Everybody’s a Critic!

This was a hard week in terms of reading for the Big Band class I’ve been auditing at Rutgers University (taught this year by Prof. John Howland). The syllabus focused on The Birth of the Cool, Miles Davis’s role in it and the critical reception during and beyond his career. Oddly, the issue of “Third Stream” didn’t (or hasn’t yet) come up in relation to the iconic music that came out of the project’s three studio sessions (January and April 1949 and March 1950) and two radio broadcasts from appearances at the Royal Roost (September 1948), even though the fusion of American jazz and European art music devices and textures was on the agenda of Gil Evans’s camerata on Manhattan’s 55th Street.

Reading the various reviews and analyses by Max Harrison, Bill Kirchner, and the late André Hodier was no problem. The tediousness inherent in the descriptions of music (which always does a much better job of describing itself than any work of literature) were tempered by the authors’ arduous efforts to understand and place The Birth of the Cool in the history of music and their intense familiarity of the subject. (I had no idea that Gil Evans forced Lee Konitz on Davis, who wanted Sonny Stitt to play alto sax in the group.) I enjoyed Gary Tomlinson’s assessment of Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr.’s Signifyin(g) as a tool for musical analysis and criticism, although in practice it becomes superfluous. (Did I say that music does it better?) And listening to the examples … ooooh, I can get into “Boplicity” and “Jeru” for hours, days, weeks, etc.

But reading Stanley Crouch carving Miles Davis a new embouchure in “Play the Right Thing” (The New Republic, 12 February 1990), made me want to start over as a fireman or a draftsman or a secret agent or a bounty hunter or anything that would keep me from having to read that. I actually couldn’t read it; the only way I got through it was to type it from a PDF into Word, otherwise I would have had to stop too many times to throw books and pencils at the walls to ever finish it in two weeks. While I have to admit that his knowledge of Davis’s discography is extremely strong, his need to politicize a social message is depressing. And all to put forward a quasi-“purist” posturing resembling the rejection of the second Viennese school by “new” tonalism proponents in a quest to redefine America’s “indigenous” music as something unconnected to current aesthetics and issues–harrumph! I think that when he used Davis’s well-known rakish behavior as grounds to avoid reading his autobiography was when my head started bobbing uncontrollably in random trajectories. Certainly, Davis was a man of contradictions, who might negate his own story within seconds; but, he was also one of American music’s most important movers and shakers. Kyle Gann missed the boat by not comparing Miles Davis to Richard Wagner (only Davis was less sneaky!). Without Davis there might have not been a Coltrane or a Tony Williams or a Weather Report or a Ron Carter or a Birth of the Cool. Even though I don’t agree that In A Silent Way was the first example of jazz-rock fusion (I think it was Out of Sight and Sound by The Free Spirits), it was Davis who, like Jean-Baptiste Lully, played the royalty of the music industry to give America a music steeped up to its eyeballs in the American cultural milieu, complete with all of the unanswered questions of authenticity and dilemma of contradicting morality.

Fortunately, the class never really got into Crouch’s article because there was a very pleasant presentation at the Institute of Jazz Studies’ Round Table session. It was an interview conducted by Dr. Lewis Porter, the director and founder of the Jazz History and Research Master’s Program at Rutgers and who tries to keep me as accurate as he can in my blogging (sorry, Lew, the effort could earn you the moniker “Dr. Sisyphus”), of Mrs. Dorthaan Kirk, the special events and programs coordinator at WBGO-FM and the wife of the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I had to play at the Somethin’ Jazz Club that night with Lee Tamboulian’s sextet, but I also really had to spend some time at this event, so I stayed and risked the bad-weather traffic from Newark to New York. Mostly I wanted to watch Porter’s interviewing style (very friendly and “go with the flow”-ing), but I also wanted to fact check something I had heard a long time ago from one of my mentors: that Roland Kirk added “Rahsaan” as a prefix to his name because he was a big fan of Sun Ra (Rahsaan being “Sun Ra” in reverse). She laid that one to waste; Kirk had heard the name in his dreams and felt he should take it on to answer a call from the beyond. Sadly, I could only stay for half of the interview. Hopefully it will become part of their archives.

The height of that day for me was, after playing a set of excellent music in an excellent venue, hanging out with the excellent band and excellent staff of the excellent club once known as “Miles Café” and listening to some of the most excellent, finest, and original music ever produced: We Want Miles. When it was done, all was better with the world.

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3 thoughts on “Everybody’s a Critic!

  1. Lisa Alvarado

    “I think that when he used Davis’s well-known rakish behavior…” A point of contention here. Miles, according to Cicely Tyson, beat her, repeatedly. Rakish here, connotes dashing, charming, etc. He was an abuser of women, a misogynist. His genius is what it is and remains such, but his actions in the world otherwise need to be seen in the full light of day.

    Reply
  2. Ratzo B Harris

    Lisa, I admit that I was possibly too “tongue-in-cheek” on this account. I hoped that the comparison of Davis to Wagner (and, to be sure, Lully) might have been enough to temper the adjective. But there are several definitions (or degrees) of “rake” and at least one of them has little to do with “dashing” or “charming.” (Still, one could see Davis as dashing, at least in some of his wardrobe options, and his music is possibly the epitome of the “charms to soothe” mythos. But rest assured that I wasn’t using the term to elevate Miles, only to broaden the scope. Remember, I’m the guy who wrote to Democracy Now!, suggesting that there are those who would find using Davis’s version of “Round Midnight” after an article about the abuse of women in the Middle East about as appropriate as a holocaust survivor would find NSBM after a segment on Auschwitz (I think they actually quit playing Davis). My point was that Crouch can’t use Davis’s sexuality issues as a valid reason to dismiss everything he produced from In A Silent Way on, at least not without a lot of eye-rolling. His posture went as far as to suggest that these genres are somehow linked to Davis’s perversions. I can’t really argue with his opinion that any jazz musician using funk or rock as a foundation for music making is a sell-out, that’s his learned opinion; but, to attach it to one individual’s lifestyle choices, no matter what they are, just doesn’t cut critical custard. I wasn’t trying to defend Miles Davis, who (for whatever reasons that he and a select few knew), acted out life in a way many find disgusting (and, sadly I might add, many find thrilling); I was expressing my frustration with reading music criticism that gets “personal.” I mean, do we disregard an artist because it is learned that they played the system to get by? Or because their lifestyle issues led them to a life of crime? What of Kosinsky, Picasso, or Remler?

    Reply
    1. Lisa Alvarado

      Ratzo — Only a point of clarification here….I DO know your, your sensibilities and your politicas, which, in addition to your musicianship and scholarliness, are all reasons you rate high in my book. I remember us talking about the Amy Goodman gaffe concerning Miles and her choice of lead in music, and you on the money response….I do think that sometimes the tongue in cheek doesn’t translate, and can give a misread.

      “…his learned opinion; but, to attach it to one individual’s lifestyle choices, no matter what they are, just doesn’t cut critical custard.” Amen!

      “I was expressing my frustration with reading music criticism that gets “personal.” I mean, do we disregard an artist because it is learned that they played the system to get by?” I also agree whole-heartedly here. It is too facile a critique of any artist, any public figure, any person. It is too easy to posit them as ‘monsters,’ aberrations. The whole of an artist’s life– their failures, triumphs, their light and dark places, need to be understood. Jim Pepper. Roman Polanski, Leni Riefenshahl, Miles, Mingus, Frida, Diego……is their artistry less? No.

      Reply

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