“Now the Billy Taylor Trio, with Charlie Mingus on bass, Marquis Foster on drums, and, on piano, a man who has a mastery of metre and metaphor equivalent, in another field, to, let’s say, Marianne Moore. Anyway, here’s a problem in emotionally-applied semantics – ‘What is this thing Called Love’?”
Recently, I happened to be listening to a recording of Billy Taylor’s Trio, performing at Storyville in 1951, in which Nat Henthoff makes the preceding announcement. Notice anything unusual about it? Does the comparison of a jazz musician with a renowned poet stand out at all?
I’m sure that some people’s first reactions will be to scoff at Henthoff’s pretentiousness, to assume that he has somehow gone too far, has overreached in his claims for the music– that he has given jazz the sort of status which it should not claim. Yes, they’ll grant you Kerouac – he was openly influenced by jazz, and, after all, there was some sort of equivalence between a jazz solo and the improvisational flow of his writing. He did coin the term ‘spontaneous bop prosody’ after all. But, beyond that 50s Beat milieu, you’d better stay in your boxes – if jazz is art, it’s not art with a capital A. It’s as if there’s a worry that jazz will somehow become tainted by ‘high art’ and lose its earthiness, its popular appeal (although anyone with the faintest grasp on reality should realize that the days when jazz was a popular music are long gone). What a lot of musicians and critics seem afraid of above all is pretentiousness – pretending to a status which it isn’t theirs to claim.
I won’t deny that there are problems with Henthoff’s lofty comparison: for instance, the use of the word ‘metaphor’- how can that work musically? In relation to a form so fundamentally abstract, it seems a little odd to describe one (abstract) thing in terms of another (abstract) thing – although that’s not to deny that sounds have resonances beyond their immediately heard qualities (the inflection of content by form, as in M.L. Gasparov’s concept of the ‘semantic halo’ that surrounds particular poetic forms, imbuing the words they contain with meanings beyond those of the words themselves). There’s also a slightly uncomfortable mixture of the ‘high’ – the trio’s performance is described as “musical anacrostics”, Taylor as “the prolific composer, expert on ragtime, mambo, Bach fugues and James Joyce” – with the ‘low’, and the hipsterish slang of such formulations as “this is a story about a chick called ‘Laura’.”
Still, whatever the nuances Henthoff overlooked when making Billy Taylor the jazz equivalent of Marianne Moore, I can think of few people who would dare to make such comparisons today, unless in very generalized terms, where any poet, from Shakespeare to Eliot, would do. (An exception would be someone like Brian Morton, as attested by his piece in a recent edition of Bill Shoemaker’s wonderful online journal Point of Departure, in which he talks about the kinship between Steve Lacy and Robert Creeley.)
Of course, there is jazz/poetry crossover, but it tends to occur more in avant-garde realms – Steve Dalachinsky, who’s worked with Matthew Shipp and John Tchicai – or, in the world of free improv –Derek Bailey’s reading out of excerpts from Peter Riley’s poetry while playing guitar on ‘Takes Fakes and Dead She Dances’. Furthermore, such collaborations are more often than not ignored, much in the same way that adventurous British poetry of the 60s and beyond, by the likes of Riley, J.H. Prynne and Tom Raworth, was confined to small presses and a limited readership of devoted admirers (which enabled its opponents to criticize it as elitist, though they were actually the ones suppressing it). Too obscure for the majority of people to have even heard of it, and too oppositional, too serious for the ‘sophisticated’ purveyors of taste, it found itself in an uncomfortable no-man’s land, much in the same way that ‘serious’ jazz does today.
To look at the issue from a slightly different angle, let’s consider the relationship between jazz and another form that is generally considered ‘high art’: classical music. Concerts often showcase the jazz-influenced works of Gershwin, Milhaud or Leonard Bernstein, but do not focus on arguably far more serious fusions by the likes of the AACM musicians or other adventurously-minded artists. When was the last time the token jazz concert at the BBC Proms featured compositions by Anthony Braxton or Ornette Coleman? It’s as if the classical establishment want to re-assure themselves that jazz doesn’t pose a serious challenge to the supremacy of classical music, while on the other hand jazzers are happy to go along with this because they don’t want to seem ‘stuffy’ or ‘elitist’. If Nigel Kennedy wants to get “down with the kids”, he plays jazz. If Gwylim Simcock wants to seem a little bit clever, he writes a piano concerto (and receives praise for being “classically-trained,” as if that automatically makes him better than a mere jazzer). But, apart from these compromise efforts (and more worthy ventures such as the gritty, punchy compositions of Mark-Anthony Turnage), little meaningful common-ground is found between the two genres. Furthermore, at a time when post-modern academics are writing tomes of jargon on Madonna or cock rock, one might expect jazz to be given some serious attention, but, no – jazz gets ignored once again.
