How (And Why) Do We Label Music?

“Man, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know” – Louis Armstrong

December 20, 2018

Just to see what would come up, I recently Googled “How many styles of music are there?” Not surprisingly, the list goes on and on, well into the hundreds, possibly even the thousands. Are there really that many distinctly different musical genres? And does each one genuinely deserve its own label?

This week, we published a very inspiring interview with Reid Anderson, bassist of The Bad Plus, a very hip jazz trio out of Minnesota. In addition to an extensive library of original music – all three members are serious composers in their own right – the band has recorded unique covers of everyone from Blondie and Black Sabbath to David Bowie, and even Stravinsky.

As a band, they play music their own way. “The main thing about the Bad Plus,” Anderson says, “is that it’s a collective organization; it’s a place where everybody gets to come in and be themselves and bring whatever influences that they have.” Anderson’s own influences date back to the classic rock he listened to during his teen years. Among his early bass heroes were Geddy Lee, John Paul Jones, Tony Levin, Chris Squire and Jaco Pastorius. As his musical palette expanded, Anderson became enamored with Charlie Haden, Jimmy Garrison and Charles Mingus.

The beautiful thing about The Bad Plus is how they have no interest in conforming to any genre or pre-determined classification. They play what they collectively feel.

Does music need to be neatly slotted into nice, neat categories?

We all have our own ideas about what popular styles of music sound like, whether we’re talking about rock, classical, jazz, blues, reggae, country, etc. But the more you drill down, the more specialized – and niche-like – things become. When you say “blues,” for example, are you talking about Delta Blues, Chicago Blues, Swamp Blues, or any of a hundred other styles of what we call “Blues” music? The same can be said about Rock (Metal, Grunge, New Wave, Steampunk), Country (Bluegrass, Honky Tonk, Urban Cowboy), Jazz (Ragtime, Cool, Dixieland, Smooth), and so many others.

Maybe the practice came about so radio stations would know what they’re supposed to play. Or to help record stores figure out how to organize their inventory. Maybe it made kids feel like part of the “cool” group.

I’m not saying there’s not a need for labeling music. Bass players especially need to know how to groove in any style they’re called upon to play. It’s actually healthy to explore the deep intricacies of musical possibilities, seek new forms of musical expression, taking from the influence of others and coming up with new stuff of our own. The only question is… What will we call it?

In describing The Bad Plus, I’d say they make music. Describe it any way you like. Or, better yet, just listen and enjoy.

Have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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