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 .”

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