Back On the Streets Again

I was back at the University of the Streets again this week for the series curated by Steve Swell. I played in trombonist Deborah Weisz‘s trio with Eric Halvorson on drums. We’ve been working together as a trio for about two years now, but haven’t performed in several months. Deborah premiered two pieces on Tuesday, “10:49 AM” and “Push”. Both of these tunes are played in an up-tempo, heavily swinging style; but, while “Push” explores improvisation over a set of chord changes, “10:49 AM” uses a sinewy, seven-bar rhythmic pattern as its formal improvisation template. Weisz’s tunes delve into a broad range of improvisational approaches: a ballad with shifting time signatures and double-coda systems (“Conscious”); rapid-fire unison lines with roaming tonality à la Ornette Coleman (“No More Tea for You”); a ballad with pitch-class sections alternating with chord progressions (“One Beyond Compare”); and multiple procedure improvisation (“One for Eric”). I was honored to have one of my compositions, a blues with no IV chord section and a very short turnaround currently titled “When Credit’s Due” (it was originally “In Bloomingdale’s with Visa,” but they wouldn’t give me a discount).

University of the Streets is a performance loft that has been at its 130 East 7th Street location for 42 years. The management prides itself on its commitment to community-based theater, music, dance, and martial arts programs. Its board includes Saadia Salahuddeen (president), Alayne Patur Salahuddeen, Jacqueline Goodman, Ali Salahuddeen, Kenneth Aytch, and Dr. Barry Harris. While I’m not a regular attendee, I have played many times there since moving to New York 34 years ago and have thoroughly enjoyed sitting in at the Friday and Saturday night jam sessions. While the musicians who play at University of the Streets are always top-notch, there are two things that can be viewed as drawbacks: (1) the air conditioning is old, making performances on hot days a little sweaty and (2) they have a white piano. I don’t know what it is about white pianos, but they go out of tune fast, so pianists who play there usually bring a tuning wrench or a piano tuner.

I stuck around after Deborah’s set to listen to clarinetist Perry Robinson, pianist Kirk Nurock, and bassist Max Johnson perform. Johnson is a 21-year-old prodigy who has been playing upright bass for three years (he started on electric bass when he was 13). He is currently studying music at the New School for Jazz and is curating events at University of the Streets for the month of August. I spoke with him and learned that his father, Glenn Johnson, is a semi-professional drummer who hails from Detroit and, like his son, performs in a wide range of settings. I never heard Max play before and was very impressed with his technical command, as well as his imagination. One of his compositions, “The River’s Nigun,” struck me with its originality. Unfortunately, Robinson had transportation problems and couldn’t get to the performance. Fortunately, Kirk Nurock was the pianist. Anyone familiar with Kirk knows I’m not exaggerating when I say he transcended the condition of the piano. The duo opened with Kirk’s “Remembering Tree Friends” (from the album of the same name) and Johnson negotiated the song’s demanding bass part superbly. The air conditioner made it difficult to hear Nurock’s soft-spoken announcements, so I can’t say the names of the rest of the program, except for his arrangement of “What Is This Thing Called Love,” which described very well the entire range of emotions that two people in love might express.

Listening to Nurock and Johnson, especially after performing with Weisz, got me to thinking about last week’s column and the comments regarding “literate/illiterate” cultures. While more than 95% of the music heard was improvised, almost every piece included sheets of paper with musical notation and directions for improvisation (the exception was “What Is This Thing Called Love”). Also, all of the performers, save Johnson who is a student, have degrees from a college or university (this might not be the case for Perry Robinson; however, he did attend the legendary Lenox School of Jazz for one session, which he writes about in his autobiography, The Traveler). It is safe to say that everyone involved in Tuesday’s performance at University of the Streets comes from a literate culture and are musically literate. Not everyone is musically literate, though. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are fewer musically literate Americans now than there were 50 years ago. This should bode well for jazz music, which labored under the myth that its finest practitioners were musically (or, better yet, absolutely) illiterate with musical talent springing athenean when they pick up an instrument.

To this day there is a tacit understanding that jazz improvising comes less from study and practice than from divine inspiration. That includes a premise that the more deeply one is ensconced in a culture of literacy, the less able one is to “properly” perform jazz music. Of course, most professional musicians know this to be fallacy. The best and best-known jazz icons throughout the history of the genre learned the basics of music at an early age and continued to engage in intensive training throughout their careers. Jazz is not, nor was it born of, a musically illiterate culture, although it is generally accepted to be born from a culture that was kept illiterate for purposes of controlling them.

I’d like to thank the authors of the three comments. Although none commented on music as a tool for fostering better education (which is what I thought I was looking for), the consensus for literacy vs. illiteracy is important. We, as members of a traditionally literate society, have forgotten that one of the uses of literature is to disseminate propaganda. Some is so obvious as to not need being mentioned here. Some is so subtle that generations operate under its influence (an excellent book on the subject is The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould). While it is my firm belief that the notation system used in Western art music is capable of representing any sound heard or imagined by human beings, it is designed for a type of music that is counted in evenly spaced metric divisions and whose pitch organization is that of the piano. So called microtones require special symbols and irregular metric pulsations become difficult to write and read. While the music of Mozart is easily notated, the music of Inupiaq Eskimos is not, even though the music of Mozart has more melodic lines, longer duration, and is more complex in formal structure; Inupiaq music is much more difficult to notate and will look more complex. When one considers that Inupiaq songs vary from performance to performance, notation in Western notation seems impossible. So the idea of complexity regarding literate vs. illiterate is really not an issue, at least as far as I’m concerned. However, the shortening of our attention spans through any means is a way to deliterate people and regain a sense of control over them. While I can’t point to any studies on this (although I will start looking around for them, five minutes at a time!), Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote a short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” that offers an opinion on the subject. Seeing that, according to the story, we’re only 70 years away from the situation Vonnegut wrote of, we might start thinking about how we, as non-attention deficit musicians, can address it.

