Friday, June 29, 2007

A Review of Recent News and Views from the Web

Race and How Americans Talk About Race

In several recent posts, I’ve discussed race and discourse about race (See “Talking about Race,” and “Racism and Free Speech,” Parts I, II, and III).

An article in Medical News Today, “Americans couch feelings about race in happy talk of diversity speak,” points out some interesting things about how Americans tend to talk about race. Americans in general tend to value diversity, even if when pressed, they often have difficulty describing or defining what they mean by it.

At the same time, “The study found a majority of Americans -- cutting across race, class and gender lines -- value diversity, but their upbeat responses to the term contradict tensions between individual values and fears that cultural disunity could threaten the stability of American society. Also regardless of race, Americans' definition of diversity places white people at the neutral center and all other groups of people as outside contributors.”

Another article in Medical News Today discussed the role of income and race segregation of schools in shaping children’s reading abilities. The article says, "Children in families with low incomes, who attend schools where the minority population exceeds 75 percent of the student enrollment, under-perform in reading, even after accounting for the quality of the literacy instruction, literary experiences at home, gender, race and other variables, according to a new study.”

A quotation from another section of the article: “‘Good instruction is essential, but it's not enough,’ said Kirsten Kainz, an investigator at FPG, senior research associate in the School of Education and author of the study. ‘Most current reading instruction initiatives and policies are aimed at improving classroom instruction,’ Kainz said. ‘This research shows that characteristics of the child, the home, the classroom and the school influence reading development, and that maximally effective reading policy should address all four systems simultaneously.’ The researchers found that one key factor having to do with the classroom context was the percentage of students reading below grade level. Regardless of the quality of other aspects of the educational situation, having a large percentage of children who read below grade level in the class, a situation common in low income and/or minority-majority classrooms, hinders the development of reading ability for children in the class generally.

Death and Politics

In an article on First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life, Joseph Bottum has an interesting article on “Death and Politics.” His main propositions are:

“(1) The losses human beings suffer are the deepest reason for culture, (2) The fundamental pattern for any community is a congregation at a funeral, (3) A healthy society requires a lively sense of the reality and continuing presence of the dead.”

In this interesting article, he argues persuasively that death and loss have profoundly shaped the development of human culture, including through things like the development of inheritance customs and laws.

I’d like to acknowledge the website Arts and Letters Daily. It was on that site, which is essentially a clearinghouse of links to articles in the humanities, that I encountered a link to this article.

Farm Subsidies

Two recent online articles discuss the issue of economic subsidies to American farmers.
Tom Philpott, in “The Hand that Feeds: Don’t Blame Farmers for the Farm-Subsidy Mess” on Grist magazine, argues that while many farmers don’t actually benefit much from the U.S. government’s large farm subsidies – instead it is the agribusiness giants like Monsanto or ConAgra that provide seeds, fertilizers and other farming supplies, as well as the distributors of agricultural produce, that have reaped huge profits piggy-backing on the subsidies – farming is worthy of some public support, even if the current subsidy program is a mess. One of Philpott’s main points is that, contrary to both free trade globalizers and anti-globalization sustainable ag types who see agriculture as just another business that shouldn’t be subsidized any more than any other, agriculture is a different sort of enterprise because food is a different sort of commodity, because it’s not just desirable but absolutely essential.

Joyce Mulama’s article “U.S. Farm Subsidies Hurt Africa’s Progress,” on, lays out arguments against economic subsidies to U.S. farmers (by extension, the same arguments apply to European farmers). Subsidies to farming in the rich world allow that produce to be sold at artificially low prices, against which non-subsidized farmers in the developing world have difficulty competing. As Mulama’s article argues, this impedes economic development of agriculture in a variety of poor African countries, which in turn creates a further indirect impediment to economic development generally in poor countries as wealth that could potentially be created and reinvested in the country within a “fair trade” context is in fact not created in the first place.

Aboriginal Australia and Government Paternalism

There has been relatively extensive media coverage online concerning the Australian government’s move to ban alcohol and pornography sales in Australian aboriginal communities as part of an effort to stem sexual abuse of Australian aboriginal children. In part, the Australian government’s move is baffling to me. I don’t see the connection, how either the use of alcohol or pornography causes sexual abuse of children (and if it did, shouldn’t the appropriate measure be to ban their sale to anyone?) nor how the lack of alcohol or pornography would cure or otherwise stop someone with pedophilic urges. As any number of commentators, aboriginal or not, have pointed out, the whole thing smacks of racism – when Aborigines drink or view pornography, they abuse children. There are two good commentaries on the situation on the Australian group blog Culture Matters: “A new paternalism for Aboriginal Australia” and “Media Coverage of the Government Intervention ‘to protect indigenous children.’”

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Music of Mali

The musicians of Mali have a prominent place within contemporary “World Music.”

Two notes before I proceed: 1. It could be further said that Mali and the surrounding region in general have a high profile within the contemporary music scene, with Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour probably the most high profile West African musician internationally. Much (though not all) of what I’ll say about Malian musicians could be said of those of Senegal or Guinea as well, but more so than any other country in West Africa, the musicians of Mali seem to have as a group caught the eyes and ears of the world and the world music audience. (See, for example, the Putumayo music label’s compilation album “Mali.” Putumayo’s compilations tend to focus on themes and/or broad regions, e.g. “Women of Africa” or “Global Lounge.” Mali is one of the few countries to have been the focus for a compilation on this prominent label which serves as the entry point to world music for many casual listeners.) 2. I plan to address in a future post the reality of “World Music” – whether the label corresponds to anything real beyond a catch-all label for non-Western (and some Western) musical traditions that serves as a convenience for shopkeepers and customers. I’ll just say here that contemporary Malian music is “World Music” in the sense that in its commodified form, it does tend to be marketed under that label and in the sense that much of it is very much of the world, drawing not only on Malian traditions, but on American blues (itself a genre with West African roots – more on that below), Cuban music (a set of genres like blues in being partly derived from West Africa but with new innovations added in the Americas), techno-dance genres, and rock.

Musicians such as (recently deceased) Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté, Amadou and Mariam, Boubacar Traoré, Issa Bagayogo, Rokia Traoré, and Tinariwen all have established international reputations. For readers unfamiliar with World Music, these may be unfamiliar names, but that would probably also go for any other World Music performers save Ravi Shankar and Bob Marley. Most of these names would be familiar to followers of World Music, and I have specifically restricted the named list to artists whose recorded work would probably be available in any half decent record store’s world music section (all are available in at least one record store where I live in Pensacola, Florida – not exactly a hot bed of World Music listening).

Overall, the world’s music scene and industry is dominated by heavily promoted acts from the U.S. and the U.K. and to a somewhat lesser extent acts from Northern and Western Europe, Latin America, India, China, and Japan. Compared to the U.S. pop music industry, or even the Indian or Canto-pop industries, Mali’s music scene is quite small, but in relation to Mali’s economic and political place in the world, it is proportionately quite large in profile.

Mali’s profile is surprising, on the surface at least, given its small size (in terms of population, not in terms of physical space) and extreme poverty. A few other small, relatively poor countries with prominent positions in world music come to mind, e.g. Cuba and Jamaica, though both of those countries have much more concentrated populations, are much less poor than Mali, and have (or at least had in the case of Cuba) much more systematic economic and social ties to North America and Europe.

Mali’s music scene is a good example of what Arjun Appadurai discusses as a global disjuncture of global politics, economics, and the flows of people, ideas, and cultural products. World System models such as those associated with Immanuel Wallerstein or Fernand Braudel have presented the world as a system with a few cores areas dominating global politics and economics and by extension the flow of people, ideas, and culture, with these areas surrounded by other areas as peripheral or semi-peripheral economies. The world was never that simple (and neither Wallerstein nor Braudel claimed that – one purpose of models is to simplify the world to make it easier to deal with), but as Appadurai’s arguments make clear, such models don’t so much simplify current realities as distort them. It is still the case that places with high concentrations of wealth tend to be associated with significant political influence, and shape in important ways the global movement of people and the production and distribution of ideas and culture products. But we also find places, such as Mali, that have far greater global influence in terms of cultural production than we would predict on the basis of any model that sees overall cultural influence as stemming from economic weight alone.

But what about Mali makes it a World Music powerhouse? There are a variety of factors, some stemming from Malian culture and history, and some associated with Western capital and consumers, that help to explain the situation.

In parts of Mali, especially Sub-Saharan southern Mali, as well as in neighboring territories of Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau (a region roughly coterminous with the old Mande Empire) there is a long tradition of musical specialists. Specialization in music as a trade long predates the modern recording industry in the region, associated with endogamous caste groups – the jelis or djelis, a.k.a. griots.

There is also a long-standing tradition of serious patronage of musicians by the state prior to French colonization, as well as by wealthy individuals. Patronage of orchestras of traditional instruments became important again throughout the region after independence, contributing to a flourishing music scene.

Something making Mali somewhat unique within the larger region is the presence of several distinct musical traditions associated with different regions within the country, perhaps making the country more attractive to the marketers of world music. The music of djelis, with its emphasis on the 21 string harp-like kora, the banjo-lute-like n’goni, and balafon (resembling a marimba or xylophone), is associated especially with the central and southern portion of the country. The specific southern region of Wassoulou is associated with a distinct musical tradition, not associated with specific caste groups, that emphasizes more the kamele n’goni, a sort of cross between the kora and n’goni. Finally, the nomadic and semi-nomadic Touareg of the northern, Saharan portion of the country have their own distinct traditions. (See Chris Nickson’s book The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to World Music for a good short overview of Malian music and other world musics.)

