A Bird Uncaged
In last week’s post I wrote about my impressions of two organizations that regularly present jazz performances in New York City at no cost to their audiences: the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival and Jazzmobile. The post opened with the telling of how I was introduced to Parker’s music and how that experience has subsequently informed my musical life. The post generated a comment that included five points I hadn’t mentioned, but which are important: (1) Charlie Parker was one of the greatest improvisers of the 20th century; (2) there has been a long-held misconception that Parker used drugs to enhance his music; (3) the recording ban of 1942-44 left some of Parker’s best work undocumented; (4) that better versions of “Just Friends” exist than the Charlie Parker with Strings version; and that (5) Parker’s performance on his most famous version of “Lover Man” was the result of drug withdrawal, not inspiration. I want to briefly respond with a few observations.
(1) Parker, a brilliant and gifted saxophonist and improviser, practiced incessantly and memorized (composed?) his solos. There is a recording of “Just Friends” from a 1952 Carnegie Hall concert where someone near the microphone can be heard singing along with his regurgitation of the Parker w/ Strings solo. This wasn’t peculiar to Parker. As a sideman, I’ve witnessed saxophonists Joe Henderson, Jim Pepper, and Chris Hunter, as well as pianists Kenny Werner and Joanne Brackeen, quote entire choruses of their recorded solos. One of Parker’s associates, bassist Charles Mingus, described improvisation as spontaneous composition. Parker’s improvising was, though, groundbreaking. Musicians the world over have been influenced by his playing and writing.
(2) Parker’s addiction to drugs was all-consuming; it negatively impacted his personal and business dealings, and was the principal factor contributing to his early death. Parker himself admitted that his use of drugs was not a healthy practice and, not altogether successfully, urged his acolytes to not follow his example. However, there can be no question that his music was strongly influenced by his use of opiates. It cannot be definitively ascertained whether or not Parker would have been a better musician had he not been an addict, but he certainly didn’t think that drugs made his playing better. There are many examples of musicians who kicked their drug habits—John Coltrane, Hampton Hawes, Art Pepper, Elvin Jones, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, and, for a time, Miles Davis and Bill Evans, for instance—and one can’t argue that their playing suffered for their effort. In fact, their playing improved dramatically.
(3) The recording ban not only left Parker’s work undocumented, but it also left nearly all of the music created by be-bop’s pioneers during these formative years unavailable for study. All told, there are eight extant recordings of Parker from this period, two being his last recordings with the Jay McShann Orchestra and the rest being jam sessions at Clark Monroe’s Uptown House in New York City, room 305 of the Savoy Hotel in Chicago (with Billy Eckstein playing trumpet), and other undisclosed Chicago locations (with Benny Goodman, Hazel Scott, and several “unknowns”).
(4) Parker wasn’t happy with the arrangements for the Charlie Parker with Strings recordings and went as far as to fire members of the ensemble in hopes of changing the static nature of the composed music. He unsuccessfully petitioned Norman Granz to commission Stefan Wolpe to write music for the group in hopes of having something he felt would be more artistically compatible with his “avant-garde” nature, but his need for drug money kept him from doing much more with his career after 1950 than rehashing the music he made in the 1940s. What Parker played on the recording in question of “Just Friends” was, without a doubt, a classic solo, but when compared to his small-group recordings, not particularly inspired. To my thinking Granz’s refusal to support Parker’s artistic savvy cheated history much more than the recording ban of 1942-44.
(5) As long as Parker had enough of the right kind of drugs in his system, he could perform at a level of proficiency that his public had come to expect. It is well-known that Parker was withdrawing from heroin when the version of “Lover Man” referred to in the comment was recorded. He was drinking heavily to counter the withdrawal symptoms and, as a result, his performance was not up to par (which is putting it mildly, as the producer of the date was holding Parker up during the recording!). Still, bassist-composer Charles Mingus thought this was one of Parker’s best recordings. I understand why Mingus would believe this. When listening to it, one hears Charlie Parker working harder than ever to play his best. It’s almost as if he was breaking new ground; uncaged, but not free. While Parker wasn’t happy with the recording, it is an indelible part of his legacy and one that has informed many of his musical descendants. It’s interesting to note that the comment mentions a 1974 version of “Just Friends” by Lee Konitz that exhibits much of the phrasing of Parker’s botched “Lover Man.”
