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.