Is It Real?

Thanks to everyone who commented on last week’s blog (I’ll do everything in English from now on, since it’s the only language my spell-checker recognizes!), the input has been great food for thought. But I’ve been swamped with projects at the moment (especially editing and mixing a recording project with Denman Maroney and Bob Meyer) and haven’t been able to take the time to add comments. So I’m using this week’s slot to respond to those comments (except the ones addressing German grammar) with broad strokes.

I know that I refer to jazz a lot. This is because it was my gateway into (1) improvisation, (2) applied harmony and voice leading, (3) my career, and (4) political awareness. A few years back Ken Burns released a “documentary” about jazz, Jazz. It remains controversial largely for its historical inaccuracies and for certain interviews that seem to contradict many of the series’ tenets (the discussion of Buddy Bolden’s tone, for instance). But the title of one episode, “Dedicated to Chaos,” used to introduce the section about the bebop era, made my head hit the ceiling. That’s because the strategies used to negotiate improvisation by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and Bud Powell (who Burns misrepresents by not exploring his seminal role in bebop piano playing, instead looking at Thelonious Monk as the working model – even though Monk wasn’t working too much at the time) were steeped in a ritual system of study and mastery of conventions intended to allow the artist’s “voice” carry the weight of authenticity. So, yes, jazz, the official indigenous art of the United States of America, has a much more detailed set of conventions than “so-called” (thank you for pointing that out) “free improvisation.”

But I disagree that jazz, in the big-picture sense, has “retired to an art music niche.” This is an illusion that the American Musical Culture Machine has perpetrated in order to maximize profits for a select few (as per the Scott Walker model). Jazz performances in the prestigious institutions of “legitimate” music are nothing new. Carnegie Hall hosted successful jazz performances in the late 1930s. (And they had a jazz band, led by Dizzy Gillespie’s protégé, Jon Faddis, before Jazz At Lincoln Center knocked them out of business.) Jazz continues to be performed, albeit less profitably than ever before, in thousands of more intimate venues around the country. The state of the economics of the jazz industry, if anything, is a microcosm of the nation it represents. As an example of this, I’ll play at St. Peter’s Church with Andrea Wolper tomorrow and then run downtown to play at The University of the Streets with David Lopato. One, a venerable institution now steeped in the modern jazz industry through its association with Duke Ellington and the Lutheran church, pays a somewhat reasonable stipend. The other, a community-based venue with a long history of presenting cutting-edge jazz, is a door gig.

One of the things that I see happening is that the American Musical Culture Machine (and, please, I’m NOT trying to cast aspersions on the American Music Center) is using jazz as a way to further the Founding Father’s agenda of erasing the indigenous cultures of the Western Hemisphere. Morton’s “Latin tinge” is a rhythmic expression of Taino drumming that is the underpinning of jazz, as well as Latin, musical improvisation. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. The AMCM is limiting the range of what can be considered “authentic” jazz with its flagship models, the JALC and Smithsonian Institute jazz bands (I can’t, in good conscience, call them orchestras). So the two musical models that Dvořák looked at, African American and Native American, has been whittled down to that of the European labor import. And the official models of that music exclude the developments of Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, that rallied around bassist Wilbur Ware (at least that’s what I thought I got from George Lewis’s book) or the Black Nationalist community in New York and St. Louis that so much of the modern free-improvisation community owes its spirit to.

Last year I played at a venue, that I can’t remember the name of, with trumpeters Herb Robertson and Lex Samu. We were playing real free-improv, no predetermined forms or stylisms, which is much harder to pull off than playing tunes, I think. At a point where the music reached that point that makes it “all worthwhile,” where synesthesia becomes the performers’ relationship with the art, someone yelled at us to start playing “rhythm.” He critiqued us quite generously, applauding our instrumental technique and harmonic approach, but thought we should get into something he could dance to. I wish someone had been recording it because the three of us stopped playing at the same time and yelled back at him, as if it were part of the performance. But I’ve been wondering ever since about issues of authenticity in so-called American music ever since.

… Compared to What?

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