So, it seems to me that we just don’t have, in the main, a sense of jazz as art. By this, I don’t mean art as a monolithic concept which can only exist at the expense of entertainment, or accessibility – though, of course, that latter, frequently-used term begs the question, ‘accessible to whom?’ (as well as, ‘who dictates this access?’).
Tim Berne’s comments on a recent edition of BBC Radio 3′s ‘Jazz Library’ connect with these issues – talking about his own music, which is arguably far more ‘difficult’ than Billy Taylor’s, he argued that he sees it as a product, not as art. “It’s a product. I want my music heard.” He was talking about this in relation to the positive steps taken by artist-controlled labels, such as Artistshare, and, at first, my reaction was that, if these labels are controlled by the artists, then surely this means that they should be not dictated to by the ‘needs’ (read ‘wants’) of the market-place, by what some label head wants to push on them – that they can create the music they want. I realise that musicians have to deal with realities – no jazz musician, especially who creates such complex music as Berne, has enough money to survive simply doing what they want. Yet, from Berne’s comment, it seems that the necessity of making money and shifting product seeps in and infects the very idea of music’s importance– value now becomes monetary value only, rather than something beyond that. An artistic statement is judged by how much money it sells for, rather than for saying something about human experience (or constituting a human experience in itself).
Musician Joe Higham makes some perceptive comments on an online message board: “If you look around at the music/arts scene it’s less about the music and more about marketing and subsidies – check out Jazzwise to see all the ‘now on a UK tour … subsidised by’….etc. Look at MySpace, YouTube, personal websites and of course jazz mags such as Jazzwise: you’ll notice how everything is moving in this direction – i.e. glossy with not always so much content, self publicity & hard sell. Looking at MySpace you’ll notice how some groups who are almost unknown are doing extensive tours of Europe through plenty of ‘chatch’ on the telephone, subsidies, old boy connections (Berkley etc) and the like. In general the music is fairly average, but the public doesn’t seem to notice as they are also sold on the marketing coming at them via websites et al – and so it goes!”
There’s not the equivalent sense in classical music – well, perhaps it is creeping in with the increasing focus on marketable, good-looking opera singers (cue photo-shoots, low-cut dresses, copious amounts of make-up) or on ‘crossover artists’ like string quartet Bond (remember them?) and Il Divo. But, in the main, it still takes its role seriously. As Berne hints, we live in a consumerist society where the realities of the situation mean a focus on money at the expense (no pun intended) of everything else. But no one suggests that we should consider the latest recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle as a ‘product’ rather than as art. So why does jazz feel the need to subsume itself so totally to the reductive demands of capitalist machinery?
I realize that it may seem strange for the editor of a magazine which devotes a large part of its space to reviews of ‘product’, to espouse such an anti-product viewpoint. Yet I would still argue that, while the ‘product culture’ may be inescapable (even if I find it repulsive how some embrace the glitzy festival circuit), jazz must preserve its integrity. To aim for the same kind of success enjoyed by pop musicians is to aim for something long gone, for something in the past. Society has ‘progressed’/ regressed past that stage, and it often feels like it will only be satisfied with the lamest soul-sapping shit. So pehaps musicians should just get on with the process of making art – sure, it can be entertaining (though I do have a problem with the constant stigmatization of the term ‘highbrow’, as if it was one of the items on George Carlin’s dirty words list!), but it has to have seriousness of purpose too.
One way of avoiding this product problem is the setup of the so-called net-labels, which distribute artists’ recordings for free as high-quality MP3s, along with artwork. There are also CD-R labels, like Jordan Schrantz’ Tiger Asylum, which tread half-way between the ephemerality of the digital download and the physical ‘thing-ness’ of the CD – to an extent (we still don’t really know how effective CD-Rs will prove to be as a long-term means of storing information), they emphasise a lack of durability, that the recording is only a snapshot of a living music. As Amiri Baraka wrote of Albert Ayler, the recordings were only ‘rumours’ of what he sounded like live. And he wasn’t just talking about Ayler – he was also saying that jazz is living music, that music moves in time, that it can’t be commodified and made into product because it is more transient and transcendent than that; it cannot be a lifestyle accessory, or should not, anyway.
Will you remember their names
or do they have no names
No lives-only products
to be used when you wanta
dance fuck & cry
(Jayne Cortez, ‘How Long has Trane Been Gone?’)
Music loses it soul when it becomes a lifestyle choice, like buying a new sofa, a new tube of toothpaste or a bar of soap. “The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal,” raps Gil Scott-Heron on the still-relevant ‘The Revolution will not be Televised’ – but it’s almost as if that’s exactly what it would be expected to do if it came around, and the artists are buying into that. The idea that art could be politically relevant is considered almost taboo (beyond the Geldoff/Bono ‘let’s all wave our arms in the air and feel good about ourselves because we care about all those poor starving African babies, and about the planet, so we’re going to haul up some huge energy bills to show that’) – hence the pieces on art and politics in this issue.
