Sunday, March 11, 2007

Free Jazz and the End of the History of Jazz

Clement Greenberg and Arthur C. Danto share in common Neo-Hegelian perspectives on art criticism, though at least with regard to visual art, the details of their arguments are incompatible.

For Greenberg, progress in art or the trajectory of the history of art centers around the development of that which is essential and unique to a form and the simultaneous winnowing away of that which is extraneous. With regard to painting, Greenberg saw the play of color on the flat plane as the essential and unique element of the form, while the removal of the extraneous meant the elimination of the illusion of three dimensionality, including pictorial or representational qualities. In the mid-twentieth century, he was an important champion of abstract expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock and color field painters like Mark Rothko.

Danto conceptualizes the history of art as the movement towards a zero degree of difference between art world and real world, between objects created as art objects and other objects in the world. One could argue that this was achieved with Duchamp’s urinal and other early 20th century “ready mades,” though by simply taking an already existing object and calling it art, Duchamp and others are doing something subtly different than what Danto is speaking of. Danto claims the history of art ended, reaching this zero degree of difference, with Warhol’s Brillo boxes, which were created as art objects but also as indistinguishable from the “real things.” (The only problem with this is that Warhol’s Brillo boxes aren’t indistinguishable from industrially manufactured Brillo boxes, and so, they don’t represent the end of the history of art in Danto’s terms, though they do indicate the sort of thing that would represent that – an object created as art which so indistinguishably resembles an object already existing that there is essentially zero difference between them.)

With regard to visual art, Greenberg and Danto are not compatible. The trajectory of the history of visual art for Danto must necessarily move beyond painting to create objects that are indistinguishable from objects already in the world, whereas for Greenberg, the trajectory of the history of visual art entails the development of painting into art objects that are as far from other sorts of objects in the world as possible. The details of their respective Neo-Hegelian perspectives are opposed in their implications – for visual art.

If we shift our attention to music, and specifically to jazz as a distinct form or mode of making music, their arguments are compatible for that medium. If we start with Greenberg’s emphasis on the development of that which is essential and unique to a form and the removal of that which is extraneous, we see a clear trajectory in the history of jazz that ultimately produces a zero degree of difference between art world and real world, a zero degree of difference between musical sound and noise.

The essential element in the history of jazz as a distinct musical form is free improvisation. (Some, like Wynton Marsalis, would argue that an essential quality of jazz is also that it’s based on the blues. Early jazz certainly was based on the blues, and the blues has been an important source of material throughout the history of jazz, but at the same time, jazz was from the very beginning a musical form with a mixture of sources, i.e. it was always blues mixed with other things, and as more and more things have been added to the mix [ragtime and military marches early on, later classical music, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, Indian ragga, reggae, hip hop, etc.], jazz has been freed from having to be blues based, even while blues based playing remains a possibility.)

The first great jazz improviser to be well recorded was Louis Armstrong in the 1920s. His improvisations generally took the form of embellishments and variations on the melodic material of the particular song. In so doing, he set the basic template for jazz improvisational playing for at least the next two decades, clearly establishing the precedent allowing soloists to improvise on the material of the song, while at the same time doing so with fairly restricted freedom – Armstrong’s solos, as brilliant as they often are, typically have very clear relationship to the melodic material for even first time listeners. (I want to make quite clear that this is no criticism of Armstrong’s early work, nor is it to imply a lower degree of sophistication than those who moved the music forward at a later point. Instead, it’s simply a description of his work as jazz improviser in the 1920s and of his primary place in the history of the development of jazz. Those who came later could not have done what they did without Armstrong or someone else like him.)

In the 1940s, Charlie Parker and his bebop contemporaries began to do something a bit different. Parker in particular, while capable of playing beautiful melodic lines, did not restrict himself to embellishing or varying the melody of the song when soloing. Instead, he engaged in a freer improvisation based on the notes of the chords associated with the melody. So, while there was still a relationship to the basic melody of the song, improvisation was less restricted, and often as a result less clearly related to the song’s melody. This element of bebop made it one of the first examples of “difficult” jazz music – it was not as easy to listen to and enjoy for many casual listeners as most earlier, dance and melody focused swing jazz. Not coincidently, the 1940s and 1950s were associated with a gradual dwindling of the jazz audience, partly because bebop alienated some. At the same time, though, the fact that the jazz audience was already shrinking with competition from rhythm and blues in the 1940s and rock and roll in the 1950s, meant that jazz fans who remained were often more “hard core,” often more willing to take the time to learn to listen to difficult music, something in turn facilitating the continued development of freer jazz improvisation.

In the late 1950s, Miles Davis and others, notably John Coltrane, were associated with the development of modal jazz, something which created still greater freedom in improvising. The melodic material of new songs, while not unimportant, was often paired down, with instead a song usually strongly associated with a particular key and mode, which freed up soloists to improvise with a greater degree of freedom, using the notes available in the key and mode with less structural restriction, i.e. as the essential element (free improvisation) was developed, other elements of structure were reduced.

Free Jazz, particularly associated with Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, represents the next and final step in the history of jazz via the development of free improvisation. Celebrated recordings, like Coleman’s Free Jazz or Coltrane’s Ascension don’t quite reach the point of completely unrestricted improvisation, e.g. Ascension involves structured intervals of semi-structured ensemble playing, interspersed with soloists freely improvising with other musicians freely accompanying them, with accompaniment improvised in relation to soloists’ improvisations, but they do come close, certainly getting closer to total freedom (and chaos) than many if not most listeners care to hear, and as close to total freedom/chaos as I can honestly claim to enjoy. It’s debatable whether anyone truly achieved totally free improvisation, but by the late 1960s, plenty had come close enough that for all practical purposes, a zero degree of difference between music and noise, between intentional sound production and random chaos, had been achieved, and with it, the history of jazz, in Hegel’s or Danto’s sense of “history” with a definite trajectory, ended.

This might sound bad for jazz, but it wasn’t. Danto has written that the end of the history of art isn’t the end of art. It just means that there’s no longer a grand trajectory that needs to be invested in any longer. Artists are freed form artistic necessity or destiny to do what they want to do. Likewise with jazz – once the history of the development of free improvisation in jazz is over, jazz isn’t over, but musicians can simply get on with making good music in any number of ways – Wynton Marsalis can make what some call “museum jazz,” though what I’d consider artfully juxtaposed and highly enjoyable elements from various points in the history of jazz; Josh Roseman can mix reggae and jazz or do jazz versions of rock “standards” like “Don’t Be Cruel” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit;” Hiromi can engage in amazing finger gymnastics on the piano; I can’t quite say of contemporary jazz that “It’s all good,” but there are a goodly number of ways for musicians to play good jazz today, and unlike much of the 20th century, no real reason to see any musician as out of step with the overall trajectory of jazz, because there is no longer any main stream or overarching trajectory for the music.

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