Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and John Corigliano have all used music to promote social commentary, but these are all individuals who use their talents to create great music and see it performed. To the Great American Culture Machine, music is still mainly seen as a pastime marketed primarily to sexually frustrated adolescents with enough money to buy new product.
Though luckily there were no drug cartel-associated mass murders in Monterrey as their had been on the opening night of last year’s festival and again on the morning after the last performance, this year’s Encuentro Internacional de Jazz y Música Viva was framed by its own internal controversy that emerged from its saxophone competition.
Tuesday was International Jazz Day (IJD) and marked the end of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), a title that April has held since JAM was launched by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 2002. JAM website’s FAQ page includes the question, “Why is [JAM] needed?” The answer includes the idea that “JAM will encourage people to take jazz more seriously as a vital part of America’s cultural patrimony.”
Drummer Pete “La Roca” Sims, a man who exemplified a philosophy of music that ran counter to the corporate culture that established and disseminated jazz as America’s music, lost his battle with lung cancer at the age of 74 on Monday, November 19. Best known as the original drummer in the John Coltrane Quartet, Sims later also played an important role in jazz history as a lawyer, assisting attorney Paul Chevigny in changing New York City’s oppressive cabaret laws in the 1980s.
Playing music interpreted from even the most detail-oriented notation includes elements of improvisation (especially when sight reading). So improvisation is ubiquitous; it always comes down to a matter of degree. But we live in a world where things are most easily explained or taught in relation to binaries, such as: good/bad, high/low, left/right, or right/wrong.
The daily routine of Encuentro de International de Musicos makes it somewhat difficult to sightsee or go shopping for souvenirs. Every day, our group of ten musicians is scheduled to rehearse from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. with workshops being conducted from 3-6 p.m. and, since Wednesday, concerts from 8-10 p.m.
I knew little about Wadada Leo Smith, other than that I wanted to know more about him. I was blown away by his clear and direct explanation of his musical philosophy and his method for composing long forms that allow for the greatest creative involvement by the performer vis-à-vis the performer’s simultaneous interpretation of Smith’s “musical language,” Ankhrasmation.
I don’t believe that music, as it exists in our world today, is a language in the true sense of the word—that it’s capable of communicating any part of our thoughts or intentions with any level of precision. But I do think that, like language, music is culturally significant and “belongs” to societal units (villages, tribes, institutions, etc.) and enhances our ability to communicate.
One of the great things about playing music like this is how the performers leave the concert with new eyes and ears. Although Harvey Sorgen and I have known about each other for a while, we had never played together before (that I can remember, anyway) and we both found ourselves playing things we normally wouldn’t in a “free-jazz” setting. Part of that was each of us just seeing what the other would do when presented with an impromptu “motive” and part was the discovery of what we can do well together.