In marketing, nothing draws further attention like success, and the Malian music scene has benefited over the years from the international success of a few projects that helped draw attention of world music labels to the area. One of the earliest projects to draw attention to Malian music, and one of the earlier internationally successful world music albums, was Cordes Anciennes or Ancient Strings, a 1970 recording of two kora players, Sidiki Diabaté and Djelimadi Sissoko. (This album became a musical symbol of Malian independence and national pride, and on Independence Day [September 22], 1997, their sons Toumani Diabaté and Ballake Sissoko recorded a kora-duo album, New Ancient Strings, inspired by it which has been quite successful in its own right.) Like Olatunji’s Drums of Passion and Nigerian music, this recording helped put Mali on the world music map as a significant place. More recently, just as Paul Simon’s Graceland album raised the profile of South African music in North America and Ry Cooder’s collaboration with Cuban musicians on Buena Vista Social Club set off a mini-industry of Cuban music in the U.S., Cooder’s mid-1990s collaboration with Ali Farka Touré on Talking Timuktu did much the same for Malian music (if you listen to NPR’s All Things Considered program much at all, you’ve heard music from this album – an excerpt from the song “Diaraby” is used as a filler track quite frequently).

Finally, part of the attraction of Malian music to a western audience (and thus to world music marketers) is that Malian music is simultaneously familiar and exotic to a western ear. Much Malian music sounds much like the blues – the sonorities of the n’goni and kamele n’goni are somewhat like that of banjo and guitar, and some Malian music has in common with the blues the pentatonic scale.

There’s an obvious reason for this similarity: while the blues doesn’t derive from Mali per se, the basic musical elements of the blues and the specific instrument of the banjo do derive from West Africa.

Some Malian musicians have brought the blues full circle. Ali Farka Touré (until his recent death), Issa Bagayogo, and the Touareg band Tinariwen do not just play Malian musics with similarities to the blues and blue-derived western musics, they have also incorporated the sounds and instruments of American blues and rock back into Malian music (and especially in the case of Issa Bagayogo, other non-Malian musics as well). In each case, the result is a music that is of a specific place – they are each in their own way distinctly Malian or West African – while at the same time music that is very much of the world.

The result for an average Western listener used to listening to blues, rock, and/or jazz is music that, unlike some world musics that have quite distinct features from western popular genres, takes very little getting used to – but which at the same time feels exotic. Sonorities and timbres are different, given the different instrumentation, and while Ali Farka Touré’s guitar playing or Issa Bagayogo’s kamele n’goni playing might sound similar to American blues or rock guitar, there is really very little like the kora playing of djelis in western music, with the distinctive sheets of sound of players like Toumani Diabaté – the only thing I can think of that sounds at all close to me is John Coltrane’s saxophone work during his “Sheets of Sound” period, e.g. his Giant Steps album.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

John Coltrane's "Alabama"

John Coltrane’s “Alabama” is music that I’m passionate about. For starters, it’s a beautiful song beautifully played in 1963 by the John Coltrane Quartet of Coltrane on tenor saxophone, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. If you’re not familiar with the performance, seek it out for a listen – it can be found on the John Coltrane, Live at Birdland album (though “Alabama” is not actually live at Birdland – the album contained three songs that were recorded live at the Birdland club, and originally two studio recordings [with now a third studio track added to the CD issue], one of which is “Alabama”). I also find the song interesting to think about sociologically and historically (in relation to the state of Alabama and the Civil Rights movement and events) as well as in terms of the relationship between music and “content” or between art and world.

Jazz and Civil Rights

In the 1950s and 60s, and into the early 1970s, many jazz musicians used their music to speak to civil rights issues in a variety of ways. There was a natural reason for this. As I discussed in a previous post, “Art, Black Art, and Seriousness in Bebop,” while in one sense jazz has no color (because it’s music comprised of sound), in another, jazz was music produced largely (though never completely) by black men and was certainly perceived by many as “black music.” Many jazz musicians were concerned to produce simultaneously music that was legitimate art and black art. Also, it’s clearly not insignificant that at the time there was a huge region of the country with a very large black population where black jazz musicians, as anyone black, were not treated legally as the social equals of whites.

Some jazz musicians dealt with events related to the civil rights era or made claims for freedom and full civil rights quite explicitly. I have in mind here Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite” or Max Roach’s “We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite” or Nina Simone’s “Old Jim Crow” or “Mississippi Goddam” or Charles Mingus’ “Original Fables of Faubus” (“dedicated” to Arkansas governor and integration opponent Orville Faubus) or perhaps most famously, and earlier, Billie Holiday’s performance of “Strange Fruit.”

Others dealt with civil rights more implicitly. A number of Duke Ellington’s compositions celebrate pride in black people generally, e.g. the extended suite “Black, Brown, and Beige.” (We can also see Ellington in the 1960s as an early proponent of “multi-culturalism” with his incorporations of a variety of non-European musical traditions into his big band jazz, e.g. “The Latin American Suite” or “The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse” or “The Far East Suite” [which frankly would be better called the Near East or Middle East Suite].) Miles Davis’ album A Tribute to Jack Johnson paid homage to the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world. The Free Jazz of musicians like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, or the later work of Coltrane technically didn’t refer to anything in the world outside of music, but it certainly fit with the ethos of (at least some factions of) the civil rights movement and the emphasis upon freedom. A number of other works by Coltrane could be considered to implicitly refer to race relations and the civil rights context of the time, e.g. compositions like “Africa,” “Liberia,” “Song of the Underground Railroad,” or “Spiritual.”

“Alabama” is simultaneously explicit and implicit in its relation to the events in Alabama of the early 1960s. By its title and its recording date of November 18, 1963, just two months after the September 15, 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls and injured several other people, the song stakes out an explicit reference to the horrific events on the ground in that southern state. But beyond the title, given the piece’s existence as pure sound without words, any evocation of content is implicit.

Art and Content / Art and World

There are two slightly different though related questions here. What is the relation between art and content, and what is the relation between art and the world?

In an earlier post, “Charlie Parker and Shostakovich: Art, the Artist, and Culture,” I addressed the relationship between artist’s biography and the meaning of art. Here is a three paragraph selection from that earlier post:

“On the 1946 recording of the song “Lover Man,” Charlie Parker plays one of the most searing, mournful, and heart-rending saxophone solos (or any kind of solo) in the history of recorded music. As is often the case, there is a further story behind the music. Parker had accompanied Dizzy Gillespie to California (where “Lover Man” was recorded) on a tour of the west coast, and had stayed behind to play jazz clubs in Los Angeles when Gillespie returned to New York. Parker had also turned to heroin again, and while he was playing those sad, searing tones immortalized on the “Lover Man” recording, he was in fact experiencing heroin withdrawal. In fact, later that same day, he was arrested in relation to a fire that broke out in his hotel room, ultimately ending up at Camarillo state mental hospital for a stay of some months. (“Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” recorded in early 1947 after that stay, is one of Parker’s jauntiest, happiest sounding recordings.) How much difference do, or should, such biographical tidbits make in our appreciation of the recording?

In his column in the recent special Awards 2006 issue of Gramophone magazine (V. 84, p. 37), Armando Iannucci raises similar questions. Speaking of Shostakovich’s viola sonata, he writes, “The sonata, the final slow movement in particular, is one of the most beautiful, anguished and intimate pieces of 20th-century chamber music I’ve heard…There’s a pain here that’s not dramatic but real. But it is also the last piece he wrote. How much does that matter?” A bit later on, “What does it do to the music knowing it’s the last thing Shostakovich wrote? Knowing that he knew he was dying.” Speaking of other composers, he argues, “You can’t doubt, for example, that the popularity of the Pathetique Symphony, Strauss’s Four Last Songs or Mozart’s Requiem owe an awful lot to our knowledge that they came at the end of each composer’s life.

In cases such as these, knowledge of artists’ biographies and the circumstances surrounding a piece can enhance the experience of art (even if it’s not always clear why that would be the case). Certainly knowledge of artists and the production of art in general in all forms is of historical, sociological, and anthropological interest in its own right. Still, art doesn’t depend upon, isn’t sustained by, and isn’t determined by the artist’s biography, cultural context, etc.”

I made three further points about the relationship between artists’ biographies and their art. First, art does not depend on the artist’s biography. You don’t need to know anything about Parker or Shostakovich to appreciate and enjoy “Lover man” or the viola sonata – it might add to your appreciation in an extra-musical sense, but it’s unnecessary.

Second, art is not sustained by the artist’s biography. The fact that Parker was experiencing withdrawal while recording “Lover Man” might be interesting in its own right, but if the music wasn’t good – if it sounded like someone going through heroin withdrawal – it wouldn’t be good art.

Finally, art is not determined by the artist’s biography. Certainly the cultural context into which any individual is socialized has a profound effect on them, but it never determines what individuals do in detail. David Nice (in the liner notes to Annette Bartholdy’s recording of the viola sonata, Naxos records, 8.556231) writes (parenthetical note added):

“Shostakovich is never afraid of saying it (i.e. dealing with death), though in the most refined form possible, in the Viola Sonata of 1975, last of a harrowing line including the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Symphonies, the last three string quartets and the song-cycle settings of Michelangelo poems which examine death from every conceivable angle. None is a conclusive last word – ‘maybe I’ll still manage to write something else’ was always the composer’s response – and that could even be said of the present work which turned out to be his swan-song, completed just before his death on 9th August 1975.”

