Oooh, Whatta Week!

I caught a bug of some variety that had me in bed from Sunday to Thursday. I don’t think I was awake for more than a couple of hours at a time for the whole five days. It broke just in time for me to make an all-day mixing session of the recording that Denman Maroney, Bob Meyer, and I made last month, but I didn’t get to work on the blog at all. In fact, I was starting to worry about what to write about until I got a notice from the Institute for Jazz Studies (located at Rutgers University, Newark Campus) announcing that their journal publication, Journal of Jazz Studies (formerly Annual Review of Jazz Studies), is now available for free on-line.

My cursory look-see at the current issue made me think about my posts over the last two weeks. I have been attempting to address the problem of sustaining balance between issues of generic authenticity and political awareness in jazz improvisation. I’ve received great comments, especially pointing out how jazz is being marketed as a fossil art of the 20th century, a somewhat ironic demise of the Pleasants paradigm. I, of course, don’t see jazz as such. I believe that it is far from becoming a dead art or cultural form, even if sales of its CDs aren’t breaking any records!

What struck me in the current Jazz Studies issue (go here to see it) is the inclusion of a lecture by Alan Forte from 1958, “The Development of Diminutions in American Jazz.” In it, Forte uses Schenkerian analysis to conclude that the stylistic evolution of jazz improvisation, “within its limited scope,” in some way mirrored the development of Western musical composition. It’s odd that he sees jazz as having developed in an “almost complete separation from the main stream of composed music,” especially when one considers the amount of formal instrumental training jazz players undertake. Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, and Jelly Roll Morton all studied music from an early age before being locked out of the academy that Forte was speaking to, not to mention the vast amount of “legitimate” knowledge brought to the table by the likes of Charles Mingus, Stan Kenton, Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Mary Lou Williams, or George Russell. To read passages like—

Current diminution practices in jazz, curiously enough, tend toward conservatism. Chromaticism is much less prevalent now than ten years ago. This may reflect the consciously accepted influence of composed contemporary music of the so-called “neo-classic” school, since jazz players have made a determined effort to achieve respectability in recent years by attempting to associate themselves with the main stream of contemporary musical development. Their efforts in this direction are usually futile and often pathetic. What is considered “progressive” technique in modern jazz circles is invariably outdated in serious music circles.

—would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that such ill-informed opinions were the foundations that the academic community of jazz studies was built on. It’s only recently that certain programs have been dedicated to rewriting this part of the academic canon in regards to jazz. I’m sure that Forte’s article, especially the idea that chromaticism in jazz is a result of the “blue note,” will be picked apart by the students in Lewis Porter’s historiography classes at Rutgers. At least I hope so.

That said, there are two book reviews included in Jazz Studies. One by Randy Sandke, “Unforgivable Whiteness,” examines Krin Gabbard’s Hotter Than That: The Trumpet, Jazz, and American Culture, in which the trumpet is described as a semiotic phallus icon. I won’t say much about it because reading makes my eyes roll and my sinuses are still tender from my bought with the bug. The other, by Dr. Henry Martin, “More Than Just Guide Tones: Steve Larson’s Analyzing Jazz—A Schenkerian Approach” owes its success to the author’s honesty about his relationship to the subject and the intent of his “review.” Martin (who was my theory professor at Rutgers) makes no bones that he is a colleague, collaborator, friend, and co-conspirator in Larson’s career of using Schenkerian technique to analyze jazz compositions and improvisations, and his review is more of an argument for his own approach to doing so than an endorsement of his subject’s. I, myself, see little value in using Schenkerian analysis, other than to hone one’s mastery of the process itself. Of course, any excuse for analyzing the works of the masters is good and will at least reveal something heretofore unknown, but I think that a solo is, in and of itself, an analysis of the situation it is performed in. The better the soloist, the more about the situation is revealed. In the best of them, one finds a connection to a culture that speaks about the culture of Alan Forte.

I remember one of the articles that Dr. Martin had us study was a pitch-class set analysis of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” On one of my too few visits to Coleman’s jam sessions (which I’ve heard are no longer extant), I saw a pile of notebooks filled with numbers that looked a lot like Forte pc-sets. But I don’t think this was a “futile” attempt at association. Coleman was hanging out and working with Gunther Schuller in the mid-fifties. I’m sure the two spoke about serial technique then. Still, when the name Ornette Coleman comes up in certain academic jazz circles, it seems to be an occasion to laugh (and I am guilty). But the last time I had the honor of playing at one of the sessions, I heard him play a blues that was so profound that the two horn players and myself were stunned into silence for several minutes after we left. In the couple of choruses played by Coleman, more was presented to us by way of musical analysis than any academic course can offer. It wasn’t in the notes, either. It was in the sound. And I don’t think a recording would capture it. Stravinsky was right: Music has to be seen.

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