Returning to the net- and CD-R labels, I must make clear that am not wholeheartedly advocating them as the future of jazz and improvised music. Often, there’s little quality control, so what gets released is variable, but at least it allows the work to be heard – and that work is just as often as good, if not better, than the ‘product’ released on major labels.
It also connects with some of the issues raised in George Lewis’ seminal new history of the AACM, ‘A Power Stronger than Itself’ (reviewed at length later in this issue), particularly those relating to collectivism, shared interest and communality. As Lewis notes, jazz and related forms of improvised music provide a model which is at once both strongly individualistic and strongly collective – something which political systems fail to match, invariably having to deal with the problems caused by the two being in conflict.
To an extent, the internet provides a political model as well, with the possibility for groups of like-minded people to gather together without regard to national, geographical and racial boundaries (Steve Coleman’s written very persuasively on this, in an article I touched on during the previous issue). There’s also the vast availability of shared information: to take one instance, a new FTP project, the Free Jazz Research group, has recently been set up by blogger Pierre Crépon. Users share their private collections, thus giving access to material that would otherwise be very hard to obtain: rare interviews and articles, in English and French, from magazines such as Cadence, Jazz Hot and Downbeat, which provide information about little-documented figures such as Marzette Watts and Alan Shorter.
The possibilities of technology, and of the internet in particular, could be very positive – it seems that the jazz and improv community hasn’t really embraced them to the full yet, although ventures such as the aforementioned Free Jazz Research group, the various net labels, and the ‘sharity’ blogs showcased in Issue 1 of ‘eartrip’, suggest interesting directions for the future. With that in mind, this issue makes something more of the interactive nature possible with a digital publishing format – thus, one of the articles is not really an ‘article’ at all, but a stream-of-consciousness MP3 file in which Anthony Whiteford, whose piece on Cecil Taylor in the previous issue provoked some strong reactions, talks about the relation between politics and music in his life. This is designed to accompany Sean Bonney’s essay on similar issues.
There’s also going to be more of a focus on music coming out on the smaller labels, as well as alternative formats – music distributed as internet downloads, often for free (by net-labels like Clinical Archives), or handed out at gigs, where the money goes directly to the artists. This means that you might not recognize some of the names in the review section – but that doesn’t mean their music isn’t worth hearing. Listening to albums for review in this issue reminded me just how much great music there is, still being created – it’s easy to fall into a rather melancholy analysis of the current scene if looking solely at the jazz mainstream, but, prod under the surface and all manner of thought-provoking and life-enhancing wonders spill out.
I’ll just pop in a quick round-up of what you can expect in the following pages. There are also a couple of interviews, with bassist Hugh Hopper, and with pianist Alexander Hawkins; one musician who has been on the scene since the 60s, and one who is just emerging as one of the most striking voices of his generation, both with unique things to say and unique ways of expressing them (both musically and in these interviews). In the gig reviews section, there are reports on a saxophone giant Wayne Shorter’s return to the UK, as well as a gig by Mr Hawkins’ new ensemble. And there are CD reviews aplenty, including the follow-up to fORCH’s ‘spin networks’ (which was one of eartrip’s 2007 discs of the year) and some tasty free jazz reissues.
Finally, the response to eartrip, issue 1, seems to have been positive, with the general consensus being an endorsement of its large scope and length. Some criticisms have also been raised: for instance, someone pointed out to me some contentious statements I’d made in some of my own writing. I still believe that what I was trying to say was valid, but I acknowledge that the way I expressed it was crude and appeared simplistic – just the sort of thing ‘eartrip’ sets out to avoid! What ‘eartrip’ does not seek, however, is a bland uniformity of opinion. This magazine is not meant to exist in a vacuum: it’s meant to stimulate debate and make its readers think about the topics it addresses, whether you agree or disagree with them. For me, it’s great that one piece can be described, in the space of a couple of days, as both one of the best and one of the worst pieces of writing on music that the respective readers had encountered! So keep letting me know what you think – suggestions for improvements, arguments with things that have been written in the magazine, and so on.
Comments are always welcome; there were a pleasingly high number of responses to the first issue, and it would be great to know how the second is received as well. So, send your suggestions, corrections and thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to David Grundy, 17 Avenue Road, Old Town, Swindon, Wiltshire, SN1 4BZ.
Some more things: writers are still very much required (as you’ll probably notice, I’m still writing most of the CD reviews) – for articles, for gig, CD, book and DVD reviews, for any idea you think might be suitable for ‘eartrip’. It takes me a long time to get the issues together, so, the more people I have to help in the contributions department, the more quickly new issues of ‘eartrip’ can pop onto your computer screens. And keep on sending CDs for review, to the address listed above – they’re very much appreciated, and I’m pretty certain to review almost all of them at some point.