It might be natural for an artist clearly approaching death to explore death as a theme, but nothing determined the way he went about it, not the anguished sounds we hear in some movements, nor the playful approach to death in others, nor especially the combination of the two, for example in the last symphony’s musical quotations from Rossini’s William Tell Overture (the theme known to most Americans as the “Lone Ranger” theme) alongside motifs quoted from Wagner’s operas Die Valkyrie and Tristan und Isolde associated with fate or longing and suffering.

I’d like here to make similar arguments with regard to Coltrane’s “Alabama,” though in this case my arguments concern the relationship between a work of art and its content or reference (in this case the Birmingham bombing and other events in Alabama). Art does not depend on its content. Content does not sustain the work of art. Content does not determine the work of art.

Art does not depend on its content

Art cannot depend on its content for its worth as aesthetic object – much art, abstract painting or pure music, has no content at all. “Alabama” can be appreciated as a beautiful, lyrical, mournful piece of music without any knowledge of the context of its production or the events of Alabama 1963. Just as I had loved Parker’s recording of “Lover Man” before knowing anything about Parker’s biography (to a large extent, loving the music was what made me want to find out more about the artist), I had come to love “Alabama” (and not just Coltrane’s performance, but Kenny Garrett’s much more recent recording of the song as well) before being spurred by my passion for the music to find out more about its context. Given the title, I did of course immediately wonder whether it had any reference to the civil rights movement, but I didn’t have to know anything about the song’s “content” to appreciate it.

Content does not sustain the work of art

The Birmingham bombing is one of the more tragic events in 20th century American history. Alabama in general in 1963 was a tragedy. Knowing the referent of the song heightens an already profound appreciation for it, but an inferior work of art would not be made into good art just by having content that is profoundly meaningful. A lesser evocation of the bombing or other events associated with the civil rights movement in the south might touch us, but only by indexing events that in themselves move us, not by creating a work of art that is moving in its own right.

Content does not determine the work of art

For art with content, there ideally should be a relationship between content and form, a certain degree of iconicity or systematic relatedness between referent and the work. I mentioned earlier Miles Davis’ A Tribute to Jack Johnson. I’m fond of this work (I’m one of those people who have not only the album but who also bought the 5 CD box set “The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions” – so yeah, I like the music), and I think it works quite well as pure music. I don’t think it works so well as a tribute to Jack Johnson – there’s no real iconicity or systematic fit between the music and Jack Johnson the boxer or Jack Johnson the flamboyant, no-apologies public persona (there is a certain fit between Davis’ public persona and Johnson’s, but not so much between the music and Johnson).

So, when I say that content doesn’t determine the work of art, I don’t mean there’s no relationship there. It’s more that given the plethora of qualities that any object or event in the world has, there are any number of ways to go about creating a work that fits its content. “Alabama” creates a musical correspondence to the events that’s compelling and iconic (and “iconic” in both the vernacular and technical semiotic senses). The two most apparent elements of the music are Coltrane’s horn and Jones’ drumming (though I think that Tyner’s and Garrison’s contributions are crucial as well, especially in creating a sense of foreboding at the beginning of the song with the throbbing rhythm they lay down – just not as prominently apparent to a casual listen). The combination of Coltrane’s haunting saxophone, creating mournful lyrical passages that at times seem hopeless and others hopeful, with Jones’ always intense drumming, that is at times notably restrained and other times bursting out in intense explosions of energy, creates an icon for 1963 Alabama: simultaneously hopeless and hopeful, restraint and repression with the hope of freedom, but also the possibility, very real at the time, that everything would end in an immense explosion of violence.

I’ll close with a quotation from Leroi Jones’ original liner notes for the Live at Birdland album (parenthetical note added):

“If you have heard “Slow Dance” or “After the Rain,” then you might be prepared for the kind of feeling that “Alabama” carries. I didn’t realize until now what a beautiful word Alabama is. That is one function of art, to reveal beauty, common or uncommon, uncommonly. And that’s what Trane does. Bob Thiele (the session producer) asked Trane if the title “had any significance to today’s problems.” I suppose he meant literally. Coltrane answered, “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” Which is to say, Listen. And what we’re given is a slow delicate introspective sadness, almost hopelessness, except for Elvin, rising in the background like something out of nature…a fattening thunder, storm clouds or jungle war clouds. The whole is a frightening emotional portrait of some place, of these musicians’ feelings. If the “real” Alabama was the catalyst, more power to it, and may it be this beautiful, even in its destruction.”

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Shamans, Jazz, and Genocide: On Definitions and Sets

Anyone who has read my blog knows that I discuss a wide variety of topics, from shamanism to jazz to genocide. One key concern I have been focused on is that between discourse and practice, word and object, meaning and world.

Definition is about constituting sets, discerning the characteristics that typify a set of objects, actions, qualities, or relations (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, conjunctions) and that distinguish that set from others. It is also about mediating language and world.

Intuitively, there are two obvious and opposed approaches to take in defining sets. One is to look first to the world, to describe the qualities of things, actions, relationships. Sets are defined by things sharing similar qualities. This seems a thoroughly empirical approach, though a key problem is that it’s hard to know a priori whether we’re identifying a meaningful or useful set via this approach. Things in the world have myriad qualities, and whether we’re aware or not of it we’re making interpretive choices about which qualities to focus on – which is fine if done critically. In his 1959 critique of anthropology up to that point, “Rethinking Anthropology,” Edmund Leach called upon anthropology to move beyond a “butterfly collecting” approach, where social characteristics such as matrilineal matrilocal complexes or patrivirilocality were collected and assumed meaningful. Leach’s point wasn’t that such descriptions weren’t necessarily meaningful or important but that anthropologists should think much more critically about whether, how, and why such descriptions defined sets.

The opposing approach is to start with language independent of the world (insofar as one can do that – clearly language is always a thing of the world), define a set abstractly and then look to the world to see what fits and what doesn’t. Although he’s not explicit on the point, when Wynton Marsalis says that jazz just went away for a little while in the 1970s (despite the huge success of fusion during that period) he seems to be applying an a priori definition of “jazz” which doesn’t include fusion, thus allowing him to make the claim (See my discussion in “Miles Davis’ Ferrari, or Popularity and Art”). This is an approach to defining sets that always “works,” though the key problem here is that there’s no guarantee that our definitions and sets reflect important empirical relationships between things in the world.

My preference is for a pragmatic approach that stays grounded in empirical observation but with a willingness to open up the empirical to interpretation and exploration by casting it in multiple possible comparative frames and tacking back and forth between observation of the world and abstract definition.

Generally, a good starting point is language as practice, looking at how language is manifested as a thing in the world and how it is used to relate to non-linguistic things in the world. That is, it’s useful to start by looking at how a word is used, looking to see what objects (I use “object” here in the semiotic sense – the “object” could be an object or thing in the vernacular sense, or an action, quality, or relationship) are referred to with it, then to focus on their qualities to abstract a sense of what defines the set – with a willingness then to potentially extend the category to other things sharing in those defining qualities. Some argue that the category “shaman” should be restricted in anthropological analysis to the Siberian contexts in which it was first identified and from which the term comes. I disagree, both because the term has long since escaped that restricted reference in its real usage and more importantly because the quality that defines shamanism in those Siberian contexts is not “Siberian-ness” (after all, what make a shaman a shaman in Siberia cannot be being of Siberia), and the application of the term to a variety of other contexts has been useful in noting important similarities in ritual and spiritual practices in a variety of world settings. (See my earlier post “Shamanism, Fascism, Gulags, and Genocide.”)

A pragmatic approach does not expect that any one quality will be the skeleton key to define the essence of the category, expecting instead as Wittgenstein pointed out that categories will be defined not by single qualities but by overlapping sets of family resemblances. The music of Louis Armstrong and Mahavishnu Orchestra really don’t have much apparent similarity that they should belong to the same set: “jazz.” But both have definite similarities to other music that resembles other music that ultimately connect the two.

Nor does a pragmatic approach assume that any object, practice, action, etc., will fit into only one important set. I regularly teach a course titled “Peoples and Cultures of the World.” When I cover the Sudanic region of Sub-Saharan Africa, a topic that often arises for discussion, sometimes raised by me, sometimes by one of the students, is that of the practice that is variously termed “female genital mutilation,” “female genital modification,” “female genital operation,” etc. The multiplicity of terms indicates the multiplicity of meaning associated with the practice. I try to emphasize to my students that no one of these terms is “wrong” or “right,” but that the choice of term actively shapes our understanding of the category. I further raise a variety of other possible categories, such as “body modification” to indicate that the same practice meaningfully belongs to multiple sets or categories simultaneously. (See my earlier discussion in “Sudan and Cultural Relativism” and “Are Some Cultures Better Than Others?”)

Finally, another advantage of a flexible, pragmatic approach to definition is that it allows sets to evolve. When Marsalis says that jazz “went away,” he not only seems to have an a priori sense of what jazz “is” but the mode of defining also creates a static category which excludes things such as fusion which have strayed too far. It is legitimate to ask how much something can evolve and change and remain part of the original category (and there are no easy answers here). An example from paleoanthropology would perhaps be illustrative. Though there is some debate on the point, two hominid species that are probably our evolutionary ancestors are Homo erectus and Australopithecus afarensis. These are species that still have living descendants – us – so they never went extinct in the same way that hominid species like Australopithecus boisei or Australopithecus robustus – which have no living descendants – did. But though H. Erectus and A. afarensis never went extinct, they are extinct – we evolved from them, but are now something distinct from them. If Marsalis or anyone else claimed that fusion was an evolution from jazz that was no longer jazz, I think I’d disagree, but I could see that point. Still, you’d then have to say that in the 1970s jazz was largely replaced by something that evolved from jazz but was no longer jazz if you wanted to be faithful to the facts.

