Quite often I am asked one of several questions, all dealing with the same subject. The questions are: Mr. Kessel, whom do you consider the greatest guitarist in the world? Who’s best? Or: What is the best kind of music? Or: What band, or orchestra, or combo would you rate as the best ever? Well, in my estimation, these are unanswerable questions, and there is no necessity to even attempt to answer them.
The “best” cannot be determined in music or in any of the related arts. In sports events, it is much easier to determine who, or what team, is best. For example. were two swimmers to jump into a pool at the sound of the starting gun and race to the opposite side, it would be easy todetermine which was the winner, and, for the moment, the best. But the the merits of music-and of all art forms-are based on value judgments; as in painting, where beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it is in music, where beauty is in the ear of the listener.
Listeners will like the music that has meaning for them-music that recalls earlier life experiences, music that they grew up with, music with which they can relate and indentify. A Tibetan lama may not like or understand the music of Janis Joplin. A Laplander in the northernmost part of Norway may not like or understand the music of Charlie Parker. And an Austrian who is used to going to beer gardens and dancing to polkas all night may not like Charles lves. Even though the world may agree that one particular musician or composition or orchestra is great, fantastic, stupendous, etc., somewhere there are people who would disagree and even conclude that the subject in question is more abominable than the snowman.
There are music enthusiasts who at the drop of a hemidemisemiquaver will get into a verbal battle comparing musicians, orchestras, or artists, fighting to defend what they believe to be the best. Again, whatever they think is best cannot be measured or proved or disproved, since the selection was based upon a personal value judgment. Quite often when someone refers to a composition or an artist as the best, I feel that it would be closer to the truth to say something like, “I personally think that this is the best;” or, “I prefer this to all others I’ve heard;” or, “This seems to be the best to me, based upon all that I have heard up until this time.” These kinds of statements seem more intelligent and more accurate, and they do not leave areas for quarrels or differences.
There are young and inexperienced listeners who will make absolute statements as to who or what is the best, based upon limited short-term exposure to music. Also, some old-timers are very opinionated and set in their ways as to what is the best, based on values that they established long ago without making any real effort to find out what has evolved in music since the last time they listened to new musical stimuli.
People many times use some nebulous standard of measurement to determine what is best. They will decide what is best by considering: (1) who made the most money during a given period; (2) who was the most popular; (3) who appeared on TV more than anyone else; (4) who sold the most recordings; or (5) who has the most chops or technique. They will then select the one or more of these qualities that have meaning for them as “best” measurements, and then choose their candidate for “best” whatever. The result is still a value judgment that is founded upon the biases, prejudices, and particular and limited exposure to music of the person making the judgment.
It is not important that who is best for me is also best for you. What is important is to know that we should not expect perfection, and that we need not determine who or what is best; rather, we should be able to constantly increase our musical education, cultivate our tastes and sense of discernment, and recognize and appreciate talent, genius, and excellence.
Americans have a peculiarly strong affection-almost a mania-for winning; we must win the war, be first on the block, be first on the moon, win gold medals at the Olympics, and so on. Perhaps this has something to do with the reason why so many music buffs dwell on-and argue about-who’s best. There is no question that some guitar players are better than others; there is no doubt that some are more versatile, or faster, or whatever. But haven’t you found that a single note can often say something to you? Perhaps it says more than a whole stream of notes. What is the quality within the guitarist that tells him that this note or this chord or this phrase will reach across and touch you? Whatever you want to call it-talent, or soul, or feel, or art-isn’t that quality what music is about? Why try to quantify an emotional phenomenon?
And haven’t you ever changed your mind about an afiist, or style? Have you ever found yourself saying, “I’ve really grown, and my tastes have improved, since I thought so-and-so was the best”? Or have you ever noticed that music appreciation can involve an acquired taste? Have you sometimes seemed more “ready” to accept certain musical stimuli? And doesn’t your musical responsiveness vary at least a little bit-with your personal mood? Maybe you think Jimi Hendrix is the best ever, but suppose you wake up after partying all night long, and your head is pounding, and you’re concentrating on focusing your eyes. You might well stumble to the record player and choose a little Brubeck, or Judy Collins, or chamber music and save Jimi for later.
My reason for making these points and for asking these questions involves this issue of categorizing, pigeonholing, and quantifying music. The fact that our tastes can evolve over a long period of time and the fact that our musical moods can fluctuate widely, even in a very short period, demonstrate that aside from mechanical. technical, electronic, and financial considerations-aside from tangible aspectsthere exist spiritual, intellectual, and emotional essences within music that should be explored and enjoyed, not confined to some sort of yardstick.
This article appeared in the 21st issue of Jazz Magazine (2001) with Önder Focan’s translation.
The original article was published in 1978 July Guitar Player Magazine with the signature of Barney Kessell.