A person I know, who will remain unidentified, said that he/she could “listen to Bird play for hours on end, but as soon as he stopped” would get as far away as possible because, when dealing with Parker on a personal level, he was about nothing more than getting drugs. It reminded me of something attributed to another drug addicted but excellent saxophonist (who will also remain nameless): “When I’m not doing drugs, I have a complicated life; I have debts to clear up, bills to pay. But when I’m strung out [on drugs], life is simple; all I have to do is get [more drugs].” While this sentiment reflects what some (including myself) would consider a truly pathetic way to live, a sense of noblesse oblige might be extracted from it. For both of these musicians, the most important things in life were playing music and getting high. To get high, though, both of them relied on habit-forming narcotics that produce intense withdrawal symptoms. To reduce one’s life to this level entails a great degree of dedication and sacrifice, especially in a culture that enacts severe penalties of ostracization for such behavior. But this same culture idolizes the creative fury of the antisocial, narcissistic, obsessive/compulsive, addicted personality. Mozart, Poe, Byron, Tesla, Bach, Wagner, Davis, Hendrix, Rembrandt, and Bukowski are just a few names from history whose predilection for unorthodox behavior appears to be part and parcel of their seemingly effortless artistic excellence.*
Philosopher Gilles Deleuze said, “We are habits, nothing but habits—the habit of saying ‘I’. Perhaps there is no more striking answer to the problem of the Self” (Empiricism and Subjectivity, p. x). Without going into further explanation of a subject that I’m just beginning to grok, I will say that I agree with the notion. I know that I feel most comfortable inside boxes and surrounded by simple geometric shapes. I know that I’m habituated to this most unnatural way of living, as are most of my fellow humans. (And, although being something of a hoarder, I have a certain amount of squalor that I try to maintain control over; I know that this, too, is a function of habit.) I’m sure that we all can look at our lives and find plenty of examples of habits that make up our reality. I know that when I make music, it is habit that dictates at least 90% of what I do. When I recognize the playing of other musicians—say, John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman—I know that what distinguishes their playing are the choices that became habitual to them. So I see how Deleuze can conjecture that “we are habits.” Yet artistic creativity demands that we make a habit of breaking those habits, which can become a habit that, for some, becomes hard to break! It is a process of inventing new habits that define, or redefine, the Self. In music, this would be the development of a “voice.” I believe that the brightest stars that the arts produces are those who, in the process of developing their voices, tap deeply into the collective Self and give it a new habit to expect and identify with. This was the case for Charlie Parker, Mozart, Poe, Byron, Bach, Wagner, Davis, Hendrix, Rembrandt and Bukowski. This was also the case for John Cage, a rather unique man of habits and addictions, whose music, according to Dr. Martin E. Rosenberg, crosses disciplines into philosophy and science.
I mentioned Dr. Rosenberg in a previous post. He is a scholar, musician, author, as well as an HCI (human-computer interaction) and hypermedia specialist. (His online CV offers more information about him and his projects.) One of these projects is a questionnaire that was sent out to current and former alumni of the Rutgers University Jazz History and Research program. This questionnaire is titled “Jazz Musicians and Educators: Embodied Cognition; Distributed Cognition and Improvisation,” and was intended to be used in a presentation he is giving at Manchester Metropolitan University on September 6, 2012, which is the same day that I’m writing this. I received the questionnaire four days after the requested August 10 return date (I actually didn’t get to read the email until August 16), but found the premise of his research rather interesting. I began to fill out the questionnaire and realized that it would be much more involved than the standard multiple-choice forms I used fill out for extra credit in psychology 101. At one point, the questionnaire directs the participant to refer to an article Rosenberg wrote, “Jazz and Emergence (Part One) From Calculus to Cage, and from Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman: Complexity and the Aesthetics and Politics of Emergent Form in Jazz,” that appeared in the December 2010 issue of Inflexions. That is where I ran into a problem: I didn’t really understand the article very well, which cast doubt on my understanding of the questionnaire. I just couldn’t finish answering the questionnaire until I had a better grasp of the article that was recommended to be read. My attempt at filling out Dr. Rosenberg’s questionnaire was a failure!