A flexible approach to definition does not mean that “Anything Goes.”

I do think it’s useful to stretch the category “shamanism” beyond Siberia to apply to a variety of ritual and spiritual practices whereby a practitioner enters an altered state of consciousness and engages in interaction with a variety of supernatural entities, often by voyaging beyond the body. I am equally opposed to stretching the category further to include any practice involving altered states of consciousness, or even simply other ritual and/or spiritual practices involving altered states, such as spirit mediumship. Such an extension waters down the important recognition of similarities in an entire suite of characteristics in Siberian and Native American shamanisms by including a variety of other much less similar phenomena. It might be useful to have a single more general category for anthropological analysis that includes shamans, spirit mediums and any other practices of spiritual altered state (so far as I know, no such general category exists), but calling spirit mediums shamans or vice versa is not analytically useful.

In my previous post, I argued that “Jazz is not America’s Classical Music,” that jazz and classical are distinct musical idioms. Granted, neither is easy to define, though there are loose sets of characteristics that tend to define each. Also, some music is ambiguous in its fit into either category, but the ambiguity of fit for a particular musical example doesn’t mean that the general category is unreal or useless.

Finally, some phenomena are so important and are really so qualitatively distinct from other phenomena that we should be extremely careful in the use of the words we use to refer to them. I have in mind here words like “genocide,” “Holocaust,” “gulag,” or “fascism,” and the historical (and contemporary in the case of “genocide”) phenomena referred to by them. To use just one example, to critique the prison at Guantanamo is fine and important. To compare it to the Soviet gulag system is also fine – the fact that there might be any systematic similarity at all, even if minor in scope is troubling. To call Guantanamo “the American Gulag” implies an empirical parallel belied by the facts and undermines one’s own credibility and the seriousness of both the Soviet Gulag and of Guantanamo now. (See my earlier post “Shamanism, Fascism, Gulags, and Genocide.”)

Friday, June 22, 2007

Jazz is not America's Classical Music

I’ve encountered many who are champions of jazz who are fond to say that “Jazz is America’s Classical Music.”

The main reason for this is to stake a claim that jazz is just as worthy of aesthetic contemplation and every bit as serious a “high art” as classical music. For much of the twentieth century most saw classical music as clearly “high art” while jazz was just as clearly “low art.” Even today, when jazz is not so regarded (ironically in large part because it’s not popular entertainment music), classical tends to carry more prestige.

Race is involved as well. One major reason why jazz carried lower prestige, at least through the mid-twentieth century, was because of the common perception of jazz as black music (see my earlier post, “Art, Black Art, and Seriousness in Bebop”).

To claim jazz as America’s classical music is to argue that jazz is a distinctly American form of art music (and it is that – or at least was – it’s no longer so specifically American), to place it on the same aesthetic level as European classical music, and to make a case for the centrality of race and black experiences in American art and life in general.

Jazz and classical do have some things in common. They both tend to be associated with high standards of performance to a greater extent than with “popular” genres. Classical is generally regarded as “art music,” as has jazz for at least the past several decades. (All music is art in the sense that it involves the production of an existing object with distinct physical [sound waves] and aesthetic qualities. Jazz and Classical are “art music” in the sense that sociologically they tend to be performed in contexts where their aesthetic qualities are overtly emphasized – though also always in contexts shaped in important ways by political, economic, and other social factors.) Both have a generally recognized canon of composers and performers (something obviously true of some other genres as well).

There is an American Classical Music – And it’s not Jazz

Despite the similarities, there are other clear differences. Both “Classical” and “Jazz” can be difficult to define (and adding to the ambiguity, both terms can be used to refer to either the music of a specific period of time [as in “Baroque,” “Classical,” “Romantic,” etc., and “Jazz,” “Swing,” “Bebop,” etc.] or to broadly defined genres persisting over long stretches of time) – and that’s not my main goal here. Suffice it to say that most have a general sense of what falls into either genre (there are exceptions, e.g. is Terry Riley’s In C classical, jazz, or something else; is Miles Davis’ and Gil Evans’ version of “Concierto de Aranjuez” on the Sketches of Spain album jazz or classical; is Porgy and Bess jazz, classical, opera, or a “musical” – or does it depend on the specific performance?), so I want to focus not so much on providing absolute definition as presenting one or two important distinctions.

Jazz has from its beginnings been a music that emphasizes improvisation. The degree of improvisation varies considerably. In some cases, only a soloist improvises and within highly circumscribed limits, while in others the whole ensemble might simultaneously improvise, but whether in the form of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens or Ornette Coleman’s free jazz, improvisation has been central to the music.

Jazz has been a hybrid genre from the start, drawing on multiple pre-existing musical traditions (something true of any genre really – but jazz’s hybridity is an important part of many people’s conception of the genre). Two of the most important sources for the jazz tradition were ragtime and the blues, with the result being that most jazz shares with ragtime syncopation and a playfulness with rhythm, and often draws on the pentatonic scales of blues.

It would be a mistake to argue that syncopation, much less experimentation with rhythm generally, are not part of classical music. Just think of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, or much of Ravel’s work, or even the much earlier piano works of Chopin, where the left and right hands often have slightly offset rhythms. But syncopation is a much more crucial component of jazz – what makes the music “swing,” and the eight tones of each major and minor key or the twelve tone rows of serial music are quite different from pentatonic blues or jazz. Finally, while improvisation was often emphasized in the Baroque, from the mid-18th century until quite recently, improvisation was essentially absent from classical music.

There is an American classical musical tradition that includes important composers such as Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, John Cage, Philip Glass, Jennifer Higdon and many, many others.

To refer to jazz as “America’s Classical Music” does two unfortunate things. First, it misconstrues the nature of jazz and misrecognizes what’s unique and important about it. Second, it marginalizes America’s tradition of actual classical music.

Jazz Doesn’t Need to Be America’s Classical Music

As I said earlier, to claim jazz as America’s classical music is to argue that jazz is a distinctly American form of art music, to place it on the same aesthetic level as European classical music, and to make a case for the centrality of race and black experiences in American art and life in general.

I endorse each of these basic claims. Jazz is a distinctly American form of art music, though one distinct from classical music. It does have the same aesthetic worth as classical music, without having to be classical music (and thus losing what makes jazz jazz – this is also to say that when it comes to aesthetic appreciation, I see no reason why jazz and classical can’t actually be separate but equal). Given the centrality of black musicians in the history of this distinct art music, jazz does mark the centrality of race and especially of black experiences in American art and life in general.

None of these claims, though, depends on claiming that jazz is classical – if anything, such claims distort and undermine the realities of jazz.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Round Up of Recent Blog Posts and News Articles of Note

Over the past week of so, I’ve encountered a number of blog essays and online news articles that I’ve found interesting. I thought I’d share them with anyone who might be interested.

Reginald Shepherd’s Blog

Reginald Shepherd’s Blog is important to me for several reasons. Reginald is my partner, so I’m inclined to like it, but any personal bias aside, it’s an impressive blog dealing with poetry, poetics, and art and society. One thing making Reginald Shepherd’s Blog different from many is that he writes long, substantive essays. (I’m not knocking the short and often diaristic blog posts on many blogs – just saying this one’s different.) His blog is different from most in that he frequently posts revisions of earlier posts, treating posts as serious pieces of writing and revising to reflect his own developing thought on a topic.

Over the past week, he has posted three such substantive revisions that are well worth taking a look at:

“On Difficulty in Poetry” explores the issue of what makes some poetry (or other art) seem “difficult.” What’s useful about Shepherd’s approach is that he recognizes that there are different sources of difficulty and explores them as distinct phenomena. This essay, in its earlier form was an inspiration for my own writing. My blog essay, “Difficulty in Ethnographic Writing,” was written largely as an application of Shepherd’s ideas to ethnography.

“What is Progressive Art? A Revision” discusses the progress or development of art, utilizing in part the work of Neo-Hegelian philosopher of art Arthur C. Danto. As above, this essay in its earlier form was inspirational for me, with my blog essays “Free Jazz and the end of the history of jazz” and “The end of the history of music” written partly in response to this essay.

Finally, “Revised Thoughts on the Long Poem” offers a thoughtful reflection on the issue of form and importance, specifically here the relation between the long poem as a form and “major poetry.”

Nicolette Bethel’s Blog

I’m also quite fond of Nicolette Bethel’s Blog. Like Reginald Shepherd’s Blog, this blog consistently offers substantive and interesting commentary.

In the past week, two essays, “On Images of Savages, Part One” and “On Images of Savages, Part Two,” continue an ongoing exploration on this blog of the importance of race in the Bahamas specifically and in general. These two posts explore the important contradiction in Enlightenment thinking associated with the invention of “The Savage,” that just as Europeans and Euro-Americans began to think seriously about equality and freedom, they invented the notion of the inherently inferior savage to rationalize the continued brutal exploitation of some, most egregiously in the form of slavery in the Americas.

Culture Matters

Another blog I like is “Culture Matters,” a group blog by faculty and students at the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. One thing I like about this blog is the frequent support faculty show for their students’ ideas and work. A recent post briefly describes and links to an online article by a student there, Khatab Sabir, “A United Iraq: An Impossible Dream.” An important part of Sabir’s argument is that Iraq cannot work as an united nation because it does not work as an “imagined community.” It is not that there are not “imagined communities” at play, but rather that they (plural) are specifically constructed as disunited, standing strongly in the way of any united Iraq.

