Wie Amerikanisch ist es?

One think I’ll say about improvisation in music is that it’s never easy. One would think that since the music is just being made up at the moment, that it would be a simple matter of playing whatever comes to mind. But that’s only the case when the parameters are understood by everyone involved and these parameters are often learned only through experience and isolated practice.

Last week’s question about improvisation as a vehicle for breaking through these parameters didn’t inspire much debate, although a bit more than the question about how composers might incorporate improvisation into their works. I tend to compose spring-boards for improvisation, which is the norm for someone who works primarily in a jazz-based milieu. But jazz is based primarily on extended instrumental and vocal techniques and often those who compose for jazz players find themselves writing music that doesn’t adhere to the original language of its tradition.

When blues players get together, they play the blues and it pretty much sounds like the music that the earliest blues players performed or, at least, like something that is heavily influenced by it. Jazz today, however, sounds very little like what the Original Dixieland Jass Band or the Hot Five, Hot Seven, or Fletcher Henderson played. Despite attempts by some to orchestrate a modern school that reconnects and draws new lines to an historical canon exclusively inclusive of the New Orleans tradition, there still exists a vast amount of new music that continues to reflect the breakaway models proposed by Eric Dolphy, Bob Brookmeyer, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Giuffre, Lennie Tristano, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans, or Cecil Taylor.

I bumped into one of the current elder statesmen of this tradition, Vinny Golia today. He is going to be performing throughout the next two weeks at John Zorn’s Stone performance space. He is part of the Southern California scene that produced Mark Dresser, Bobby Bradford, and David Murray who, whether they admit it or not, take their cue from Charles Mingus, who took his from Duke Ellington (although a healthy respect for Red Nichols and Raymond Scott is also evident).

As I get ready to play with Arturo O’Farrill at Puppets Jazz Bar on Saturday (information about my itinerary is available on my Facebook page), I wonder about traditions and parameters in improvised music and whether they can be delineated or broken. I think it was in 1996 that Bill Clinton signed a bill that declared jazz an “indigenous” American art and a “national treasure.” Jelly Roll Morton, who claimed to have invented jazz in 1902, said that in order for music to be called jazz it had to include a “Latin tinge.” Quis vilis is? Does O’Farrill jump farther out of “tradition” than, say, Cecil Taylor when playing the blues? Are the boundaries that fix the parameters of cultural America broader than those affixed to its socio-economical traps? Since Antonín Dvořák officially pointed the American music academy away from Europe as the fount that an original American music would spring, how vital has jazz become to the American musical culture machine? And more importantly, how vital has so-called Latin music become to it?

8 thoughts on “Wie Amerikanisch ist es?

  1. Troy Ramos

    Not to turn this into a German debate, but you’re both right. The adjective amerikanisch wouldn’t normally be capitalized. But I can kind of understand why it might feel right to do so in this context.

    But mclaren is right about the other element. Ich glaube, Herr Harris meinte ‘Wie’, nicht ‘Vie’ (unless it was a phonetical thing?). Tut mir leid, Herr Harris.

    In any case, yay for German (and improvisation)!

    Reply
  2. mclaren

    You’re talking about jazz but then again, jazz has expanded today to cover such a wide range (viz., Ornette Coleman) that it’s hard to draw a sharp line demarcating jazz from contemporary music.

    So when you mention that “One think I’ll say about improvisation in music is that it’s never easy,” it depends. Consider Pauline Oliveros’ guided improvisations. They seem easy enough for ordinary non-musicians and the result proves musical.

    Sure, but that’s not jazz, you might say. Fair enough. When you remark that “I wonder about traditions and parameters in improvised music and whether they can be delineated or broken” that covers a lot more ground than just jazz, so in this context Oliveros is fair game.

    In fact, some non-Western music cultures don’t even talk about “improvisation” because their entire art music consists of nothing else. India offers the supreme example here. An Indian musician would have no doubt that traditions and parameters in improvised music can be delineated, since that’s essentially what becoming a skilled musician in India boils down to. As to whether those traditions can be broken, well, in India they can be bent, but only so far. The West seems to have had a corner until recently on breaking traditions outright. That’s been changing as an increasing number of non-Western musicians have started blending Western musical practices from the avant garde with their native musical traditions.

