater connectivity and immediacy. The technology in a jazz club is not meant to capture it for re-sale, though that can be done. Instead, the small bits of technology in a club help to more fully engage in that singular time and place, to help immerse listeners in the moment.

Because live music is so temporal, it is unpredictable. Songs stretch to fit. Musical directions are taken that are not decided in advance. Of course, jazz songs usually return to the lead melody, or play a well-known song, but even with that, the unknown is the pleasure. Spontaneity is rediscovered. Not-knowing what will happen is what makes the music a journey, not points on an itinerary. Recorded music, as repeatable experience in material form, loses too much of the subjective, spiritual wildness music springs from.

Subjective in origin, music is still a social experience. Before recording technologies, all music was social. Of course, it was possible to play alone deep in some forest or to woodshed on a bridge, but the roots of music have always been a shared experience by a group of people. Jazz clubs recreate that mythical ancient village, taking listeners back to being participants, before the divide between performer and audience. As a listener, I am with the musicians and the audience, and they with me. Live music turns us into an “us.”

Lastly, to listen to live music—especially jazz–is to immerse oneself in the human process of music. That’s different from immersing oneself into a musical product. I love the product, too, and my house and computer are packed with them, but live music goes even farther to restore and reset our humanity, to helps us rediscover and re-appreciate the human beauty of highly ordered sound, unfiltered, intense and alive.

Michael Pronko (January 9, 2017)

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