Jim DoxasMTL Jazz Notes

The act of listening to music has changed monumentally over the last 20 years. The once tangible process of physically placing an LP on a turn table or putting a CD in the tray of a player has become oddly uncommon. Designated and active “listening” setups in houses have been replaced with TV home theatre/gaming setups and most recently, the home office.

There are numerous ways to view this rapid evolution, but a lot of this change has to do with the advent of the iPod, which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Its portability has been heralded, its (downgraded) sound quality and terrible royalties to artists, shunned; yes, there are many pros and cons worthy of debate. However, what I would specifically like to explore today is how the mode in which we listen to the artistic statement of performers has been affected by this recent way of consuming music.

Think back to not so long ago, when one would go and choose the LP they wanted to listen to at that given moment. A listener would admire the artwork that often would give visual context to the music. Then, they would put on the LP and sit back and listen. The act of listening is what I’m pondering: active listening. Yes, I am certainly a consumer of digital music and I’m not anti-playlist, but I sense it’s a very removed action to have no connection to the music that is being offered through curated playlists.

The cohesiveness of an album is almost irrelevant in today’s day and age. Not many people will listen to a recording in its entirety, from the first track to the last. The arc of the album has lost its importance, and the pressure put on artists to release “successful” singles is more important than the album itself.

Duke Eatmon

Duke Eatmon likes the visual sensory pleasure of a vinyl album’s artwork

When thinking of whom to talk with, two individuals came to mind, both known to Montrealers in the music community. Steve Bellamy and Duke Eatmon have diverse musical experiences, and their comments on this topic come from their years of observing and seeing the evolution of listening.

If you turn your radio dial to 88.5 most afternoons, chances are good that you’ll hear Duke. Duke doesn’t play it safe, ambitiously challenging the listing audience with both new and old music that often breaks the “afternoon drive home show” stigma. Duke has a vast musical palette and a wealth of knowledge ranging from Jazz, Hip Hop, Rhythm ‘n’ Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Along with his CBC duties on both radio and television, he is also a prominent figure in promoting and highlighting Montreal artists.

Duke shared that listening for him is a sensory pleasure, so he likes the vinyl experience. “One of the things I didn’t like about CDs and cassettes was the cover art. It really wasn’t cool. Way to small – Marvin Gaye on the cover of What’s Going On looking up into the sky with snow falling on him talking about the Vietnam War, poverty, the environment. You’re not getting all of that by looking at your phone; you’re just looking at a title and that’s all it is.” In addition to this modernization of music creation and consumption, artists today are challenged to adapt to a new audience, one that listens on the move. “I feature New Music Tuesdays, young and new artists on my CBC show. New artists are producing singles and sometimes EPs, but mostly singles. Young artists are writing for the moment, and albums are thematic. Older artists seem to still think in album terms – just ask Neil Young – and young artists seem to write for singles.” It’s interesting to put yourself in the artist’s creative shoes – think about this idea of concept the next time you listen to an album or single.

Steve Bellamy comes to the topic from a different angle. I first worked with Steve when he lived in Montreal and was a freelance recording engineer and a faculty member at McGill University. In the mid-2000s, Steve relocated to Toronto and became the Dean of Creative and Performing Arts at Humber College. During these years, he also ran a successful record label, Addo Records, producing 35 albums and winning several Juno Awards. For the past three years, he has been the CEO of the Confederation Centre of the Arts in PEI, where he now lives with his family. Steve is always on the go and doing great things!

“I think we are in an exciting time because music-making and listening have never been more accessible to more people.” – Steve Bellamy

In his many roles, he has had the chance to observe the change in how people listen to music. He reflects, “Two changes stand out for me: one is the shift away from a shared or social experience of group listening toward more individual or personal listening experiences (we’ve gone from loudspeakers and clubs to headphones and screens). The other is the change in the context of where and when we listen. For many it has moved away from being a dedicated activity getting our full attention, to being an accompanying activity for screens or while doing other things.” This change is not just for the listener but also for those who produce the music.

Steve commented, “Personally, I still find a lot of joy in the subtle details of sound recording, but I know that those details are lost when listeners are hearing music over low-quality speakers/headphones, or when listeners are distracted by other things, be it an accompanying video or the task they’re doing while listening to music. I fear that standards have dropped to where more folks are accepting ‘good enough.’ I’ll visit someone who has a nice house, nice car, 4K or 8K TV, but for music they play their phone through a Bluetooth speaker the size of a coffee mug.”

There are some silver linings. Steve observed, “I think we are in an exciting time because music-making and listening have never been more accessible to more people. We can explore and discover new music from everywhere and with that comes the joy and richness of learning about other music, cultures, and perspectives.”

I agree with this outlook. We can access the world easily, and that is thrilling. We can spin around the globe hearing a diverse and eclectic array of music; borders disappear. However, I feel that the loss of this hands-on connection has weakened the musicians’ and listeners’ connection to the music. Duke’s personal history with music is echoed in his memory of his dad. “Back in the day, a working-class black man, like my dad, who didn’t make a lot of money and supported a family, when he went to buy an album, it was an investment. When he brought home Marvin Gaye, Muddy Waters, or Chuck Berry, he thought about that because the four dollars back then in the late-60s was a big expense. You would check everything out: the album art, the credits, you would know who produced it, you would take all that in. You listened to it, you cared for it, and it nourished the soul.”

This is food for thought. I recently went through my CD collection (COVID Spring-cleaning in the dead of winter!) and realized that I had been ignoring the opportunity to actively listen to the music that has had an impact in shaping me as a musician. So, I am enjoying reconnecting with some of my old favourites and listening to albums from beginning to end. Try it for yourself and let me know how it goes!

Jim Doxas is an award-winning jazz drummer who has performed with many of North America’s finest musicians and has performed on more than 150 albums. He also lectures and teaches percussion at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music and at Concordia University. To learn more about Jim and his music, please visit: www.jimdoxas.com

Editor’s Note: Jim performs regularly with his own group and with other first rate jazz musicians at the UpStairs Jazz Bar & Grill at 1254 Mackay, just below Ste-Catherine St. I’m happy to report that the club has re-opened with live music, restaurant and bar service, following public health guidelines. Please visit: www.upstairsjazz.com for show information or call 514-931-6808 for reservations.