Dec 8, 2013
A Study of the Worldly Art of Jazz
Posted on Sep 3, 2010
They give due weight to life stories, although these tend towards the anodyne. About Charles Mingus’s autobiography Beneath the Underdog, they say “As a memoirist, he brought new insights into the tribulations of African-American artists trying to surmount the constrictions of prejudice”. That’s not how I remember the scene in the Mexican brothel. These were people with nicknames like Bags, Bing, Bix, Bean, Bird, Bubber and Bunk, complicated people who led complicated lives, and loved to tell stories about each other (the authors must know hundreds about Miles Davis alone) often with a sardonic edge (Zoot Sims on Stan Getz: “A great bunch of guys”). I could have done with more like the one about Johnny Hodges, who left the Ellington band for a time “partly out of irritation with Ellington’s habit of appropriating musical ideas—during a tune he felt was actually his own, Hodges would mimic counting out money onstage”. That the careers of Hodges and Ellington were intertwined is obvious to a jazz fan, but for someone fresh to the field, such humanizing anecdotes are essential.
Here is why jazz players love the blues: it is the perfect box to break out of, the most restrictive of musical forms. A composer of Gregorian chant had more freedom than someone trying to write a blues. The number of measures is specified; so are certain chords that must be cycled through; and their temporal position; the tonic chord, defying every rule of harmonic theory, is voiced like the aforementioned dominant seventh, yet still seems final. (How this works remains a mystery.) Performing is another matter. In traditional blues songs there are gaps for improvisation after every line (the singer says “I bought me a coffee grinder, the best one I could find” and the player has two bars in which to improvise a response—one which will probably indicate that she’s not really talking about coffee) and in a jazz performance the song provides the framework for any number of improvised solos. This reveals the secret of jazz performance: First, construct a box. Second, break out of it. In so doing the musician enacts a moment of liberation.
This may be a politically charged term, but surely everyone needs some liberating. It’s obvious Louis Armstrong needed liberation from the mean streets of New Orleans, less obvious that his playing would prove liberating for Philip Larkin in a posh enclave of provincial Coventry. The problem facing Giddins and DeVeaux in their closing chapters is: what happens when jazz has been tamed and civilized and turned into a classical music? What price liberation now, when twenty-first-century jazz seems to be chasing its own tail, “plagued with countless tributes, recreations, and variations on its past”?
The book itself is evidence of a remarkable kind of calm, after all the polemic that once engulfed writing about jazz. The only polemic the authors indulge in is a ritual baiting of so-called smooth jazz—“There are many things to dislike about smooth jazz—for example, everything”. But Kenny G. is everyone’s favourite target. The old passions of swing vs bop, hot vs cool, avant-garde vs everything, seem to have dissipated. Is this peace and consolation, and calm of mind, all passion spent? Or has some of the passion departed the art form along with the polemic? I find it hard to share in the authors’ confidence that “others will continue to forge daring explorations”—the flatness of that phrase makes me doubt how strongly they believe it themselves—but here on the ground, in the bars and the concert halls (I have tickets to hear Eliane Elias on Saturday), great things are still being done.
Stephen Brown’s CD of solo jazz piano music, “Sweet Lorraine,” was released in 2009. He is emeritus professor of music at Southern Illinois University and author of “The Sense of Music,” 1988.
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