Someone to Believe In

I’d like to draw people’s attention to a new blog: “Solipsistic Effluvia.” This blog is written by a promising, young scholar whom I had the pleasure of working with while he was a student at the University of West Florida. (For now, he’s posting the blog anonymously, so I won’t name him.) The first entry, “Return to Faith,” laments the fact that in contrast to the 1960s, when there were politicians and other important public figures who not only were important but whom people could have faith in as “good people,” there seem now to be no such public figures.

David Shumway’s article “Where have all the rock stars gone?,” published online by The Chronicle of Higher Education, asks a similar question of music celebrities. Shumway points out that in the 1960s and 70s, musicians like James Brown or Bob Dylan were important public figures who were respected and taken seriously as people who mattered, even by people who weren’t necessarily fans of the particular musician. I don’t personally see that this sort of public figure has disappeared to the extent Shumway implies. Bono immediately comes to mind. Shumway does address Bono: “Bono, whose political advocacy in the courts of real-world power has expanded his reach, may have been the last rock star to capture the imagination of a broad spectrum of the public. But even this case reveals a change. Bono's advocacy does not seem to be of a piece with his role in U2, the way, say, John Lennon's antiwar activism seemed to be a natural continuation of his role in the Beatles.” I don’t really see where Bono’s different here – U2 is a band that’s been a politically engaged band since its early work, e.g. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “Pride (In the Name of Love).” But it’s an interesting article nonetheless, especially for the commentary on the importance of niche marketing in today’s music industry, in sharp contrast to music marketing of previous decades.

Biting Commentary – Literally

An interesting piece of trivia – men are 12 times more likely to be bitten by another person than women, at least in Ireland where the study reported on in “Men bitten more than women and alcohol is the culprit” at News-Medical.Net was conducted. I’m not sure why I find the article fascinating, but I do.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Experience of Live Music

I’ve written in two previous posts about the experience of music, especially live performance and including how the experience of music or listening compares with other art forms, e.g. the experiences of visual art through looking or of literature through reading (see “Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the Experience of Art [Musical and Visual]”
and “Reading, Looking, Listening”).

About a week ago I had the pleasure of witnessing a phenomenal performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. In light of that experience, I’d like to raise two points for discussion as an addendum to those earlier posts.

Watching Music

Obviously music per se can’t be watched – it’s comprised of sound. But the physical performance of the music by live musicians can be. The theatricality of a rock show is as much about the visual performance of the band, a light show, etc. While not typically involving things like laser light shows, watching the musicians play is an important component of experiencing live jazz or classical music or any other music.

One of the most engaging aspects of watching live music is the way that visual clues can cue you in to subtle aspects of the music otherwise not noticed. In Carmina Burana, in addition to the full orchestra and chorus, there are three vocal soloists: a soprano, tenor, and baritone. The tenor only sings one song (a lament for a cooked swan), and in the case of this song, the singer is accompanied primarily by the viola section. Before seeing the piece live, I had actually not particularly noticed the violas nor the subtle beauty of the music being played in that section of the music. I’m not sure why I had never noticed before – maybe I’ve always just focused in on the tenor’s voice in that song, but it was initially seeing the physical actions of the violists’ bowing (while most of the rest of the orchestra sat still) that made me focus my attention on that component of the music. For me, and I think for most music lovers, this aspect of musical experience is one of the main reasons and joys to experiencing music live.

Hearing Live Music in Relation to Recorded Music

As Claude Lévi-Strauss discussed in the “Overture” section of The Raw and the Cooked (and as I discussed in my essay “Reflections on Meaning and Myth: Claude Lévi-Strauss Revisited,” Anthropos, 2005, V. 100: 221 – 228), music offers an experience that is simultaneously diachronic and synchronic. It unfolds through time (hence the diachronic) – music is largely about our experience of time – but it is simultaneously experienced as if all at once (hence the synchronic) in the sense that what is experienced at any moment is experienced in relation to the memory of what has gone before and the anticipation that sets up about the still unfolding music – with much of the joy of the experience of music coming from the way in which the music meets our expectation or does not and surprises us. It is through this combination of diachronic and synchronic experience that music actively engages the mind.

Over the past century of so, recordings have upped the ante. Before the prevalence of recorded music, the only way to experience music was via live performance. This limited (though it did not eliminate – especially in the case of “folk” genres that would have been more familiar to most people) the ability of people to “know” the piece of music being played before its performance. It’s now possible to enter into a live performance of most music of any genre with a thorough knowledge of what that music usually sounds like.

This has had multiple effects. Many histories of classical music that I have read indicate that one effect of this has been to raise the expectations of audiences and to raise performance standards for musicians and orchestras. When avid (and even not so avid in the case of particularly famous pieces of music) fans enter the performance with a thorough sense of how the music is “supposed to” sound, the bar is raised. In general, this is a good thing, though it might also increase the chances of disappointment from perfectly adequate performances that might simply not reach the highest pinnacles of performance of the last century.

Some worry that the prevalence of recording has homogenized performance. This is to some extent true, e.g. distinct national styles of instrumental or vocal performance are much less in evidence in classical music than was true several decades ago. At the same time, to some extent the presence of so many recordings of repertoire pieces encourages diversity of interpretation. If you’re going to record yet another interpretation of Carmina Burana at this point, you ought to present something new in the piece. An example of this is Simon Rattle’s recent recording of the piece – his pacing to me seems a bit too fast for the work to enjoy listening to too often, but he definitely presents a distinct interpretation the distinctiveness of which would be apparent to most people even casually familiar with the work.

Entering the experience already familiar with multiple recordings of Carmina Burana, I had high standards for the piece (which were abundantly met). Further, though, having the memory of pre-existing experiences with the piece (and with the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Spano and with other performances of other pieces I’ve experienced by this symphony), my experience and pleasure was heightened by the recognition of particular aspects of interpretation that made this particular performance distinct. In this case (as with the performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring I enjoyed earlier this spring), in certain movements the percussion was prominently emphasized. (Both Carmina Burana and The Rite of Spring are highly percussive in places in any interpretation, but this was more prominent than in most.) As a result, I noticed certain percussive elements, e.g. the almost machine-gun-like snare drum in the early moments of the piece, that I’d never particularly noticed before – and that experience now informs each further experience of the piece, whether live or recorded.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Bees and Bourdieu

Ants, Bees, and other social insects are interesting objects of study in and of themselves, but they can also be fascinating to anthropologists and other social scientists. It’s always a mistake to assume that models representing behavior of one species will straightforwardly model the behaviors of another, but comparing ourselves with other animal species can be interesting and illuminating through the discovery of similarities and differences.

Honeybees, like ourselves, live in complexly organized societies. But how much like our social organization and interactions are theirs? An interesting article at Science Daily, “Leaderless Honeybee Can Organize, Undergraduate Research Shows,” details the impressive work of an undergraduate scientist in biology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Andrew Pierce.

Pierce’s research focused on swarming and hive movement. It had previously been thought that hive movement was precipitated by the flight of the queen. Pierce’s observations indicate instead that the queen’s movement is itself prompted by the patterned responses of older bees to stimuli from the environment and interactions within the group, i.e. the highly coordinated action results from a concatenation of individual actions that themselves are not at all centrally coordinated or organized by any leadership.

This is a quotation from the news article: “Like humans, honeybees are remarkable for living in large organized groups where highly developed social behaviors coordinate the efforts of thousands of individuals to accomplish complex tasks -- manufacturing, community defense, environmental control and maintenance, food production, brood-rearing and education. Like human civilizations, bee societies follow organizational principles, such as following social rules (like human customs and laws) and division of labor. But here the similarity ends. Bees do not have large brains and are not capable of complex thought like humans. Though the bee colony is centered around the queen and her reproductive capabilities, findings by Schneider [the scientist whose lab Pierce worked in] and others indicates that she does not exactly "rule." Instead, the colony appears to be controlled by the anonymous consensus of the colony's workers.”

As the article points out, a key difference between bees and humans is that we are capable of conscious control of our actions, and that our societies are characterized by mechanisms for leadership and intentional coordination of activities. To me, though, the author of the article (if not also the researchers being reported on, though that’s unclear) seems to have a view of human society and action which overemphasizes consciously determined action and intentional coordination of behavior. Much of what we do, though, is more the result of patterned response, albeit where our responses and actions are largely the result of inculcation of cultural patterns through socialization rather than the genetic programming of honeybees.

In reading the descriptions of honeybees’ coordinated action in the absence of centralized or intentional leadership, I’m reminded of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. Bourdieu wrote of habitus as follows (italics in the original text - Outline of a Theory of Practice):

“The structures constitutive of a particular type of environment (e.g. the material conditions of existence characteristic of a class condition) produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively “regulated” and “regular” without in any way being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them and, being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor.”

This seems to me a decent description of much human and honeybee activity, with a difference being again the mechanism of inculcation of dispositions and the fact that while honeybee actions might always be coordinated without being the result of active leadership or conscious aiming at ends, some of time we’re not operating in the mode of habitus, out of habit, but very intentionally, and sometimes our patterned group actions are the “product of the orchestrating action of a conductor” (as at a symphony performance or the patterns of behavior resulting from governmental actions – even if much of what government does in practice is describable under the rubric of habitus).

