Recently, I’ve been reading Ashley Kahn’s excellent A Love Supreme: The Creation of John Coltrane’s Classic Album. I’d read his book on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and was aware a new book on A Love Supreme had come out, but I was waiting for it to be released in a more affordable paperback format. Then I saw the hardback in Fopp for a fiver, and pounced. The title is truly apt: few other albums have so great a claim on the term ‘classic’, and it wasn’t just made, but created, springing fully-formed into existence from its inspired author’s mind.

The album is complex, spiritual, powerful in every sense—from Bob Thiele’s cover photo of a pensive ’Trane to Rudy Van Gelder’s meticulous sound work—and it remains potent. Like so many great works, however, it can be hard going. I heard the legend before I heard the record, and the first time I listened to it, alone in a tiny student room with a tiny window, I wasn’t quite sure what it was I was meant to be hearing. Still, the reputation persisted, so I listened again. The second time, I heard a faint few sparks of something—I didn’t know what. It was enough to keep listening. By the third listen, it was getting dark outside, but a bright tree of sound was growing in my mind, pulling the universe together and tearing it apart at the same time.

I got into a conversation with a red-haired history student once; she thought that jazz wasn’t something you could just get into by yourself, you had to be brought up with it. While I’m not sure how far I agree, the idea did strike a certain chord. We used to listen to jazz on the radio on Saturday afternoons when I was young; I have fond memories of toasting crumpets and chatting in the kitchen while muted trumpets trilled from our cheap little radio with its coat-hanger aerial (my cousin snapped off the original one by stepping on it, after my brother left the radio on the floor). Now that I’m older, I investigate it and enjoy it by myself, but I wonder if I would appreciate it the way I do without that early introduction.

Jazz in general, and Coltrane’s in particular (at least A Love Supreme), is hard to get into; it requires time and effort. You have to be prepared to listen, baffled, and perhaps not even like it that much at first; to pass through the stage where you think “Ok, it’s complicated and confusing, but what’s so special about a muddle? What makes people rave about it so?” and then persevere until suddenly it hits you like a blow to the head and you see stars.

You need, in other words, to be hardcore. This is why jazz lovers are such fanatics, and such snobs.

I brought this up with a friend once; his response was that jazz, like classical music, has a completely different syntax that must be understood (at least on an implicit level) in order to appreciate it, especially if you’ve been raised “listening to ‘regular’ (pop music verse chorus, three chords etc.)” It’s like learning a new language: it’s easier when you’re young. It’s necessary to be dedicated because you have to reach the point where you’re “vaguely familiar with the language” without being put off in the interim, and this is accentuated by the denseness of the music. He then suggested that if jazz was played 24/7, was the popular mode, then the three minute pop songs would be listened to in dark smoky bars like Ronnie Scott’s.

For my part, I believe this alternative world to be pretty far removed from our own. Pop music follows a simple, accessible format, and is given vast power over us by its use of the human voice. We are hardwired to respond to it; a lot more people get Nina Simone than get ’Trane or Ornette. Of course, the fact that jazz singers tend to follow the pop format to a certain extent also increases their accessibility.

Here’s the more refined version: jazz music, while adhering to the semantics of the western musical tradition (that is, the notes), has a very different syntax to both popular music and to the classical tradition, although it draws on and has influenced both of these. Combined—in instrumental jazz at least—with a lack of vocals, this makes for complex music that, like a new language, requires a certain familiarity in order for it to be appreciated. This can only be attained by listening to lots of jazz; if it’s just there, in the background, when one is young, then obviously the familiarity will be attained by osmosis in a natural way. If, however, one decides at a later stage of life to “get into jazz”, then a certain amount of determination will be needed in order to attain the necessary level of understanding required for true appreciation. Obviously this doesn’t mean you can’t get a lot out of jazz straight away; it just means the more you listen to it, the more you comprehend and appreciate its subtleties and complexities. All of this combines to produce a music that attracts fanatics, who in turn exude snobbishness and the manners of an exclusive club—which is off-putting to potential listeners, keeping the audience small.

I don’t view this as a positive thing by any means, but it raises the question of how to increase the audience without destroying that which makes jazz, jazz. The much-reviled ‘dumbing down’ is one option, and one which (unsurprisingly) I reject. While jazz influences on rock and pop music are to be welcomed as an enrichment of those genres (and something that I could point to numerous excellent examples of), to bastardise the music itself in the name of a larger audience share is simply unacceptable. This leaves, to my mind, only one option: evangelising. Make your friends listen to jazz. Take them to see it live, lend them your records; anything that will make them hear and understand and appreciate and, ultimately, love. Unfortunately I suspect all of this, while admirable, will not have a huge success rate and the audience will remain small and elitist.

There is, however, something else you can do. Make sure your children grow up bilingual. Make them listen to jazz.