Literally yours, RBH.

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9 thoughts on “Back On the Streets Again

  1. Joseph Holbrooke

    “However, the shortening of our attention spans through any means is a way to deliterate people and regain a sense of control over them.”

    Is there any evidence that attention spans are actually getting shorter? Is there any evidence that shortening attention spans are bad for society? Is there any evidence that people in power have any real interest in controlling the duration of our attention spans?

    For me, these sorts of wild speculations undermine your other arguments.

    Reply
  2. Phil Fried

    “Is there any evidence that shortening attention spans are bad for society?…Is there any evidence that people in power have any real interest in controlling the duration of our attention spans? ”

    It could well be argued that there is a difference between newspapers that cover a subject in depth and tabloids which don’t. It could then be argued that their is a financial incentive to pander to short attention spans. In depth reporting cost more and takes more of the readers time. On the other hand perhaps reading cliff notes versions of books is just as good as reading the originals. It kind of depends on how you view your society.

    Reply
    1. Joseph Holbrooke

      “It could then be argued that their is a financial incentive to pander to short attention spans.”

      Phil, I do not deny that this pandering is a small part of our current situation and it is in our interest to discourage it. But to imply that shortening attention spans are part of a sinister plan to weaken our minds ignores the astonishing progress on literacy, health, wealth, gender equity, democracy, etc. that our modern global culture is making as we speak.

      If there is a conspiracy to reduce the ability to pay attention to our most important shared values, it is failing miserably.

      Reply
  3. Phil Fried

    I for one don’t believe in conspiracies. Many a time unintended consequences happen and humans, rations beings they, put them into an orderly fashion that only seems true. Conspiracies tend to tidy things up especially if they fit into our personal prejudices. On the other hand certain actions can become so numerous that generalizations might be drawn. So Joseph. My problem with your mention of “progress” and “important shared values” is that you are leading us to a political debate which cannot take place here.

    Reply
  4. Joseph Holbrooke

    Phil, yeah let’s not go to politics. Maybe I can streamline my point. Here it is in one sentence:

    I just can’t reconcile the argument that our most ubiquitous cultural offerings (like pop music) are making us worse while almost everything else is getting better.

    made by Hans Rosling, developer of http://www.gapminder.org.

    Reply
  5. Ratzo B Harris

    Bravo! Although I think I prefer watching the 20-minute version of Rosling’s demonstration of statistical prestidigitaion, I have to admit that this one is something “people enjoy and understand.” It’s too bad that they’ll be blinded by the bubble-graph to the point that they forget that one of the main purposes of statistical analysis is to “make numbers say what you want them to say.” Where are the millions of children who are starving in the Sudan and Somalia? “Age, trade, green-technology, and peace” are the buzz words of what the future holds. The first might be the only one that is accurately represented in his graph. Trade is not (and if $s is the indicator of trade, how is it that $40,000 is the measure? Would Bill Gates be happy with that? Green-technology? Where? New Orleans? And peace? C’mon.

    Here’s my five-minutes of internet search for evidence about the negative impact of shortened attention span:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attention_span

    and

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-04-05-tv-bottomstrip_x.htm

    and a very damning

    http://millennialmarketing.com/2011/05/embracing-shorter-attention-spans/

    And I’m sorry to report that, despite Rosling’s graphic rise to fame, literacy levels in America aren’t on the rise. People are getting sicker. The gulf between rich and poor is wider with less people having sufficient funds to finance retirement. Gender equality is a joke. Democracy a buzz word that has nothing to do with what our form of governmnet is. Racial equality is still a dream. All Rosling looks at is average life expectancy and average income (and we don’t know how either of them are measured).

    And the point I’m making about “ubiquitous cultural offerings (like pop-music)” is that it is designed to appeal to undeveloped people (children and adolescents) and impede their appreciation of music as an art. Pop music is marketed. Older people usually don’t listen to the music of their children and grandchildren much. Pop music doesn’t really foster social unity beyond nervous stimulation. And, yes, it is a corporate conspiracy. Record executives aren’t interested in educating their audiences about what consitutes great music, they sell what is the cheapest to produce to mindless masses that don’t care about learning more about music. Beethoven was beloved as a composer in his lifetime. Who is the pop-music equivalent? Lady Gaga?

    Reply
  6. Joseph Holbrooke

    Hey Ratzo, thanks for your response. I think it is safe to say that we will not agree on the facts. Although I do suggest you spend more time with Rosling’s gapminder.org where you can explore a wide variety of indicators.

    I only hope you understand that many people like myself exist. I make my living and believe deeply in an affirmative popular culture, yet I adore new composition, experimental and improvised musics. I am sure we can agree that dismissing and insulting musicians (and yes I feel this is common here at NMBx) who dedicate their lives to improving and innovating our musical landscape from a centralized position withing popular culture is counterproductive as an advocacy strategy for your work on the periphery.

    Reply
  7. phil fried

    “…I am sure we can agree that dismissing and insulting musicians (and yes I feel this is common here at NMBx) who dedicate their lives to improving and innovating our musical landscape from a centralized position withing popular culture is counterproductive as an advocacy strategy for your work on the periphery…”

    So those composers in “a centralized position” can run roughshod over the “periphery” and expect no push back? Why? Because in your opinion they “improve and “innovate?” To accept musical predestination is contrary to being an artist.

    Diversity makes us stronger.

    Thank you Ratzo for your comments–just what I was thinking. Did you see today’s NY Times cover?

    Reply

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