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Sudan and the U.S.: Genocide and the War on Terror

To the extent that the ongoing genocide receives much attention in the press (which is generally not to any great extent), attention is often paid to how China's economic relationship with the Sudanese government limits the ability of the U.N. to engage in strong sanctioning activities against Sudan. China's position vis-a-vis Sudan is a crucial consideration that should not be understated.

Another factor less commonly reported is the U.S. government's conflicted relationship with Sudan, with the Bush administration one of the few around the world that has publicly decried the situation in Darfur and called it genocide (one of the only things I'll give the Bush adminstration credit for), but at the same time the administration sees the government in Khartoum as a critical ally in the War on Terror, largely for having expelled Osama bin Laden and cracked down on Islamic militants after the cruise missile attacks during the Clinton administration.

The Middle East Times has just posted a good overview of the situation:

Here's one interesting section from the article:

"Marc Lavergne named intelligence chief Salah Abdallah Gosh and Nafi Ali Nafi, one of President Omar Al Beshir's key advisers, as Khartoum's leading strategists on Darfur and who are also well-known in certain Washington circles.

'These people regularly visit Washington and they are in permanent contact with the US, which considers them their special partners,'said Lavergne.

Thomas-Jensen also underscored the fact that Ghosh was flown into the US by private CIA jet for a week-long series of meetings in 2005 with US officials, causing much controversy within the Bush administration.

'By agreeing to divulge everything it has about Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, the Palestinians, Algerian Islamists, and a bunch of other troublemakers in the world, the Sudanese government is providing an enormous service to the US government and is irreplaceable,' said Lavergne.

To placate its critics, Sudan has suggested that Darfur rebels are of the same ilk as Al Qaeda and is seeking to maximize the benefits from its decision to expel Bin Laden and align itself with Washington."

Friday, June 15, 2007

Birds and Human Culture

I just encountered a news article titled "Populations of 20 Common Birds Declining."

Here's the link to the article:;_ylt=Ak4_Jo3UQ3p_LV8enwJjoWwPLBIF

As an avid bird watcher, stories such as this are seriously depressing to me.

It might seem unusual for me to be talking about birds on this blog where I normally discuss topics related in some way to human culture, except that it is human cultural processes that are largely responsible for the decline of the North American bird populations mentioned in the article.

There is no single way in which humans affect animal populations such as these. Birds with specialist ecological strategies have been especially affected as their habitats have been fragmented by suburbanization and sprawl. Climate change, largely human induced, seems to be partly to blame for some species' declines. Globalization is involved as well, with the introduction of new invasive species that have outcompeted some native bird species, and in recent years with the introduction of the West Nile virus, which has devastated many North American bird populations. (The article doesn't discuss it, but corvids, such as crows and blue jays, have been especially hard hit by West Nile virus.)

There is some good news as well, though there are patterns to the good news. Some birds have done well because of changes in human cultural practices. Many species that had been particularly affected by past uses of the pesticide DDT have made dramatic recoveries since DDT was banned for use in North America (the article mentions the double-crested cormorant, but the U.S.'s national symbol, the Bald Eagle, is another example). Changes in farming practice over the past century have also benefitted some birds. Over the past century, farming has become more industrialized and concentrated. One result is that alongside larger energy inputs to farming and greater total crop yields, less total land is devoted to farming in North America than 50 years or a century ago, and there is more total forest land (even though much of it is fragmented by roads and sprawl). Some birds have been able to benefit from this, with the recovery of wild turkey populations over the past half century being perhaps the most dramatic example. Finally, birds with generalist ecological strategies have tended to do quite well and even increase in numbers. Suburbanization and sprawl has simply presented one new type of ecosystem for them.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Generation Gaps, Popular Music, and Affluence

In my previous two posts ("Art, Black Art, and Seriousness in Bebop" and "Miles Davis' Ferrari, or Popularity and Art") I argued that one of the important factors in the waning popularity of jazz, especially big band swing, beginning in the mid-1940s was a generation gap. The popularity of swing had been related to its role as dance music, appealing to and depending upon a young audience’s attendance at dance halls. Swing had been the popular dance music of the 1930s and early 1940s, but by the mid-1940s, the music was associated with those who had been young and sounded out of date to the youth of the time, and it began to give way to new forms of dance music.

(I’m not suggesting this was the only factor. Big bands were expensive to maintain, being comprised by definition of many musicians. They required large attendance at dance halls to be maintained. When the oil and automobile industries began buying up and dismantling many of the private trolley companies in a variety of American cities in the mid- to late 1940s, one effect was to make it harder for youth to attend dance halls in the same numbers – favoring smaller ensembles that were more cheaply maintained.)

Swing waned in favor of the new rhythm and blues music, which in turn gave way to rock and roll in the 1950s. The name “rock and roll” might have stuck around, but styles waxed and waned, with the intense popularity among 1950s youth of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and even Elvis giving way to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and James Brown (just to name three intensely popular acts associated with somewhat different varieties of 1960s popular music).

But then something different happened. Most popular acts of the 1960s saw their popularity wane and disappear eventually as with previous acts, but the most popular acts of the 1960s never lost their audiences. The youth of the 1960s continued to enjoy popular music beyond their youth as most individuals of previous generations had not (i.e. popular music became seen as something more than a frivolity for kids to listen to). Further, over time acts like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, or James Brown became dissociated from a specific generational cohort in the sense that later generations of youth have continued to discover and maintain the popularity of such acts to a much greater extent than with previous popular music.

There is a similar but distinct phenomenon in visual popular culture. Certain films, images, and styles (from the 1950s on) have become stylized as tropes of “youth” and/or “rebellion” – the images of Rebel without a Cause or The Wild One, Che Guevara tee-shirts, Mohawk haircuts or dyed hair, the “Goth” look, piercings, etc. These are modularized visual tropes that any youth can use to make a visual statement about their individuality that will be understood by nearly everyone precisely because modular and not individual. They are also tropes typically picked up and later mostly dropped.

This is different from what has happened with popular music since the 1960s, when popular music is associated with youth, but as a sort of sign and symptom of youth that isn’t dropped and isn’t expected to be. Further, popular music styles have continued to change, as in earlier decades, but each style adds to a repertoire rather than replacing the previous popular style. 1960s popular music co-exists with 1970s “classic rock” (which as far as I can tell never experienced a dip in popularity – with many acts getting as much or more radio play as during the 1970s) with 1980s New Wave (and many contemporary “alternative” bands sounding virtually identical to New Wave bands).

What made the popular music of the 1960s and later different from what came before? Better, what made youth, at least in the industrialized world, different beginning in the 1960s?

Much has been written of the “Baby Boomers” who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s as the “Me” generation. In the May 26, 2007 issue of The Economist (p. 33), the anonymous columnist “Lexington” presents an interesting perspective on the issue in a discussion of Brink Lindsey’s book The Age of Abundance. Lexington writes:

“The industrial revolution in America was driven by a bourgeois Protestant ethic that celebrated work and frowned on self-indulgence. Those who invested their pay earned respect as well as compound interest; those who wasted it on whiskey and cards forwent both. But over the years, thrift combined with technology and capitalism produced such vast returns that thrift went out of fashion. The 1960s saw the coming-of-age of the first generation whose members had never known scarcity, and therefore did not fear it. Spurning their parents’ self-restraint, the baby-boomers rebelled against every form of authority and sampled every form of fun.”

This is a highly partial account to be sure. Before the mid-20th century, many who did their best to be thrifty earned neither respect nor compound interest, and many coming of age in the 1960s were well aware of scarcity. What Lindsey and Lexington are speaking of, then, is a largely middle-class phenomenon, but nonetheless real and important for that. What Post-War affluence led to for the middle-classes at least was not the elimination of the distinction between work and play, but a change in the relationship. Play was no longer a temporal stage, something that one mainly engaged in as a child before transitioning into adulthood and work and responsibility. Instead, one could thoroughly engage in play while being and becoming an adult. With the distinctions between work and play or between responsibility and play no longer tied to temporal stages of life, the line between youth and adulthood was blurred as well, leading to the marketing of continual youth (and the marketing of elements of popular culture associated with “youth” to youths born decades after the fact because of the dissociation of the tropes of “youth” from the particular sets of youth originally associated with them.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Miles Davis' Ferrari, or Popularity and Art

As I discussed in my previous post, “Art, Black Art, and Seriousness in Bebop,” Clive James laments in his recent book Cultural Amnesia that bebop led to a growing seriousness in jazz that led to the erosion of jazz’s popularity – a trend continued with those musicians who followed in the 1950s and 1960s. (I also discuss in that post what I find wrong with this formulation, both with regard to the supposed “seriousness” of bebop and the causal role of bebop in a decline in jazz’s popularity.)

In a similar vein, during the course of the 10th and final episode of Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz, as a variety of commentators discuss (mainly what they see as wrong with) jazz in the late 1960s and 1970s (with several interviewees especially attacking Miles Davis’ electric music and the music of Cecil Taylor – see my earlier post, “Vitriol and Jazz”), Wynton Marsalis claims that jazz just went away for a little while (until its reemergence in the 1980s, led by none other than Marsalis).

James and Marsalis are addressing different periods and different particular musicians. I suspect the two would strongly disagree on details. Where James is ambivalent about Charlie Parker and clearly doesn’t at all like the music of John Coltrane or Miles Davis in any period, Marsalis has no problems with Parker or Coltrane (e.g. the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s recording of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme under Marsalis’ direction – a recording I’m fond of, by the way – if I had to choose, I’d go with Coltrane’s original, but there’s no reason to choose) or much of Davis’ music.

