Mingus, Songza, and the Problem of Curated Music

So I have been getting to know Songza lately, whether I knew it or not. For the last month or more, my boss has been putting on Songza playlists as our office music. These playlists have mostly replaced internet radio as our workplace soundtrack of late. (I wasn’t fully aware what this was until a recent beer tasting, when someone was telling me about Songza and I realized that this is what we were listening to at work.)

For the most part, these playlists are pretty innocuous – the one my boss puts on the most is just a bunch of “classical” (actually baroque, I believe) guitar pieces, and the one he puts on the second most is pretty obvious mainstream jazz choices, including things like “So What” and “Mercy! Mercy! Mercy!” (This latter playlist is rather hilarious because there’s not a lot of music on it, though it does appear to randomize when it repeats, so you’ll get four performances of “So What” over 3-4 hours.) Some of them are worse than others – one such “jazz” playlist featured a lot more lounge music and “jazz pop” than actual jazz, and another “classical” one he has played a few times feels like it’s just full of The Four Seasons and other nice, easy pieces.

But the one today was special.

I say it was special because it included a lot more progressive / modern jazz than anything else he had previously selected. Yes, the “So What” playlist (as it will forever be known) has one borderline free track on it – the first part of “A Love Supreme” – but everything else is very safe bop or modal. But this playlist was entirely different, containing a lot of boundary-stretching stuff, and then also, oddly, including some more traditional jazz. I don’t know how he found it or why he left it on all day – since my bosses don’t seem to like this stuff – but he did.

When he first put it on, I thought I heard the tail end of the second side of Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. (If you don’t already know, it’s on my short list of the great pieces of the 20th century, though that list in and of itself would not be very short. Just know that if a gun was to my head and I had to pick 5-10 pieces of “art music” from the last century, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady would be high on that list.) Sure enough, right before I left for the day, it came on again. It was the final movement – or final three movements if you prefer – of that piece, only it was very, very different, which is likely why I had trouble detecting it the first time. (Volume also played a role.)

It was way longer than the original, there was no guitar part, and there were wild, borderline-free solos constantly interrupting the piece (and dragging it out). I thought it must be a live version – though I heard no crowd – but I also thought Mingus never would have allowed it. You see, Mingus was quite the dictator, and though his music (and his favoured soloists) often seemed avant garde, he apparently detested free. I thought it odd for him to allow a performance like this. So I had to ask.

I got my one boss to show me his phone. Mingus Big Band! That explained everything! (And, it also made me want to go out and buy whatever Mingus Big Band record covers it.) Just as I sat back down, my other boss came over to ask the boss playing Songza to turn it off. The piece had to be almost over – it had been on, at this point, for 30 minutes or more, probably – but apparently he just couldn’t take it any more.

I confessed to them that I thought it was one of the greatest pieces of music of the 20th century. They seem shocked. I further confessed that it was a tribute, and the boss who wanted it turned off expressed hope that the original version was a lot less “crazy.” I said it was, but that this was in the spirit. They both sort of stared and then my boss oddly suggested that we should get our own days to play music. I told both of them they wouldn’t enjoy that very much and hinted that there would be more of this supposedly intolerable music.

I wouldn’t expect these two gentlemen to enjoy Mingus on first listen, especially a more radical version of Mingus, as I wouldn’t expect many people to like most progressive / modern / avant garde jazz on first listen. And this is particularly true of these guys as they don’t really like jazz. (Why is jazz playing in our office? That’s a good question! But I don’t want to ask it, because I like it.) And at least one of them doesn’t have the patience required to appreciate music that isn’t instantly catchy. But even if they did, I’m not sure how hearing a relatively radical performance of the end of a jazz suite would endear them to the music.

We all need some kind of context to appreciate most kinds of art – perhaps with the possible exception of a really catchy but well-crafted song, or a really tense thriller – and these curated lists remove the context. Yes, at one time the pop or rock album was a silly cash grab; merely collecting previously released singles for re-sale. But that stopped being true in the early to mid sixties. Sequencing has mattered ever since. Yes, some bands release one or two songs online and people like listening to them this way, but we learn so much more about the individual songs and the artist who released them when we get a set of them deliberately, artfully sequenced by the artist and / or the producer. (Sure, we can only get true context by listening to other contemporary music as well, but the point remains.)

But this is far, far more true of so-called art music, which has (normally) been assembled into pieces containing multiple parts since the very beginning of the western tradition. And the reason it applies here is that the last movement(s) of The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady build off earlier, simpler movements. If I knew what I was doing a little more, I might argue that it was the first application of Sonata Form within jazz (that I know of). And so to have even the faintest idea of what is going on the second side of the record requires to have listened to the first. Also, the piece combines dixieland style voicing with contemporary “tonal flexibility” (let’s call it). And so some jazz history knowledge helps. Knowing what the hell the Mingus Big Band is doing with it requires at least some knowledge of Mingus and also of the music that has appeared since.

But despite the presence of some (even more) avant garde jazz on this playlist, nothing could have prepared my bosses for this. And so instead of perhaps marveling at the daunting – though hardly as inaccessible as most avant garde jazz – immense, beautiful work, they instead turned it off. It was just too much. As it would be for pretty much anyone who doesn’t know Mingus or free jazz.

And that’s the problem with these lists. I guess it’s all well and good if the list is catchy songs. But what is one to do with the various pieces of “classical” and jazz pulled out of context? I mean, this is even worse than those compilation CDs which package a bunch of unrelated chamber pieces by different performers together on one CD. At least those have a label in common. (That’s not saying much.)

And it certainly doesn’t make me like this new era any more. I still prefer albums and sets of pieces curated by the actual artist, not some “expert.” I can’t imagine that changing any time soon.

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