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Who’s a Dilettante?

Letting go of the impulse to be an expert Last year I decided I was going to teach myself about Duke Ellington. Great idea, right? We all know Duke Ellington is awesome even if we don't know why. So I decided to find out why. I bought a bunch of CDs and downloaded others; for a while I played them when..


Letting go of the impulse to be an expert

Last year I decided I was going to teach myself about Duke Ellington. Great idea, right? We all know Duke Ellington is awesome even if we don't know why. So I decided to find out why. I bought a bunch of CDs and downloaded others; for a while I played them when I wasn't listening to things I needed to for work. I hatched a plot to try and write something for pay about the experience of diving in deep with the man who is, all things considered, probably the single most critically acclaimed musician of the 20th century. Has anyone in history ever claimed that Duke Ellington sucked?Then I hit a wall. I listen to and like jazz, own a lot of albums. If I put them on a shelf together, you might think I know something about it. But I know squat, and listening to all that Ellington just proved it further. Even allowing myself the luxury of writing about him was a map so big you could never find its end, where would I begin? I realized that however much I enjoy jazz, I'll likely remain a dilettante about it. And I discovered something else as well: this is how I prefer it.That's not the way a professional critic is supposed to talk. We get paid to think about this stuff, so it behooves us to at least make an effort to sound learned, and when this post is done I'm sure I'll go back to doing just that. I'm not being flippant: critics tend to think about their subjects reflexively, and you can't just turn that off any more than you can just will yourself to grow five inches. But no one's an expert on everything, and especially if you're inclined to try and be one, letting go of that impulse can be fun.That doesn't mean that jazz bypasses my critical faculties and therefore reduces me to a slobbering child, astounded by the power of art to move the human spirit, or whatever other anti-intellectual bromide you'd prefer. As awesome as it is to watch Bruce Lee tell his young charge, "Don't think-feel," in Enter the Dragon, I'll think and feel at the same time, thanks very much. (What choice do any of us have?) I listen to jazz the same way I do any other music; the difference is that because I'm not as intimate with the music's meta-narrative, I'm less inclined to comment on it.That's ultimately what being a dilettante is: picking and choosing from a genre based on the aspects that sing to your particular sensibility, as opposed to those that align with the genre's. The argument against this is the way things get watered down in the process of crossing over to new audiences: it's hard to call Bob Marley's global superstardom an unmitigated triumph for reggae when he's the only performer in that style many people can name, for example. Among music fans, the term tends to be the mark of a Johnny-come-lately.But aside from the obvious fact that we all start somewhere, and not usually from a place of deep knowledge, it still seems willful to use it that way now. We know about more music than we've ever known before, and it's simply not possible to track it all with an equal degree of knowledge. The English critic Tom Ewing, introducing a list of his 101 favorite tracks of 2002 (No. 1: Conway's "Lisa's Got Hives," a mash-up bootleg of records by late TLC member Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and Swedish rockers the Hives), wrote, in part, "Year by year, the ‘celestial jukebox' becomes more of a reality, and we are all dilettantes now." Ewing wasn't gloating; he was acknowledging the reality that sometimes dilettantism is the only sane option in a river of possibilities. And sometimes, as is the case with Ellington, it's also the most enjoyable.
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