Still, the form of their arguments is similar. Certain musicians (Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the other beboppers or post-1969 Davis and the other producers of fusion jazz) began to make music that was too serious or too difficult or otherwise too different from the jazz tradition. The result was that the jazz audience significantly shrank or disappeared.

As I discussed in my earlier post, “Vitriol and Jazz,” my reaction to those who continue to bash fusion jazz or free jazz thirty or forty years after the fact is to get over it – if you don’t like Davis or Coltrane or Taylor or Ornette Colemen or Anthony Braxton or whoever, just don’t listen. James’ and Marsalis’ argument here, though, is a little different (and my reaction is a little different). For anyone who feels personally betrayed by the directions a musician takes – get over yourself, and maybe seek counseling. The argument of James and Marsalis is more that the beboppers or the fusion jazz players killed jazz by killing its audience.

My reaction to this is twofold: 1. That’s not true; and 2. So What?

1. There’s no doubt that the overall popularity of jazz began to wane over the course of the 1940s, but as I discussed in “Art, Black Art, and Seriousness in Bebop,” this decline in audience is correlated with rather than caused by bebop. For that matter, bebop wasn’t really swing’s main competitor (and so can’t really be blamed for its demise) – as James points out, bebop wasn’t dance music. It was largely art music (even if art music that was entertaining and had a sense of humor), where swing (even when practitioners like Duke Ellington had great concern for artistry) was largely dance music at the time. Instead, the loss of audience was to new forms of dance music – rhythm and blues and other forms of music that would form part of the roots of rock and roll, musical forms associated with the youth of the time, in contrast with swing which had been identified with youth but now more with those who had been young.

Further, a number of “difficult” or “serious” jazz albums over the following decades sold quite well. (That is, bebop and its successors didn’t have the audience that swing might have had in the 1930s and early 1940s, but “serious” jazz maintained a strong audience over a period of several decades.) James includes an amusing quotation attributed to Miles Davis in his essay on Davis. Davis said, “If I don’t like what they write, I get into my Ferrari and I drive away.” If he were alive today, I suspect that’s about how he’d react to arguments that his music was at all too difficult for audiences or that his music drove fans away from jazz. A number of albums by “difficult” artists have sold quite well: Davis’ Bitches Brew and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme are among the top selling jazz albums of all time. (I’ve read a variety of writers claim that one or the other is the top selling jazz album of all time, but I’ve also seen that claim made for a number of other records – the only thing that’s completely clear, given a lack of highly accurate sales records for jazz recordings, is that these albums and artists had and have a tremendous audience.)

Did jazz just go away for a little while in the 1970s? Hardly. Weather Report constantly toured and played to large, packed arenas, i.e. they had an audience comparable to that of major rock bands of the time. Other fusion groups, like Davis’ bands, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Chick Corea and Return to Forever, also had large audiences.

I think that Marsalis is engaging in a bit of sleight of hand. I get the distinct impression that for him, fusion was not jazz. If you count it out, then jazz went away for a little while. (I don’t even think that’s accurate, as a number of “straightahead” jazz artists did well during the decade also.) This seems like sophistry to me, and the effect of defining jazz in narrow ways, and excluding anything that strays too far, is to limit the recognition of a variety of contemporary artists who are making interesting and exciting music.

2. Though neither explicitly says so, the thrust of the arguments put forth by James or Marsalis implies that size of audience and degree of popularity are a marker of artistic worth.

Certainly a musician has to be somewhat concerned with audience, at least any musician making a living from their music. But popularity and the aesthetic quality (both in the sense of the objective qualities of a work and its aesthetic worth) are separate issues. Likewise, obscurity is no mark of high or low aesthetic value in itself.

My main point in mentioning that albums like Bitches Brew or A Love Supreme are among the highest selling jazz albums of all time was simply to counter claims that the music of people like the beboppers or Davis or Coltrane led inevitably to a loss of popularity. However, high record sales don’t make these good recordings; nor, if they had sold poorly would they have been bad music on that count.

The high popularity of these recordings and of fusion jazz in the early 1970s is of anthropological or sociological interest as a cultural phenomenon. In terms of artistic merit, though, the recordings exist objectively as aesthetic objects independent of their high or low popularity.

Democracy and Capitalism

Patricia Cohen has an interesting essay on democracy and capitalism published by the International Herald Tribune.

Here's the link:

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Humans as Predators

Science Daily has posted an interesting article: "The Fisherman is a Predator like any Other."

The article reports on a recent study of commercial fishers off the coast of Peru, specifically studying their movements over the sea in search of their prey (in this case anchovies) over a period of a few years. The researchers compared the search strategies of the human fishers with those of non-human predators searching for prey (the article specifically mentions albatrosses and seals) and found that the search strategies employed by all the predators, humans included, paralleled one another.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Art, Black Art, and Seriousness in Bebop

In my previous post ("Vitriol and Jazz"), I addressed among other things what I see as inaccurate characterizations of bebop and later jazz in Clive James’ recent book Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts.

At the same time, James does have some interesting arguments about the motivations behind the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other bebop musicians during the 1940s.

James rightly points out that these musicians were concerned with producing music that could be taken seriously as art. Also, given the realities of race in America at the time, and given the perception at the time and now of jazz as “black music,” they were also concerned to produce a legitimate black art. James sees all of this as important, good, and laudable.

James deals adeptly with something that requires a certain sensitivity and care. On the one hand, jazz is black music in the sense that historically the vast majority of prominent jazz musicians have been black, and the individuals who most profoundly shaped and transformed the music have been almost exclusively black. My own highly partial (in both senses of the word) list would include Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman. There have been prominent and important white jazzmen (and it has been mostly men’s music) – Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, and Jaco Pastorius just to get started – but the names on the second list don’t carry quite the same historic weight as those on the first. On the other hand, jazz has no color. After all, it’s comprised of sound. As James points out, Armstrong recognized Beiderbecke not as a good white trumpet player, but simply as a good trumpet player. There’s nothing inherently racial about the music itself – and to go that route leads to a reduction of art to racial essentialism and stereotype.

So, jazz has been simultaneously black music in a sociological or historical sense and without essential or inherent basis in race in an ontological sense. It’s easy to over- or under-emphasize either point.

To get back to an earlier point, James rightly points out that among the concerns of Parker, Gillespie, et al. was to produce music that was art and music that was black art. James is ambivalent about the results. He sees the price of legitimacy as art being a seriousness to the music, with a loss of joy and spontaneity.

I have two reactions to this. The first was a major topic of my previous post. I don’t think this accurately characterizes bebop. While Parker, Gillespie, and others were clearly serious about making music, this doesn’t mean they did so without a sense of humor and that their music is all work and no play. Again, song titles like “Scrapple from the Apple” or “Disorder at the Border” should tip us off, and if that’s not enough, listen to the music. As I’ve written about before (see "Free Jazz and the End of the History of Jazz" and "The End of the History of Music"), one of the qualities of bebop, especially embodied in a soloist the caliber of Parker, is that the individual soloist, by improvising using the notes of the chord changes rather than embellishing and varying a more structured melody, is even more freed in improvisation than in previous forms of jazz – and joy and spontaneity were a big part of this in the hands of Gillespie and Parker.

Second, while the characterization of the beboppers as concerned to produced art is accurate, it does beg the question why jazz musicians would suddenly be concerned with producing art. The unstated implication is that Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington weren’t trying to make art – they were just making entertaining dance music. Well, they were concerned with making entertaining dance music, but they were also concerned with artistry – and it’s for their superior artistry that they’re important in the history of jazz and art. (Just think how many swing band leaders made entertaining dance music that is barely remembered if at all now.) Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were interested in making art, but they were also interested in making entertaining music (albeit not so much dance music). There are clear and important differences in the music of Armstrong and Ellington and the beboppers, but their motivations as artists and entertainers doesn’t seem so distinct to me.

Which brings us to another point James argues. James sees bebop as the beginning of the erosion of the popularity of jazz – again because they became such serious artists. However, if earlier musicians were also seriously interested in artistry (and I think it’s clear they were), and if the beboppers weren’t actually so stern and serious (and they clearly weren’t), then this starts to seem not so convincing.

I’d say that James is here confusing correlation and causation. The bebop period of the mid-1940s into the 1950s is associated with a period of waning popularity for jazz (even though it remained a fairly popular genre).

Part of the wane in popularity may have stemmed from the new sound and “difficulty” of bebop (I've written before about the topic of "difficulty," though with regard to ethnographic writing. See "Difficulty in Ethnographic Writing." In that post, I was largely drawing upon "Defining Difficulty in Poetry" on "Reginald Shepherd's Blog."). Certainly more difficult music will tend to appeal less broadly. The music of Harry Partch or Karlheinz Stockhausen will probably never have a very large audience. During the 1960s, the more accessible music of Cannonball Adderley had a much larger audience than that of the more difficult Cecil Taylor.

But there are other, more important, causes for the ultimate decline in jazz’s popularity. Swing jazz had been the music of youth throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. By the mid-1940s, swing was identified by youth as the music of the previous generation. It was no longer hip and young and was giving way to newer genres, such as rhythm and blues, and ultimately rock and roll.

Richard Rorty, 1931 - 2007

Richard Rorty has died. The pragmatist philosopher was one of the most prominent American philosophers of the past several decades. A relativist (in the sense that he did not think that the systems of thought of any historical or cultural context could be conclusively shown superior to others) without being a nihilist, attacked by critics on the left and right, he was an important proponent of liberal democracy and the possibilities of critical and moral judgement. Above all, he was an always engaging thinker.