    There’s such a wide range of improvisational practices in contemporary music that it’s hard to discuss ‘em as a single body of activity. Consider, for example, John Zorn’s game-based improvisations, which use sets of rules similar to strategy warfare games, directed by a sort of musical equivalent of a D&D “Dungeon Master.” That’s a very different sort of improvisation from the written fragments and simple rules used in Terry Riley’s “In C.”

    Improvisation in jazz typically uses a much more detailed set of conventions and rules than, for instance, so-called “free improvisation” — which in turn differs radically from progressively structured improvsiations. Some structured improvs specify time slots in which the performer can play anything (but only for that length of time), while other structured improvs specify notes but not rhythms, or rhythms but not notes, etc. On the edge of this kind of structured improvisation you get David Behrman’s or George Lewis’ algorithmic pieces in which a computer interacts with an improvising performer depending on certain rules. At the outer edges of that kind of improvisational interaction you get computers controlled by individual improvising performers interacting with one another.

    So there’s no one answer to your question. The question itself is too broad.

    You ask “Since Antonín Dvořák officially pointed the American music academy away from Europe as the fount that
    an original American music would spring, how vital has jazz become to the American musical culture machine?” Jazz has clearly declined in importance over the last 50 years. It’s hard to think of anyone with the immediate name recognition among the general public of, say, John Coltrane or Miles Davis today. 40 years ago TIME magazine put jazz musicians on its cover; today, only pop musicians get that distinction. That’s not to say that jazz has become less important to American musical culture — only less influential in terms of general popularity. Jazz has now settled into an art music niche akin to contemporary classical music, and that didn’t used to be the case.

    You also wonder “more importantly, how vital has so-called Latin music become to it?” I’m not hearing a lot of Latin influence in contemporary jazz. Instead, what seems to be happening is that as jazz retired to an art music niche, it has progressively picked up more and more elements of the serious contemporary music avant garde. But I’m no jazz expert, so feel free to explain why I’m full of wild raspberry jam.

    Reply
  3. philmusic

    Music is a living thing. So much recent historiography seems to reflect self interest rather than a search for truth. Then again why not–folks got to eat. I have pointed out before that music history is just as likely to be written by the “losers” as by the “winners.”

    As an improvisor I insist on choosing my own history. Then again improvisation is the one subject I never studied formally

    Phil’s Page

    PS I always thought that it was bad manors to correct grammar in blog posts-except my own.

    Reply
  4. danvisconti

    Hi Ratzo, first of all thanks for your entertaining and informative posts; I enjoy reading your English almost as much as it seems some folks enjoy dissecting your Deutsche.

    You mention Dvořák officially pointing the American music academy away from Europe and I just wanted to bring up the degree to which this grand project–though it yielded quite a cool symphony–seemed to flounder in its specific mission and may mirror some of the continued problems that plague third stream music (especially in the early Paul Whiteman era).

    There’s a fascinating article by Leonard Bernstein on Dvořák’s Symphony “From the New World” in which he explodes the idea that there’s anything specifically “American” about the material that doesn’t have to do with the later assimilation of the “Goin’ Home” theme or the fact that pentatonic scales are characteristic of Asian (and Czech!) folk music as well as native American sources or black spirituals.

    Perhaps the predominantly white American orchestral composers of the late 19th century could not assimilate the above sources in an analagous way to Dvořák’s use of Czech folksong because the sources being tendered as The Answer belonged to social groups with which whites refused to interact as equals–much less absorb and apprecite these groups’ traditions as their own.

    I hear similar problems with various efforts to incorporate jazz or any improvisation into the “musical culture machine” (as you term it). Jazz is both rightly and distressingly treated as a capital-A Art Form now and while it may have been the backbeat to several generations, it seems today to be much less vital that the influence of pop/rock. Maybe that’s part of how one gains the dubious designation of Art Form?

    Reply
  5. philmusic

    Personally Dan I don’t understand your post at all.

    Art form–bad?

    You mention Bernstein but neglect to point out that Bernstein himself was a purveyor of Jazz/classical cross over music, and it could be argued that it was his best music too. It is his music that I love the best.

    Perhaps you refer to cross over music that like oil and water refuses to jell and by the way makes it pretty easy to say;–this is the jazz part –this is the classical—this is improvisatory etc. Even if it entertains it doesn’t add up,

    I get that.

    On the other hand there is Ralph Shapey who used the big band sound as a gateway into new music.

    That’s different.

    Phil Fried

    Phil needs a kickstart

    Reply

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