I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz from the late 30s and early 40s lately, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum. The Holiday is a two cd distillation of the complete Columbia recordings issued a few years ago, and it sounds wonderful. I bought a box of Holiday’s Columbia recordings in the early part of the cd era and it languished on my shelf. It took a long time to figure out how to make old recordings sound good again.
I wonder sometimes how many other people across, say, the whole country are doing the same thing – when I was out driving Sunday morning listening to Holiday, were there 10 other people nationwide listening to her? 100? 1000? I have no idea, though the number has to be pretty small, and – at this point – there aren’t any bragging rights for listening to jazz. But here’s the thing: you can’t use up Billie Holiday. These recordings were made 70 years ago but make as much sense today as they did then, even though the culture from which Holiday came and in which she worked is less than a memory.
I’m amazed by the fact that jazz continually sounds, if not new, then present in a way most modern music can’t manage. Not that it has to; my son and I were listening to Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City the other night and I understood that I was hearing a different kind of story-telling, for a different age. It was more like getting the news. And no one thinks that in 70 years some future me will be able to get the same pleasure out of a Lamar, a Radiohead, because most music really relies on the culture around it to help it make sense. The fact that a certain small amount of music transcends that is an oddity – why is Coleman Hawkins so timeless? – and for a few of us, a blessing.