Remember Nina Simone

I recently read But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman. The premise of the book is to predict the future by looking at how past predictions were wrong, and how they could have been right. As usual Chuck Klosterman takes on sports and culture, with some random asides about The Real World.

The most compelling section was where he tried to predict the future of Rock. He looked back at music of the past, pointing out that most people remember one person from each era of music. So most people know Bach from the baroque, Mozart from the classical, and Beethoven from the romantic era. He made the interesting point that surviving history is about being recognized by people who know nothing about the subject, rather than by people who are specialists. Specialists can name several playwrights from the 1500s, for example, but most of us can only name Shakespeare.

In the domain of rock, he said The Beatles are the logical choice to represent rock music. Still, he pointed out that it’s easier to remember a single individual whose story relates to the art itself. So Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley might emerge rather than The Beatles. Then he pointed to arguments for various rock musicians and why they might turn out to be true.

It was all very interesting, but it just got me thinking about jazz. In one hundred years, who might emerge to represent all of jazz?

Nina Simone at the piano

The obvious choice is Duke Ellington. His career spanned most of jazz, even though he retained his own distinct style throughout. He was influential as both a composer and a band leader.

Another choice might be Louis Armstrong. He invented the jazz solo as we know it today, and he performed a few of the most popular jazz tracks ever recorded.

After them, the waters get more murky. Benny Goodman made jazz popular music. Miles Davis sold more records than even Louis Armstrong. Marian McPartland brought jazz into the home long after most people had given up on it. Heck, maybe Johnny Costa will be remembered for his role as the music director of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.

I think that it will probably be a composer. Prior to the late 19th century, the only recorded history of music was written down on paper. This is why we remember Mozart the composer, rather than the people who performed his music. We still tend to think people who write music are more important than people who perform it, even when we have recordings of great performers. That’s a big reason why it will probably be Duke Ellington who is ultimately remembered.

But this strikes me as wrong. Jazz is the first music that is truly a recorded music throughout its entire history. If humanity is around in one hundred years, then jazz recordings will still exist. So couldn’t it, perhaps, be the greatest performer who survives?

Also the focus of jazz is on the improviser. Jazz is a kind of folk music, where the performer subjugates the composition to his own interpretation. So perhaps the greatest interpreter of jazz will be remembered.

In either case, it has to be Nina Simone. No other performer expressed the full range of human emotions in a single performance. Even Louis Armstrong tended toward jubilation in his performances. He never reached the depths that Nina Simone explored in I Loves You Porgy or Willow Weep for Me.

There are two arguments against Nina Simone. First, that she was closer to a pop singer than a jazz singer. Second, that she isn’t known for her compositions.

Nina Simone wasn’t a pop singer. That’s what we would call her today because her category no longer exists. She was a cabaret singer. When she was unfairly rejected for a scholarship to study classical piano at The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, she supported herself by playing popular music in bars and restaurants. She would sing and play whatever songs were on the radio. It was a very demanding job, and playing those songs night after night is what molded her into the greatest interpreter both as a vocalist and a pianist.

To the second objection, that she isn’t remembered for her compositions, I can only point to her unforgettable performance of Mississippi Goddamn, a composition of her own. With a cheerful piano accompaniment, and a melody that pushes the piece forward, she managed to write and perform a song that defines courage. The music is a beautiful, confident show tune that carries lyrics about one of the worst tragedies in American history. The effect is a better expression of the black experience in this country than any other performance in jazz.

So please, remember Nina Simone.

Here’s my playlist of Nina Simone’s best tracks to help her cause.

I love Pandora, but where is the discovery?

I have been a loyal Pandora subscriber since the month they started offering subscriptions. I love the service. I will continue subscribing forever, even if it’s only to keep my perfectly tuned Christmas music station.

But Pandora is not serving its audience very well, and that annoys me.

I probably listen to Pandora over five hours a day on each work day, and probably an hour or two on days off. When I tell someone I use Pandora, they inevitably ask me, “why don’t you just use Spotify?” More and more, I feel like they have a point.

In the past, I have preferred Pandora because it enabled discovery. It allowed me to create stations that would play music that I liked, but I had never heard. As a person who has spent decades of his life listening to and studying music, one of the main things I like about a piece of music is that I’ve never heard it before. In the past two years or so, I feel like this aspect of Pandora has dwindled or disappeared.

More and more, I feel like my Pandora stations primarily play the tracks that I have already voted for. Admittedly, some of my stations have been around for over a decade, so I have voted for a lot of tracks. When I vote for a track, however, it isn’t an indication that I want to hear that track every time I turn on that station. A vote is an indication that I want to hear tracks that are similar to that track.

But this is just too rare lately on Pandora. I hear the same Ellie Goulding tracks that I voted for last year. I hear the same Glitch Mob tracks that I’ve heard for the past six years. I still like that music, but I would prefer to hear something else. Why not play another track off the album that I voted for? Why play the same single track over and over?

“But why not click the ‘Add Variety’ button?” The ‘Add Variety’ button adds a new seed to that station. I don’t want to change the type of music played by the station, I simply want it to play OTHER music that falls within my already-indicated preferences.

What really irritates me, is that this doesn’t seem like a hard feature to implement. Why can’t a user tune the amount of new music they hear? Why can’t we have a slider that we can control with our mood? If the slider is set to 1.0, then we are in full discovery mode. Every track played will be one that we haven’t voted on. If the slider is set to 0.0, then every track played will be one that we HAVE voted on. In this way, Pandora could act like Spotify for users who like Spotify, and for people like me, it can act as the best shuffle on the planet.

As a programmer who has worked with large datasets, search tools like ElasticSearch, and written lots of web applications, I know that this isn’t a difficult change. It might require one schema change, and less than ten lines of new code. But it should be implementable and testable in under a week. Design might take longer, but here, I will design it for you.

pandora discovery slider
pandora discovery slider

And seriously, Pandora, I will implement this for you if you are that desperate. My current employer will loan me out, and even without knowing your code base, I could get this done in a month.

So come on, Pandora. Serve your audience. Stop making me explain why I prefer Pandora over Spotify. Add a discovery slider. Today.