The main problem for me was that the paper is written for the academic, not the jazz musician. While I truly don’t believe that the two are incompatible (although some of my colleagues do believe that), it takes a bit of patience to take it all in. For one thing, Dr. Rosenberg’s work is steeped in the writing of Deleuze and Felix Guattari, two multi-disciplinary philosophers whom I had never read before. (I took one semester of philosophy as an undergrad and came to the conclusion that Nietzsche went mad because he realized he was wrong!) So I have been reading the works of Deleuze and Guattari in what little spare time is available to a professional musician who travels by car to different cities regularly. (If you’re in the Woodstock area tonight [Friday, September 7], come by the Photosensualis Studio at 15 Rock City Road [845-679-5695], where I’ll be performing with guitarist Dom Minasi, vibraphonist-pianist Karl Berger, vocalist-poet Ingrid Sertso, and drummer extraordinaire Harvey Sorgen!)
I was heartened to read in their magnum opus, A Thousand Plateaus, that “[it] is inevitable that the Plan(e) [a term used to suggest the plateaus of the Balanese landscape that are at once physical, structural, temporal, and ritual], thus conceived [referring to the writing of Nietzche as an example of ‘nonpulsed time’], will always fail…. As [John] Cage says, it is of the nature of the plan(e) that it fail” (p. 269). Deleuze, thankfully, footnotes Cage’s exact words:
“Where did the title of your second book, A Year From Monday, come from?” “From a plan a group of friends and I made to meet each other again in Mexico ‘a year from next Monday.’ We were together on a Saturday. And we were never able to fulfill that plan. It’s a form of silence…. The very fact that our plan failed, the fact we were unable to meet does not mean that everything failed. The plan wasn’t a failure.”—John Cage and Daniel Charles, For the Birds (Boston: Marion Boyers, 1981), pp. 116-117.
So in failure, I have not failed! (Francesca—It ain’t Christmas yet, but I hear Handel’s Messiah coming from somewhere!.)
I think that Deleuze was examining the difference between a conception of music where there “is a transcendent compositional principal that is not of the nature of sound, that is not ‘audible’ by itself or for itself” with one where
[There] are no longer any forms or … subjects. There is no structure, any more than there is genesis. There are only relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness between unformed [or relatively unformed] elements … molecules and particles of all kinds. There are only haecceities, affects, subjectless individuations that constitute collective assemblages (p. 266).
To illustrate the former, Deleuze refers to Karlheinz Stockhausen, who was “obliged to describe the structure of his sound forms as existing ‘alongside’ them, since he is unable to make it audible.” For the latter he attributes Cage as the one who “first and most perfectly deployed this fixed sound plane, which affirms a process against all structure and genesis, a floating time against pulsed time or tempo, experimentation against any kind of interpretation, and in which silence as sonorous rest also marks the absolute state of movement” (p. 267). But wasn’t it Cage who said of music, “composing’s one thing, performing’s another, listening’s a third. What can they have to do with one another?” (“Experimental Music,” The Score and I. M. A. Magazine [London, June 1955]). In felicitatis parum non deficere! But Deleuze wasn’t suggesting a plan(e) where “anything goes”:
This synthesis of disparate elements is not without ambiguity.… the same ambiguity, perhaps, as the modern valorization of children’s drawings, texts by the mad, and concerts of noise. Sometimes one overdoes it … then instead of producing a cosmic machine capable of “rendering sonorous,” one lapses back to a machine … that ends up reproducing nothing but a scribble effacing all lines, a scramble effacing all sounds. The claim is that one is opening music to all events, all irruptions, but one ends up reproducing a scrambling that prevents any event from happening. All one has left is a resonance chamber well on the way to forming a black hole. A material that is too rich remains too “territorialized”: on noise sources, on the nature of the objects … (this even applies to Cage’s prepared piano) (pp. 333-34).
