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Jazz Audience Advocates

The Blues Gene

Tom Brown
President, Jazz Audience Advocates


Tom Brown
President, Jazz Audience Advocates

Having sex feels good. The feel good part is hard wired in our brains. It is a genetically determined, neurological mechanism that compels us to pursue sex, and its function is to insure the perpetuation of our species.

We get hungry and look for food and it tastes good. This, too, is a genetically determined behavioral mechanism that sustains our bodies.

We enjoy music. There is evidence for the presence of a neurological mechanism similar to those described above that drives us to seek out and derive pleasure from music. But why do humans universally enjoy music, and what specific need does it serve? It has survived the selective pressures of evolution, which means it must play a critical role in our well being as a species. But what is that role? What is the precise function of music? These are fascinating questions and I will discuss them at length in a separate essay.

Turning to jazz, my favorite music, could it be that something in our genetic makeup plays a role, not only in drawing us to the music, but in our ability to understand and enjoy jazz?

While driving cross-country to concert venues with Mose Allison and my friend Dan Kolton (bass), our conversations invariably turned to music. Mose tells the story of a tour in China during which he attended a Chinese opera performance of a score written hundreds of years ago. To his amusement, he recognized certain blues scales that were present in the score. Blues scales are fixed groups of notes that give the blues its characteristic bluesy sound.

Some consider blues to be the foundation of jazz. It is also pervasive in gospel music as well as pop and rock music. One could argue that if blues scales are found over time and in the music of all cultures, a genetic component could exist that somehow draws composers and listeners alike to blues scales and the blues. Hence, the "blues gene!"

Okay, okay, this may be a bit far fetched, but consider this. The precedence that genes can affect the perception and understanding of music has recently been established! There are certain unfortunate folks afflicted with what has been termed amusia. It is described as the complete inability to hear music or carry a tune. Music educators often ascribed it to lack of practice but now neurologists suggest it is a disorder similar to dyslexia and specific language impairment. Recent studies have shown that it is a pitch-processing deficit. It manifests itself in the inability to hear distortions in familiar tunes and the presence of dissonant chords. There is evidence from studies on twins that it is a genetically related disorder (if "disorder" is an appropriate term for an individuals who can't "hear" or enjoy music).

So it appears that listeners like us may have a genetic component that determines our ability to hear the good stuff, like Tommy Flanagan playing a blues in F, or Joe Lovano playing free, open structure music with a good rhythm section. But, as the study of causal effects of nearly everything else teaches us, there is in addition, an environmental component that also plays a role. While we have no control over the presence or absence of the genes, we do have control of the development and enhancement of their effects should they exist. In a sense, we can activate and enhance our natural ability to hear jazz.

What about listening to jazz improvisation? If you find yourself attracted to jazz, I would suggest that this attraction is evidence for the existence of a significant genetic component that will enable you to increase the depth of your understanding and enjoyment of this music should you wish to do so. May I suggest that you develop this component of your listening ability.

We are continually fund raising for the ongoing development of this site—the purpose of which is to walk you through the steps leading to deeper understanding and enjoyment of this wonderful music.

Copyright © 2013
Thomas R. Brown
All rights reserved.

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