United We Fly!

As I sat, a captive of (for some reason) the highly prized window seat on a flight to San Francisco that had been delayed by two-and-a-half hours, I decided to read some of the seemingly random PDFs I’ve downloaded from various online journals in the hopes that they’ll help me kick my increasingly troublesome internet scrabble and backgammon habits. (While I’m not too proud to admit that I’m good at neither, I fervently deny this fact while I’m playing.) What I choose to read was a PDF of Scottish Church Music: Its Composers and Sources by James Love, originally published by William Blackburn and Sons of Edinburgh in 1891. It’s Love’s noble attempt to catalogue through indexes the “source and history” of over 1,300 psalm and hymn tunes, chants, doxologies, and anthems “published by the authority of the Synod of the United Presbyterian Church…the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland…[and] the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland” for “all who are interested in Church music.”

To be sure, I didn’t get far in reading the book as the drama of the delayed plane was not to be outdone by any attempt on my part to read or sleep. The part where it was revealed to the passengers that American Airlines never stocks enough food to feed everyone who buys a seat on their planes was particularly absorbing. The service staff unabashedly informed me that for our flight, which was known to be over booked at least three days before its departure, they only had twelve meals for sale. It made me think about how there was a time, and not that long ago, that airline passengers were given a free meal with their flight, served with real silverware, that had an appetizer, salad, main course (meat and side dish), desert, and coffee. Today, you’re lucky if you get peanuts with your free soda or coffee. I imagined a time when the soda and coffee would cost extra, payable by credit card only, and my lack of pride in my gaming abilities was overshadowed by what I saw as a lack of pride in customer satisfaction from the travel industry that is a hallmark of our national identity. I make this point because at the same time that this was happening, American Airlines was celebrating Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Pride with a concert at JFK airport by “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” (I’m not proud to say that I had to research the name to find out that Priscilla Queen of the Desert is a Broadway show and not a person or band.) I do, however, take pride in the cultural diversity that is the basis of American music, even when that diversity is given short shrift. In Love’s book, the first name in the index of “Biographical Sketches” is A. T. A., a “student who attended Dr. [George F.] Root’s Normal Musical Institute, at New York, in 1855, and who composed ‘Kedron, No. 86 S.P. [Scottish Psalter]. It was published the following year in Dr. Root’s ‘Sabbath Bell’ under the name of “Carolina.” It is wrongly assigned to Dr. Root in the S.P. As the great fire at Chicago in 1871 destroyed the Doctor’s record-book of dates and memoranda, the full name of this composer cannot now be ascertained. From the name he gave to his tune Dr. Root thinks he was probably a Southerner’” (p. 57). While I couldn’t ascertain who Love was citing in this sketch, I have a feeling that Root used the term as a euphemism for “negro”—long before Dvořák came to New York, George Root moved his school to North Reading, Massachusetts, a town close to Boston.

I had to stop reading Scottish Church Music after a while. Not because of its content, which I find fascinating, but because the service staff and the fellow sitting next to me were making remarks about my reading something that included musical notation. So I switched to American Airlines’ in-flight publication, American Way, which included an article about the music scene in Nashville, Tennessee. Although I was born in the Midwest, I never have been to Nashville. My knowledge of the city, which is a strong candidate for being the true heartbeat of American music, is, at best, second-hand and largely romanticized. But, while I might have been jumping to an unwarranted conclusion in my assessment of Love’s work, the article’s description of how “long before the…Victrola…the city…and the sound of music were inextricably linked.” Never mind that the Sound of Music is actually linked to the city of Aigen, it is the next sentence that struck me: “Arriving in the late 1700s along the Cumberland River, the city’s first permanent settlers—two groups of European descent—celebrated their landing by buck dancing to fiddle reels.” I’m guessing that the stomp dances of the Chickasaw, Shawnee, and Cherokee Indians are disincluded because of a quasi-nomadic subsistence lifestyle, while the very settling Mississippian Indians are because they didn’t have a record industry—maybe. Not that I have anything against modern Nashville music, I just wish that American reportage on the subject could attend a little more to this aspect of its historical component.

But I’m probably going to be as guilty of the same charges when I start teaching at Jazz Camp West tomorrow (Saturday, June 23). My three courses cover the fundamental concepts of improvisational bass playing, effective soloing, and extended techniques in mainstream jazz. I’m sure that I’m going to miss a lot of detail regarding these subjects. I’m hoping that I’ll be forgiven for leaving out so much of the European influence on jazz double-bass performance, but I might include a brief look at hymnal bass lines. Maybe a swinging version of “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

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