Articles by Ratzo Harris
Wednesday was the birthday of Betty Carter, one of the best American musicians of the 20th century, whom I had the honor of working for in the late ’70s. My wife and I celebrated by going to hear two fantastic singers: Fay Victor and Teri Roiger.
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.
While I try to focus on improvised (American) music in my posts as a stand-alone phenomenon practiced by a dedicated and rather large clique, the truth of the matter is that very little music is entirely improvised, yet most music includes a certain amount of improvisation.
One of the speakers at Barbara Lea’s memorial said, “Music without lyrics isn’t really alive.” Although I don’t agree with the statement, I do agree with his assessment that the way a melody is delivered to our culture is with the words that are ascribed to it.
You can’t practice improvising; you’re either improvising or you’re not, right? Reexamining my own practice habits, I realize that I spend a lot of time practicing improvising.
It’s tax time and I’ve been absorbed by the process of going through my piles of receipts and credit card and bank statements to try to keep what Aunt Ir(i)s will agree is rightfully mine. If we drive to a party attended only by musicians and we sit in, can we write off the mileage? Does my New Year’s gig count this year or last year?
Certainly the composers represented in the San Francisco Symphony program were Americans, but is their music? America, as it is understood as a modern geopolitical entity, is ethnically diverse and the music heard in orchestral halls is a mere fraction of what is heard and played here.
It is no secret that the Eurocentric American mindset tends to look at modernity as equivalent to superiority vis-à-vis literacy and technological and economic development—an illiterate culture with uncomplicated tools that successfully lives in the same spot for thousands of years without destroying the local resources is the epitome of primitive and savage. And looking just at the issue of improvisation, one thing is agreed: it isn’t ubiquitous among the practitioners of Western art music.
We all know that American music is comprised of a multitude of genres, subgenres, cliques, factions and styles. The swath of American music is so wide that many of its most broad-minded proponents from one camp unabashedly and sincerely argue that some of the other widely listened to varieties of American music aren’t really music at all.