Sunday, October 5, 2008

All That’s Jazz

When asked what jazz is, Louis Armstrong said, "If you don’t know, don’t mess with it." This is both a fun & quotable quote, & it also has the virtue of “making sense;” Duke Ellington & Irving Mills posited that “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing;” the great pianist & composer Mary Lou Williams said it’s “ear music,” not “paper music” (talk about unsung artistic forces— Mary Lou Williams should be at the forefront of that discussion…).

All of these statements seem true but perhaps
a tad enigmatic—they certainly mean something to those “in the know,” but what about those who might still be baffled by this dynamic American art form? There’s the guy pounding out “Satin Doll” on the 88’s in the piano bar—is he playing “jazz?” There’s the dixieland combo with cornets & clarinets & tenor banjos & sousaphones swinging out “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans;” how is this related? Miles Davis playing the first few bars of “My Funny Valentine” in a recognizable fashion, then taking the song completely apart & putting it back together in a strange & beautiful but unrecognizable way; the haunting & bluesy chromatics of Thelonious Monk & band striding thru “Epistrophy;” the delicate piano musings of Chick Corea's’ “Crystal Silence;” a big band with powerful crooner & answering horn sections & rhythm guitar & piano swinging out “Everyday I Have the Blues;” the “free improvisation” of Cecil Taylor, where the musician wanders into completely uncharted territory—beyond song structure, beyond harmonic progressions….

All this, & more, is “jazz,” (or can be) though listening
to something like the list above in a sequential fashion might be jarring at points. Since I’ve played in three bands that had some claim to playing “jazz,” I should have some ideas on it.

Jazz, in its origins, is a “creole” form—i.e., it tends to absorb & accommodate apparently disparate elements. Interesting that so much of early jazz developed in New Orleans, which is/was a “creole” & cosmopolitan city. Of course, the self-professed inventor of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, was a creole man (& Jelly Roll does have at least some claim to the title he claimed for himself). From the beginning, jazz was closely aligned with the blues, & many of the early New Orleans jazz numbers stayed pretty close to standard blues progressions, or “jazzed them up” a bit by complicating the harmonic structure. The African influence of call & response & the swung “triplet feel” also have been basic to jazz from the beginning—& these elements also are integral to blues. For those who don’t know, “triplet rhythm” means the 8th notes are played in an “uneven” manner—rather than being counted 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &, with each number & each “and” getting an equal count, it’s counted 1 & ah, 2 & ah, 3 & ah, 4 & ah; in a “swing feel,” the number & the “and” are “tied,” in other words, played as one note, followed by the shorter “ah.” Interestingly, in many swing settings the rhythm instruments (e.g., guitar & bass) are playing a “straight” 1 2 3 4—this is done so the melody instruments are free to “swing” on top of a solid foundation.
What about Mary Lou Williams’ distinction between “paper music” & “ear music”… for instance, does that mean jazz musicians never “read” music like classical musicians? A pithy discussion of the differences between “classical” music & “jazz” music can be found here. In fact, jazz bands do at times “read” from some sort of “paper” arrangement—notice in the pic of Mary Lou Williams she has a written score on her piano (my guess is that this is an arrangement she’s working on—Williams was a prolific arranger for a number of bands, including the Ellington band). The big bands often had some form of arrangement on stage, & even the beboppers, especially in the context of recording, might rely on some written information—you can see this in the biopic on Monk, Straight, No Chaser. The difference is (as pointed out in the link above) that by & large the classical musician’s paper information is something he/she is trying to reproduce with great fidelity—of course that includes not merely playing the right notes, but reproducing indicated tempo changes, changes in dynamics (loud, soft, etc.) in such a manner that the composer’s vision (in a sort of Platonic sense) is realized. The jazz musician, even if he/she is getting information from paper, is using that information as a starting point, not as a representation to be duplicated & interpreted in a relatively narrow manner.

Of course, Eberle who has lots of very fun & well thought out opinions about such matters, does point out that in earlier forms of Classical music, es
pecially in the Baroque & early “Classical” era, a score was also more a “point of departure” than a road map to be followed faithfully. It wasn’t until later—the late Classical & the Romantic periods (i.e., Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, etc.) that the composer’s original intention became the be-all-&-end-all of a classical musician’s performance.

Of course, jazz has morphed over the years, as I ske
tched out above. Perhaps the biggest change is not so much in the sound of the music but in the acceptance of the music, & even bringing the music, for instance, into academia & into mainstream white culture. Eberle & I were watching a 70’s BBC adaptation of one of those fantastic Lord Peter Wimsey novels last night—Wimsey is on the trail of a cocaine smuggling gang, & when he goes to one of their parties they’re all dancing to a very wonderful hot jazz tune—of course, because in the early1930’s this was still “the devil’s music” as much as rock was in the 50’s & 60’s, & rap is today. A genre being appropriated by mainstream culture, as jazz has been over the past 30 years or so, is always a fraught issue. On the one hand, the U.S. & its institutions should acknowledge jazz, & celebrate it; on the other hand, it’s often difficult for an art form to maintain its vibrancy once it becomes so mainstream. I can’t imagine the 1920’s version of Ken Burns going thru bordellos & speakeasies in the “wrong part of town” to document this new form called jazz—yet now we have cd’s of various artists issued in the “Ken Burns Jazz Series.” One problem with this is that we have people outside the art form itself creating a list of “canonized artists”—for instance, where are Bill Evans, Mary Lou Williams, Hazel Scott, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Oscar Peterson, Yusef Lateef, etc. etc. in the Burns’ canon? Obviously, anthologies are self-limiting—there’s only so much music you can put out on a cd series. But the real problem arises when such limitations are seen as definitive—the error of creating lists of “canonical” artists….

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