This link is to an obituary in the New York Times:

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Vitriol and Jazz

I recently discussed Clive James’ book Cultural Amnesia . It’s a book I admire for its pithy and engaging discussions of many important cultural figures in all areas of human activity. There is one part of the book, though, that’s been bugging me, and that’s his occasional discussions of music, jazz especially.

I don’t take issue with James’ taste in jazz, though they differ from mine. James has a clear preference for 1930s and early 1940s swing, with an especial fondness for the Duke Ellington band of 1940-41. He’s ambivalent about mid-1940s bebop, in some ways expressing fondness for Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and in other ways taking issue with them. He clearly loathes what came after, Miles Davis and John Coltrane especially. I, too, like the early stuff – the Ellington crew of the early 1940s is one of the best, swingingest bands of all time, but for me the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s was the golden era of jazz, and the following decade up through the mid-1970s was great, too. For that matter, there’s a boatload of current jazz I’m quite fond of. But I figure, to each their own.

What I take issue with in James’ discussion of the beboppers and of Davis and Coltrane is not his preferences but some of his claims about them and the vitriol with which he rejects Davis and Coltrane.

Parker and Gillespie stand accused of taking the spontaneous joy out of jazz and of producing music without clearly discernible rhythm. The rhythm question first – sometimes James clarifies that they didn’t play danceable rhythms. That’s true to some extent. Certainly bebop wasn’t dance music in the way that swing was. I’m not sure how that devalues bebop, though – that’s a bit like claiming that Mozart and Beethoven produced inferior music as they moved away from the tradition of courtly dance music. Other times, though, James claims that bebop was characterized by rhythm sections that didn’t keep the time, being freed up instead for melodic improvisation. It was the case that some rhythm instruments, e.g. the bass, were more freed up for improvisation than in earlier forms of jazz. But listen to a recording like the May, 1945 recording of “Salt Peanuts” by Dizzy Gillespie and His All Star Quintet (Gillespie: trumpet; Parker: alto sax; Al Haig: piano; Curly Russell: bass; Sid Catlett: drums). Curly Russell’s bass lays down a rhythm that’s loud and clear and can’t be missed.

The notion that Parker, Gillespie and the other beboppers took the joy and spontaneity out of music is simply baffling to me. These were musicians who played and recorded songs with titles like “Salt Peanuts,” “Scrapple from the Apple,” “Pickin’ the Cabbage,” “Disorder at the Border,” and “He Beeped when he Shoulda Bopped.” They took their musicianship seriously, but they also had a sense of humor. The expression of joy and spontaneity might have been different than in swing, but it was there – and not so subtly there either.

James seems to see no merit at all in the work of Davis or Coltrane. He is most vitriolic in his discussion of Coltane (located in his essay on Ellington). Again there is the charge of lack of discernible rhythm. There is also a claim for Coltrane’s having committed ritual murder on helpless standards – which is really a bit much, even while James’ writing is always engaging.

There are many instances when Coltrane’s playing was loud or gruff or not pretty (though it was usually beautiful in its own way). At the same time, there was much that was lyrical and tender in Coltrane’s music. “In a Sentimental Mood” (on the Duke Ellington and John Coltrane album) and “Lush Life” (on the John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman album) are two of the most lyrical and conventionally beautiful versions of jazz standards ever recorded. The 1963 recording of “Alabama” (on the Live at Birdland album – even though “Alabama” was actually a studio recording added to the mostly live album) does more to evoke the simultaneous melancholy, tragedy, and hopefulness of the Civil Rights era South than any other music I’ve heard through the at times strong, at times fragile and quavering tone of Coltrane’s horn.

I would disagree with the claim that Coltrane’s music lacked rhythm as strongly as I disagree with the same claim for the beboppers. The claim is simply not true. Much of Coltrane’s music is largely about rhythmic exploration. In his later music (say 1965-1967), the rhythm is often highly complex and diffuse. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea to be sure, but there’s a definite propulsion to recordings like “Sun Ship.” Or take the example of “Ascension.” “Ascension” is an album length free improvisation for eleven musicians – think of it as a big band where everyone’s freely improvising. It’s not easy or background listening. It’s definitely not dance music. It really doesn’t have any easily discernible rhythm. Still, the first time I ever listened to this recording I was riveted. By the time it was half way through, I was possessed, unable to restrain myself from jumping up and down and yelling. This music literally moved me, and any music that can do that is powerfully communicating. It won’t communicate to everyone, or even many people perhaps, but then simple popularity is no good way to weigh the worth of a work of art.

James’ sometimes vitriolic reaction to Coltrane reminds me of the similarly strong reactions and rejections that are common with regard to Miles Davis’ “electric period” of the late 1960s through mid-1970s (when Davis’ band included multiple electric instruments, often including electronic modification of his trumpet’s sound), as well as to other developments in jazz in the 1960s and 1970s, such as free jazz and/or jazz-rock fusion.

A few examples:

1. On the DVD Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue, about half of which is documentary footage of Davis’ band’s performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival (which alone is more than worth watching the video for), and about half of which is a documentary about Davis’ electric period, one of the interviewees is Stanley Crouch, who is almost always insightful and always entertaining. He likens his attempts to listen to the album Bitches Brew as a young man to being hit repeatedly in the head with a hammer over and over and over. It’s a quite amusing bit, but it’s also a bit much.

2. In Episode Ten (the final episode) of Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary, cultural critic Gerald Early (who I had found one of the most insightful commentators throughout the ten part series up until that point) makes a number of problematic comments, again about Miles Davis’ electric bands. As with James, I don’t take issue with Early’s taste. If he, or Crouch for that matter, don’t care for Davis’ electric period, that’s fine. However, like James (but actually not like Crouch), some of Early’s characterization is simply inaccurate. He claims that the music of the Davis electric bands tended to “fall apart” musically. I would direct anyone interested again to the Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue video, specifically to the performance footage from the Isle of Wight Festival. The rhythm section of Dave Holland on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drum kit, and Airto Moreira on percussion present one of the tightest performances I’ve seen. No one has to like Davis’ music from this period, but he always insisted on musicianship of highest caliber. Early’s other claim that the music was like “tennis without a net,” i.e. Davis had set his standards lower than before, seems to me similarly groundless.

3. Episode Ten of Ken Burns' Jazz in general represents one big slap at avant-garde or electric jazz in general. Many others have critiqued this episode. One particularly insightful commentary is that of David R. Adler on the All About Jazz website.The episode left a bad taste in my mouth after the highly enjoyable first nine episodes.

Fusion is written off as if it didn’t exist at all, but Cecil Taylor, the avant-garde pianist, takes a mauling. As Adler points out, he’s the only artist in the entire ten episode arc who is systematically attacked with no balance. Most egregiously, Branford Marsalis accuses him of engaging in “self-indulgent bullshit.”

I understand that not everyone likes the same music. As I’ve written before (See my earlier posts: "Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and the Experience of Art" and "Reading, Looking, Listening"), I also understand that when people encounter music they don’t like, they often have a visceral reaction against it. Music affects us bodily in a way that other art doesn’t tend to do, and if it’s music you don’t like, it can be a highly unpleasant experience.

Still, there’s something more at play. Jazz is a musical genre that’s also highly invested with identity. There are not only many people who are highly passionate about jazz (count me in that category, obviously) but whose identity is wrapped up in jazz. For some, when jazz musicians begin to play in ways that don’t fit a certain notion of jazz (and arguments about what jazz is can be as engaging and endless as arguments about what barbecue is), beyond not liking the music, they clearly feel betrayed – and that seems to be a big part of the sometimes vitriolic reactions to Coltrane, Davis, Taylor, Ornette Coleman or others.

Even so, I’m unable to understand the continuing extreme reactions now to music that was performed or recorded thirty or forty years ago. I can understand the visceral rejection of Ornette Coleman in 1959 or of Miles Davis’ electric music in 1969. But at this point, if listening to Bitches Brew is like being hit in the head with a hammer, turn it off. It’s not like we’re bombarded with constant John Coltrane or Cecil Taylor recordings everywhere we go these days (and it wasn’t the case in 1965 either).

I’d like to close by calling attention to a post on Reginald Shepherd’s blog calling for more civility and less vitriol in public and online discourse generally. He’s addressing this issue with regard to online poetry discourse, but his general points apply to discussions of jazz, arts and culture in general, and a variety of other topics. Here I’ll quote his final paragraph:

“The situation I discuss is but a minor and marginal example of the general degradation of discourse in contemporary American culture (what Al Gore calls the assault on reason), a process seemingly designed to disengage people from sociality. In this case, however, I would like to point out that the enemy, if an enemy is required (as it seems to be), is not other poets, however different their aesthetic dispositions (I am opposed to John Barr, for example, not as a poet but as a polemicist with, as he put it in The New Yorker, a bully pulpit), but a culture and an economy of scarcity—of money, of resources, of attention, of recognition professional and personal—that pits people in the society as a whole and in any given social subset against one another in a zero-sum competition for crumbs of a shrinking economic and social pie precisely in order to prevent them from cooperating in changing the reward/withhold/punish system some profit from, some rail against (some of these are actually suffering and some just don’t want to admit that they’re profiting too), and most are actively harmed by. Those engaged in the constant turf wars with which the online poetry world in particular is rife might do well to recognize that their mock battles in tempestuous teapots are the direct result, indeed can accurately be described as symptoms of, this economy of scarcity. The energy expended in these toy gladiator contests might be put to more productive uses .”