Ae8. Can jazz musicians be rationally compared, ranked, and listed as better or worse than another?
Assessment of ranking jazz musicians
On Quora it was asked "Who are the best American jazz musicians of all time?"
- Dylan DeFeo responded to the question with this reply.
“Honestly, you ask ten different jazz fans and you'll get ten different lists—most of which will be a mix of classic, influential mainstays (like Miles, Duke, Satchmo, Trane, Monk) and then personal favorites. There are so many different eras and styles of jazz that one can make best of lists for each niche, and even those will differ person to person. In any art form, what constitutes the "best" is incredibly subjective. If you talk about pure influence, or album sales, it's a little easier to whittle down, but that doesn't mean they're the "best". Beauty is in the eye (or in this case, ear) of the beholder and often I find that trying to determine the "best" is just a waste of time. Listen to what you like, appreciate the musical ancestors who laid important groundwork—even if you don't like them, always acknowledge them—and just enjoy. There's nothing wrong with spirited discussion and comparing artists, I find the most insightful music critics (and as far as I'm concerned there's very few) pose comparisons and allow for healthy discourse, rather than declare what is "good" art and what isn't. Just dive in, listen, and draw your own conclusions . . . and therefore find who the best is to you!” (bold not in original)
- One could put the main point of Defeo's reply to the question who are the greatest American jazz musicians as being in the final analysis just judgments of taste, preferences, and many individual subjective factors. Many people would agree with this. It does not follow that because of the somewhat inherent subjectivity involved, as well as the judge's different individual experiences and tastes, that we are therefore incapable of making rational comparisons of value between jazz musicians.
- For reasons to believe that such value comparisons between jazz players can be rational and non-arbitrary I believe that you and I and everyone would agree that Louis Armstrong is a better trumpet player than some beginning trumpet student. Furthermore, we are all correct in our assessments about this and we also know why it is a correct assessment. It is correct because on almost any factor, quality, skill level, knowledge or technical execution, Mr. Armstrong would score higher than the beginning music student.
- What about Mr. Armstrong against a solid high school trumpet player? Here again the smart money is on Armstrong and for similar reasons, although the high schooler scores higher on any relevant tests than the beginner, but again not as well as Armstrong.
- What about expert versus expert? I still think if we are now giving, or attempting to theoretically assess, how performers would do on a particular test, then this does give us a rational way to rank the players relative to that particular test or assessment.
- So, for example, if we ask who would be better at playing free jazz on a test of some kind, John Coltrane or Louis Armstrong, then I think the most defensible answer is John Coltrane as way more likely to be a better free jazz player than Armstrong. First, Armstrong never played or practiced free jazz. Second, he probably didn't believe it was a viable jazz form, and perhaps not even music. He would not have his heart in it if he was forced to take some free jazz test, whereas Coltrane did play it, did practice it, and was emotionally invested in having free jazz be viable music.
- What about the apples and oranges problem of not being able to compare, say, Kenny G(orelick) and his smooth jazz with John Coltrane's "Ascension"? If we ask who is the better jazz player most judges would still probably pick Coltrane over Kenny G, even though Kenny G is a good player. Why is this?
- To answer what it is about Trane over the G man that makes Coltrane the superior and better jazz musician is undoubtedly quite a long story. On many levels of assessment Coltrane will be correctly judged superior. Let us provide some specific criteria.
- ability and skill to improvise
- influence on jazz musicians
- record sales
- likelihood to be remembered by the general public in 150 years
- more fun to listen too repeatedly
- himself advanced jazz practice and theory
- played with the best jazz players
- the list goes on
- But Coltrane does not win under all possibly relevant categories or criteria. On what criteria does Kenny G out rank Coltrane (perhaps)? The examples are made up, but as philosophers we consider thought experiments about possible worlds to see how a theory fares even against odd or unusual circumstances or improbable possibilities.
- Kenny G could be ranked higher than John Coltrane relative to these categories:
- influence on other smooth jazz musicians
- record sales (there is no accounting for popular taste)
- skill on multiple horns and instruments
- better jazz singer
➢ What do we do now to determine an overall winner?
- The answer is fairly obvious. Not every category is as important as every other category, therefore the categories themselves must be given a proportional weighting. The categories of assessment must themselves be assessed and judged/ranked regarding their importance, significance, and value.
So, let's compare the above categories. Which ones are the most important to jazz and justify why with an argument for each one?
Important categories in jazz and their relative weighting
Right from the start there are problems. Two obvious jazz categories for assessing a musician's abilities shall always include his or her compositional abilities for composing original works of music on paper and their performance improvisational abilities. Suppose that Charlie is great at improvising but does not compose much music on paper. On the other hand, Billy is great at composing music, but does not improvise much. Which one is a better jazz musician?
➢ Does improvisational abilities count for more or should it be given a higher weighting when ranking musicians relative to each other?
It would seem to be so on the grounds that producing meaningful music during concurrent improvisations is a difficult skill. Any jazz musician who is great at improvising will be considered superior to a jazz musician who cannot improvise as well during performances, even if the lesser improviser is a much better composer of jazz works on paper. Superior grades go to superior improvisers regarding playing with such performers. The superior improviser will be preferred by other players over the inferior improviser.
On the other foot, superior composers will be ranked higher than inferior composers for the music jazz players will prefer to play and perform.
So, we are at a stalemate. As fellow performers improvisational abilities are ranked and weighted higher than compositional abilities on paper, but just the opposite when choosing which antecedently existing musical works are to be preferred in playing tunes.
CONCLUSION: So, it would seem that at least relative to one on one comparisons between specific musicians and some specific criteria of assessment that non-arbitrary and correct judgments of assessment between players can succeed.