Clearly Deleuze is a proponent of the doctrine of “less is more.” This becomes clear in his other magnum opus, also co-written with Guattari:
But on the other, the schizorevolutionary, pole, the value of art is no longer measured except in terms of the decoded and deterritorial-ized flows that it causes to circulate beneath a signifier reduced to silence, beneath the conditions of identity of the parameters, across a structure reduced to impotence; a writing with pneumatic, electronic, or gaseous indifferent supports, and that appears all the more difficult and intellectual to intellectuals as it is accessible to the infirm, the illiterate, and the schizos, embracing all that flows and counterflows, the gushings of mercy and pity knowing nothing of meanings and aims (the Artaud experiment, the Burroughs experiment). It is here that art accedes to its authentic modernity, which simply consists in liberating what was present in art from its beginnings, but was hidden underneath aims and objects, even if aesthetic, and underneath recodings or axiomatics: the pure process that fulfills itself, and that never ceases to reach fulfillment as it proceeds—art as “experimentation.”* (pp. 370-71) *See all of John Cage’s work, and his book Silence (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961): “The word experimental is apt, providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown” (p. 13). And regarding the active or practical notions of decoding, of deconstruction, and of the work as a process, the reader is referred to the excellent commentaries of Daniel Charles on Cage, “Musique et anarchie,” in Bulletin de la Societefrancaise de philosophie, July 1971, where there is violent anger on the part of some participants in the discussion, reacting to the idea that there is no longer any code. (p. 371, n.)
This is where Deleuze, Cage, and I—for now—part company; partially because I don’t agree that the best music is simple, or that music that is indeterminate as to form—i.e., with an unknown outcome—is necessarily experimental, and principally because I have digressed from Dr. Rosenberg’s article.
I wanted to return to Rosenberg’s paper for many reasons. The most important in my eyes being that he suggests that the realm he addresses might be “too quick to efface the continued conditions of suppression with respect to the complex intertwinings of political, economic and social forces—especially where the condition of African-Americans in the United States is concerned.” In the footnote, which is far too long to include, Rosenberg refers to Foucault’s recognition in 1995 “that Western ‘democracies’ were moving away from regimes of power based on power, as exemplified by institutions, to conditions where ‘continuous control and communication’ enables power to remain immanent, beneath the threshold of awareness.” (Which might be my problem with academy-speak, which disallows serious consideration of George Orwell saying the same thing at least eleven years before!) But the real reason is that Dr. Rosenberg describes a cross-disciplinary application of phase space diagramming, whereby many possible outcomes can be represented as “clouds” of points in a two-dimensional plane.
