I want you to know that as I write this, I’m listening to Wayne Shorter’s album JuJu. I want you to know that there’s no mention of JuJu on The New York Times’ 100 Essential Jazz Albums list, but that I was turned on to it in reading this list of Henry Rollins’ favorite jazz albums. “What a player!,” wrote Rollins. “[Shorter]’s got McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, one half of the mighty Coltrane Quartet,” he continued. I want you to know that “sometimes Coltrane bassist Reggie Workman is on the session,” too. “Wayne Shorter is one of the greatest musicians, ever. Juju is a great place to start with his incredible catalog.” The album, thus far, is proving to be a masterful exhibit in musical artistry, worthy of such a recommendation. I want you to know I think that. What I don’t want you to know is that I can barely remember what I’ve already heard of it and I’ll probably never listen to it again.
Of late I’ve been visiting McKay’s, where my intention has been to pick up movies which I really, truly, actually want to watch. That’s been my intention. I told myself I’d go and get an item and really sit with it, really soaking in what it has to offer. That’s why I got this Nick Cave disc, and that’s really why I started writing here: to be more “intentional” with the process. This comes in contrast to the pattern I’d fallen into of using YouTube or Netflix to pass the time. Often the act of just browsing those catalogs of videos becomes what helps me pass the most time, not the actual viewing. That’s really another topic for another time, but the point is: me; movies; intentionality.
What’s been happening though is that other motivations have crept in, looking to have their say in the matter. I bought The Wrestler, for example. I imagine I’ve seen it two — maybe even three — times before, so I know I appreciate the movie, but I really have no interest in watching it right now. It was only twenty five cents though. And I’m sure I’ll want to watch it again… someday. Or maybe I’ll have a friend come over who will want to watch it. Sure, maybe. Or I can use it in discussion with someone about the films of Darren Aronofsky — of which, it’s now the third I own. Less likely, but sure… The point is I own The Wrestler now and I’m not sure if or when I’ll ever watch it. And this sort of thing happens all the time, for all sorts of reasons, which leads me back to Wayne Shorter.
I’m no jazz aficionado. I saved JuJu on Spotify when I read that Rollins article so I could check it out, knowing full well that if it didn’t hit for me I could just as easily move on to something else. But there are unintentional motivations at play, as well, here. Having listened to the album, now I can reference Wayne Shorter — who, surely, I know nothing about from a single listen of a single album — in conversation. And maybe that reference would indicate something attractive about me: that I’m cultured, or interested in exploring music outside the mainstream, or maybe even that I care about art on the whole. Maybe. But already I’ve forgotten everything I’ve heard other than that I’ve enjoyed some of it. Forgetting happens a lot for me, and I realize this. So, what am I really doing here? Why do I keep doing this sort of thing?
Whether it’s fast, slow, avant, or standard, jazz fills a certain space for me — existing for those moments where I want to set a mellow tone for myself (even when the music, itself, is anything but). But I don’t really enjoy jazz all that much; not compared to ambient electronic music, for example, which also better satisfies that bend toward mellowness. Maybe I listen to jazz to fantasize a certain self-image — that I’m the kind of person who really enjoys listening to jazz music. Or maybe, I’m the kind of person who enjoys listens to jazz music while reading something challenging and drinking their coffee on a Sunday morning. A bright Sunday morning. The kind of Sunday mornings that make you think, “Now this is the way Sunday mornings were meant to be spent.” So from time to time I’ll listen to jazz, not because I love it and of all the types of music it gives me the most pleasure, but because it allows me think differently about the person who I think I obviously must be, as a listener of this sort of music.
There’s this study from a few years back that found “people in Australia and New Zealand were most likely to use music to create an impression with other people.” I found it by googling a phrase which I thought might lead to an explanation of the game I tend to play with myself, where I make decisions of what to watch, or listen to, or read, based on reasoning that has nothing to do with the enjoyment I perceive I’d get from watching, listening to, or reading those things. I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks now, and it leads to a lot of other ideas and questions about motivation. If I pick up a movie because I want to be the type of person who would watch that movie (and not because I want to watch that movie), what does that say about me? If I buy this record, not because I want to listen to it all the time, but so I can “own” it, what does that say about me? Why do I “consume” rather than enjoy? Maybe its boredom, or because I think the work in question will teach me something, or because it might impact my mood, or because I find it interesting. Many times, though, I feel like I’m just trying to — as that study suggests — “create an impression with other people.”
In 2012 I was talking with a friend. This friend graduated as an English major and we talked about things like watching “films.” And in talking with this friend, we decided to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Amazon says the book is 1079 pages long, but I’m not sure if that includes the hundred or so pages of end-notes. The thing is mammoth, and dense, and to undertake it I figured I should get an explainer to help me through, so I also picked up a copy of Greg Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity (which is another 500+ pages long). At the time I was trying to kickstart a habit of going to the gym, and I had a lot of time on my hands — so I took things a step further, and decided to read Infinite Jest entirely while riding an exercise bike. And I did that. And I read Elegant Complexity. And I made notes, documenting the whole process. And I’m not sure if I actually enjoyed any of it.
I’m certain my friend and I discussed why we wanted to read the book. Being the twenty-something remotely-cultured white guys we were, I’m sure we had decided that there was value in the completion of a book that a lot of people in our position would never even attempt to read, let alone complete. And by then we’d both read enough of Wallace’s writing to know that something from it was likely to stick to our bones. Now, I can’t remember what I had for lunch last week, so I can’t say for certain that I recall what my true motivation was in reading this thing over five years ago, but my hunch is that in reading this book, I also wanted people to think I was the kind of person who would understand Infinite Jest. I wanted people to think I was motivated, and smart, and sensitive, and worthy of their appreciation, and that this is the sort of thing I do all the time. Why else would I have documented the process online? Why else would I have shared it on social media? Why else would I look back on that period as some sort of landmark for myself, even though there’s very little from the book that impacted me, and even less that I can recall?
I have a tendency of being hard on myself, which is where this reflection process veers critical. There’s no real value in blaming a past version of self for reading a book for the “wrong” reasons, but there is a sort of lesson that can be gained here and it goes beyond asking “why” I’m doing something. I think it’s to be found in actually answering the question, and acting in harmony with that answer. Identity signaling might be (mostly) harmless, but my goal here is to recognize what I’m doing, and challenge myself a bit more to move beyond watching a movie or listening to music because of any implied social cachet to be inherited from doing so, and instead hone in further on what it is I truly get the most enjoyment (or satisfaction, or enlightenment, etc.) out of and experience them with more regularity. It’s a process, right? That’s the sweet spot, right? Doing the things I do for reasons that are clear to me, without having my wires crossed about why it is I’m doing them in the first place.
In the meantime, I’m now listening to Charles Mingus. I just wanted you to know…