This statement is attributed to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, and is part of Islam’s general disapproval of the concept of bid’ah, or innovation. The prohibition of innovation refers specifically to new theological ideas — Allah tells the Muslims in the Qur’an that he has perfected their religion for them (5:3), and that’s that.
But all the frowning on theological innovation has fostered a general cultural attitude against innovation of any kind — which is one reason why Islamic states are not generally leaders in technological development or scientific exploration. In the West, by contrast, we generally respect and reward innovation when it leads to new insights and greater efficiency — and are the beneficiaries of a musical tradition that has celebrated innovators from Bach to Beethoven to Louis Armstrong. And there are many others, drastically unsung, who deserve a hearing.
Musical innovation is a tricky thing; one man’s startling and fascinating new musical development is another man’s noise. That’s why musical innovators have implored their hearers to listen without prejudice long before George Michael appropriated the term. And of course what may not appeal to someone at first may get through at some other point; I vividly remember the day when I became so completely absorbed in Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, which had never much mattered to me before that, and came down from the mountain dazed and dazzled, not interested in hearing any other music ever again, ever.
The exaltation wore off, of course, as it always does, but the respect for musical innovation, and the resolve to listen without prejudice, remained. And so here are five jazz innovators whose work is usually classified as “avant garde,” which for most people is a synonym for “unlistenable.” I beg to differ. Listen without prejudice.