Last week’s post highlighted some intriguing aspects of music and its power to move us listeners. We saw that the ancient Greek philosopher/mathematician Pythagoras was the first to decipher the hard-wired nature of our brains when it comes to musical harmony. He demonstrated that we are physiologically designed to accept and reject certain tonal combinations (harmony). Those preferences influence our tastes in melodic sequences (melody) as well, from complex works of the great composers to simple tunes. Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” strikes me as a modern-day example of a simple, but very “catchy” melodic construct. It has appealed to a very wide audience! Another hard-wired part of our musical brains clearly involves the influence of rhythm, or beat – as in “The Beatles.”
Given Pythagoras’ findings to partially explain our musical preferences, how do we account for the generational preferences so obvious in the history of the music business? If our parents’ generation loved Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and the big-band sound of the 30’s and 40’s based on musical merit, should not their grandchildren and great-grandchildren be attracted to it as well? That may be true based on physiology and musical merit alone, but the premise does not take into account important emotional/generational factors. After all, how many of today’s teenagers are listening to their grandparents’ music?
It seems that musical appreciation is very much related to both the times in which the musical genre surfaced and the memories which are evoked in those who grew up with the music. For many of us, the 50’s was the decade of our maturing, and we were enjoying the simple vocal/orchestral tunes at the top of the charts like the McGuire Sisters’ Sincerely, and Rosemary Clooney’s Hey There. We were adolescents leaving childhood and receptive to the moods and messages of 50’s music – the music we were hearing. Pleasant memories flood back when I hear some of these tunes even though many now, in hindsight, seem musically simple and, yes, even inane and laughable.
One tune from 1955 that topped the charts then and still raises my hairs is Perez Prado’s very popular Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White with its featured trumpet and Latin rhythm. That’s the one that originally “connected” me with music as a teenager and fueled my lifelong passion for the trumpet – powerful stuff, music!
The venerable music-writer and author James Lincoln Collier stated where he was coming from musically in Ken Burns’ documentary, Jazz. I will loosely paraphrase his love of the big-band era: “When you need solace, you turn to the music of your youth. The big-band sound was where I was coming from – that was my kind of music.” He went on to describe the excitement of going to a place like New York’s Paramount Theatre in the late 30’s – early 40’s to hear a featured band like Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey. The first sounds of the band filtered outside the theatre to the folks in line, getting louder and louder as you approached the entrance. Once inside, the music became full-bore as the stage slowly elevated from the pit on hydraulic risers to the audience level. That was chills up your back, as he put it!
I suppose being born in 1940, I have a memory connected, probably through my parents, to the mood of those times and to war-time sentiments – a powerful adjunct to the mystique of the big-band era. Additionally, I think my personal hard-wiring has something to do with my enthusiasm for the music of those times. One specific aspect of biological influence might explain my love for Chopin’s music – I am half Polish from my mother’s side, so there is a common thread with the composer. I have recordings of two of the all-time great pianists playing Chopin – Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubinstein. I once tried a little experiment and proceeded to play, side-by-side, identical numbers as performed by each. Both were top keyboard technicians, but the musical phrasing and interpretation by the Polish Rubinstein is so superior (my opinion only!) to that of Horowitz that I was literally startled at the difference I experienced. Despite a reticence to draw such conclusions, I have come to believe, to the point of making jokes, that Chopin’s music can best be appreciated by a Polish person hearing a Polish pianist interpret the Polish composer! It makes me think even more about that hard-wired business in terms of musical DNA. I do have a distant memory of my mother once commenting that Rubinstein was respected as much for his musical interpretation, especially of Chopin, as he was for his technical mastery of the keyboard. To dispel any notions of a resulting bias on my part, I could easily have chosen his renditions over those of the Russian Horowitz in a blind-test comparison.
New generations like new musical “ideas.” So do musicians who love to invent and improvise. Even the great Artie Shaw quickly became sick and tired of playing his all-time 1939 hit, Begin the Beguine. He chafed at the ballroom crowds wanting to hear the same thing over and over again while he wanted to push the musical envelope with new ideas. He actually walked out on his great band right at the peak of its popularity because of his discontent. So, the attitude of “our music” has influenced the music business from both sides – the performers and the (young) listeners. As a result we have transitioned from ragtime to jazz/swing to be-bop (where wild improvisation is king) to rock-and-roll to heavy metal, and to where we are today, and I am not really sure just where we are today.
I do know two things: First, that Louis Armstrong, a great jazz improviser himself, was right: As an improvising performer striving to be “creative,” do not stray too far from the melody line, he admonished. That solid advice came from the great cornet player and his boyhood mentor in New Orleans, Joe “King” Oliver. Second, I know that the musical “talent” of today’s most visible performers catering to young audiences rarely matches that which was obvious many years ago. I am not hearing any modern-day vocalists remotely comparable in musicality to the great ones of decades past like Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Nat King Cole, Helen Forrest, Eydie Gorme, etc. – and where are the songwriters? The truly accomplished musical performers of today are much less visible, ensconced in the many symphony orchestras and stage productions across this country. Today, big concert money and big-time marketing aimed at the young have built musical castles out of sand which the waves of time will quickly wash away.