Without going into his well thought out and articulated examination of scales, remelodicization and chord substitution (that include an interesting correlation with Baroque contrapuntal terminologies that I believe are indispensible to the presentation of jazz theory to a Eurocentric non-jazz literate academic reception)—or going beyond the mention of his novel approach of associating bifurcation theory to the art of chord progression substitution, which can convert choices or options (depending on whether one is analyzing or improvising) to graphic points in space phase diagrams—I believe that Dr. Rosenberg is onto something vital in his inclusion of the ensemble as possessing a disembodied, or “distributed,” cognitive process. In Beneath the Underdog Mingus describes how he and Parker could communicate precise ideas with each other when playing music together. My own experience with this was limited to once with Kenny Werner and two times with Joe Henderson and was very brief because I wasn’t quite ready for it. (When I asked Joanne Brackeen about it, she told me that “whatever you feel onstage with Joe is true!”). However, the halls of academe are probably about as ready to accept a functioning subaltern collective consciousness as it is to accept chi as life-force. Still, Rosenberg is adroit in observing that:
We can find direct echoes of phase space diagrams of thermodynamic processes such as equilibrium and periodic attractors, in the music score of Concert for Piano and Orchestra by John Cage. Compare the bizarre revamping of the rules for music notation in this score with the phase space diagram of the Evolution in phase space of a cell corresponding to a mixing system. Again, here is another score of John Cage to compare with a phase space diagram. (pp. 235-36)
Rosenberg’s reference to the music of Cage has little bearing on jazz-rooted improvisation except to compare his process of deconstructing the “calculus of music notation,” which he sees as parallel innovations (calculus and music notation). He makes important note that jazz musicians approach deconstruction according to a tradition not afforded Cage because of Cage’s “complicity with respect to top-down European aesthetic sensibilities.” Indeed, the history of how Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra as outlined in Isaac Schankler’s excellent monograph is rife with examples of non-functioning disembodied cognition of the work. Rosenberg does not present Cage as existing in a vacuum, however. He reminds his reader that Cage had a network of like-minded individuals that included Marcel DuChamp and Merce Cunningham. Shankler points out that Cage also had a champion in pianist David Tudor, who might be the source for a Cagean performance practice. I found his disclosure that Tudor used different interpretative materials in the rehearsals than were used in performances of Concert to be absolutely in line with how jazz musicians “practice” improvisation. But Cage was a maverick in his field. He was running against the grain, breaking with a hegemonic tradition that was at odds with his Zen-informed principles. Parker, Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman, while innovative, were part of a culture that was, and mostly still is, excluded from being part of that tradition’s world view. Dr. Rosenberg’s research suggests an inclusion of a recalibrating impetus for the machine that regulates this, and I say more power to him. There’s a long tradition of bad habits associated with reversible time that needs to be dealt with. Just the idea that jazz is an African American music with no concrete inclusion of original Americans makes for a long road to hoe: longer than forty acres!
When I think of John Cage, I remember my only meeting with him. I was about 25 years old, absolutely broke and wandering around Greenwich Village with an electric bass I had bought from Dennis Irwin (which is why I was broke!). At the time I was habitually drinking, taking drugs, smoking cigarettes, and weighed 100 pounds less than I do now. I heard that John Cage was signing copies of his new book, For the Birds at B. Dalton on 6th Avenue and 8th Street. I had read his other books and decided to go, even though I couldn’t buy his new one. It was an uncommonly, for then, hot day in September and I was wearing a t-shirt and cutoffs. I was expecting to see a long line of people and hoped that I might, somehow, fall into a situation where I could get a copy of his new book and get it signed. Instead I found an empty store with a table occupied by John Cage and another person, probably a store manager, and a pile of books. I approached the table and introduced myself as someone who really liked his other books, but was unable to buy the new one. He looked at me very oddly, I thought, like he was hoping for something. I was so flustered by his gaze that I didn’t even think to ask him to autograph my electric bass, but in retrospective consideration of our habits, it was probably good that I didn’t. It is important, I think, to remember that Cage was the kind of guy who would poison himself with mushrooms! Yes, we all have our habits that define Self. But when these habits are denied us, we become incredibly creative, like Charlie Parker playing “Lover Man.” I’ve been told that when Cecil Taylor plays a concert, he refrains from any imbibing or smoking for a day or two before hand, to keep his creative edge keen, and then afterwards goes on a rampage!
*I’m not suggesting that artistic excellence is an outcome of drug addiction. There are many, many cases of addicts not deemed to be admirable people: Göring, Henry VIII, François (a.k.a. Marquis de Sade), and, in our time, Rush Limbaugh come to mind.