Is Jazz Better Than Rock?

Value judge­ments about music genres are complex. I recently got into a discussion about the relative virtues of bassists in jazz as compared to rock. The premise put forward was, broadly, that jazz players are more skilled and that the genre as a whole is more demanding to work in. This inter­sects with several preju­dices about music that are inter­esting and perhaps useful to look at.

Is complexity a virtue?

There is a tendency to view complex things as more challenging and therefore more valuable musically. This may not be completely wrong, but there is value in simplicity too. The pro-jazz prejudice can run that only using three chords is easy compared to the harmonic subtlety of a tune like ‘Round Midnight.

The value of complexity depends completely on context and execution. A great tune like ‘Round Midnight uses harmony deftly to shade the subtleties of a beautiful melody. It highlights shifts between major and minor voices and modal relation­ships elegantly and cleverly. Most rock songs are much more simple harmon­ically, but this shifts the focus to different areas of the work.

Removing some of the density of inform­ation in a work greatly increases the impact. It provides a focus. Whole Lotta Love is not harmon­ically complex in the least. It is a tune with a great deal of impact, in part because of this. With little (to no) harmonic movement the focus of the listener is placed firmly on the rhythm and drive of the main riff. This is driven into the listener over and over with great force and enthu­siasm.

I am defin­itely not comparing like with like here. These are not even apples and oranges but apples and lobster thermidor. My point is exactly that. These examples are trying to do completely different things so to try to compare them directly is difficult at best.

What about technical skill?

It is possible to make fairly objective judgments of technical ability. Can you play fast? Can you use extended techniques? Can you make your instrument dance like Fred Astaire?

Having technical skill as a musician is useful. The skill itself is only potential. Etudes are not concert pieces. Pure demon­stra­tions of skill are not very inter­esting to listen to. They have to be put in to practice in context to have real value. It doesn’t matter that you can switch between 16th notes and sextuplets at 210 bpm if you can’t use any of those notes to make people feel something.

There is an easy bias as a musician to value technique very highly. We spend most of our time devel­oping these arcane skills. If it’s not important why am I spending all this time sitting in a room with a metronome?

The debate around technique crosses genre bound­aries. Interestingly in rock there is a prevalent reverse prejudice, that virtuoso players are somehow stunting other areas of their music. Steve Vai gets this partic­u­larly strongly.

Vai is derided in some circles for not having “soul”. This is inter­esting as he has played some great songs with a lot of feeling. The most apparent of these are often not his own compos­i­tions. His duet with Nell Furtado on her song I’m Like a Bird is very sensitive and musical. Even his hair-metal work with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake is full of humour and joy. Much of his solo compos­ition is based around his formidable technique and this seems to create an emotional distance for many people.

Who is the music for?

While in pop/rock technique is viewed with suspicion in jazz it can be lauded sometimes beyond reason. It is complicated in this context. Charlie Parker lit the jazz world on fire playing fast solos, extending harmonies and stretching the bound­aries of what music could be. The same things in the hands of other musicians becomes dry and lifeless.

There is a bragging culture in some areas of jazz. Bop and its variants are partic­u­larly prone to this. It becomes very similar to rap rivalries in some ways. Musicians end up speaking to the other musicians in the audience or even in the same band.

There may well be cultural value to this approach. While the music may not be of wide appeal the effect it has on other musicians may well drive them to assim­ilate the techniques in ways that are more musically accessible. I think you can make this argument about the value of rock musicians like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. While lots of folks don’t like their music a gener­ation of guitarists have grown up listening to (or at least aware of) what they do. This frames musical possib­ility. Even if you don’t ape what they play the gravity of it pulls your playing into a new shape.

Tallying the scores

In thinking about this I find myself, currently, in the cultural relat­ivist camp. Music needs to be evaluated in context. You can say that jazz tends to be more complex than rock. You can even stretch to gener­al­ising that jazz demands a higher level of technique than rock. Neither of these claims come close to estab­lishing an objective hierarchy of the genres.

I love lots of music that fits into both camps. I have spent time playing both. They are both useful, exciting and enter­taining in different contexts for me. Thankfully art is not a compet­ition and there is no Hunger Games of genres so I can continue to enjoy both musics as my whim leads me.

The dichotomy of popularity and credib­ility is deeply limiting to musicians in all genres. It is useful to have huge reser­voirs of facility and technique but it is not a requirement. More popular is not better either. There are many wonderful musicians who are obscure just as there are wealthy hacks. Don’t judge yourself just play.