30 March 2007

Towards "A Full Understanding"

Jazz and race. It's a topic that's been making it's way around the blogosphere lately. By the time I get this post up, the whole thing probably will have passed over. Fine. This isn't something that one just rattles off a casual sketch about. It deserves a well thought-out, carefully worded, conscientious effort even from a blog, the most notoriously casual and unregulated of all media outlets. I'd undoubtedly have less to talk about here (which would be a good thing) if more people had put more thought and more effort into what they've written. Here, then, are my responses to the good, the bad and the ugly of what has been said recently. My sincere thanks and congratulations to anyone who actually reads the whole thing.

This is undoubtedly the touchiest subject to fall within the purview of this blog (sorry guys, B-flat versus C tubas doesn't even register on the scale). With that in mind, let me establish a few things from the outset that the reader may want to keep in mind while evaluating my comments. This is a classic example of a situation where everyone wants to be the victim. Needless to say, African Americans as a group have endured victimization the likes of which few other Americans can relate to directly, both in general, and specifically with regard to the exploitation of certain largely African American musical contributions and innovations. I get that. This particular situation proves that we are all victims of what has been perpetrated, albeit to varying degrees. It is understandable that some amount of the animosity and distrust created by these injustices endures in succeeding generations of musicians who, individually, have not really done anything to each other.

I am white: to say that I too feel victimized is simply for me to be honest, but could also be interpreted as ignorant. Hence, I need the reader to realize that I by no means consider my own victimization to be on par with the ongoing oppression and exploitation of blacks. It is too easy for whites to come across as insensitive on this matter, and also too easy for blacks to take it this way when it may not have been meant as such. Please do not take anything I say here as an indication of a lack of empathy or historical knowledge (there will be more on my background later). I am acutely aware of the existence and the fallacies of the "cult of white victimhood" (Twin Citeans may recognize that phrase; I'm stealing it from this disturbing City Pages article of last year, which has nothing to do with music, but which many readers will find interesting nonetheless). I do not subscribe to this school of thought; it is a propaganda victory of the right wing designed to whip up racial tensions ("divide and conquer"). My victimization pales in comparison to the real issues here, but I am a victim nonetheless and I insist on the right to voice my concerns. I will do so by taking various recent online statements as starting points and working out from there. At the conclusion of each discussion, I will afford each of these people the opportunity to cover their asses by giving an assignment to each of them based on the claims made in their statements. These people (and anyone else) are thusly invited to post their completed assignments as comments to this entry. Without further ado:

White folks know the historical value of jazz as an art form. They will stop at nothing to write themselves a part of it. But their presence means the scarce resources are taken from the black artists who are the true keepers of the legacy. White males will recognize the dead and dying ones, but never anoint the younger turks like James Carter and Christian McBride. Of course , we shouldn't expect them to. They had always looked out first for their own.


The best thing white musicians can do is get out of the way and let them play. Let them be heard, let them be able to sustain a living and leave a legacy. I am still searching for a true white jazz musician. And I have heard many. I hear intellect, but not "soul" and energy. Maybe one day , I will hear one. In the meantime, I refuse to lower the standards I was taught so that they can pretend they have a right to our legacy. Do you think they would accept a black man playing Irish or Yiddish music?

A gem of ethnomusicological scholarship, if I don't say so myself. I have faith that the black supremacist account of jazz history is espoused by a relatively small number of individuals, so small in fact that I'm not sure I've ever met one of these people in person. If I have, they have all been unusually kind to me. Nonetheless, as this document proves, they are out there somewhere, and even if they only express their "real" views in private, anonymously or through one-way online conduits, those views are communicated often enough that this is by no means a dead issue. As the bumper sticker says, if what I'm about to say makes you feel attacked, it is probably a counter-attack.

Dropping McBride's name the way he does is ridiculous. I don't know anyone I've ever worked with, black or white, who wouldn't give up their first born child for McBride's ability. Carter I'm not so sure about, but I hardly find him to be a good example of a musician who has been systematically denied media attention. More like the other way around.

The intellect/soul dichotomy and its many variants should be familiar to anyone who reads about music regularly. It's a bad enough to dismiss a whole slew of musicians (including at least a few widely acknowledged masters) as worthless based entirely on the color of their skin, but to do so on this hopelessly subjective and cliched basis is laughable. Would I accept a black man playing Irish music? Of course. No less than I would accept a black man playing classical music, which many do quite well. How do you explain that?

Assignment for Greg: write a five paragraph essay on the music of one or more of the following white musicians, explaining in specific and widely accepted/understood musical and sociological terms why those in question are not worthy of being called jazz musicians.
(1) Bill Evans
(2) Dave Holland
(3) Pat Martino

Whether or not there are authentic systems in [Dave] Douglas’s music is not even close to the point. To me, the question is: What is jazz music? What I really don't like is how the avant-garde, which is more like contemporary European music, is treated as the solution to jazz to the exclusion of real jazz. I realized the problem years ago when Roland Kirk complained to Cecil Taylor in Downbeat that Cecil wouldn't let him sit in with his band. Cecil said they had arrangements, and that's why he didn't let Kirk sit it, but that's not a good reason. That's what holds the music back. It is a real problem that there is no agreed-upon place for avant-garde musicians and the musicians who play real jazz to play together. Because if the avant-garde musicians stay away from the jazz musicians, their music gets to the point where it has less and less to do with jazz. I don't like that.
-Stanley Crouch

The first thing jump out at me about Crouch's statement is a perverse concern with defining jazz, a position which the reader must acknowledge in order to evaluate everything he says during the interview. His approach is notable (but not unique) in the way it aspires to neutrality in order to conceal a value judgement (which, make no bones about it, he wants you to share). Douglas is not a bad musician, he's just not playing jazz, or at least not "real jazz." Sounds objective enough, but let's consider the source: coming from someone who takes stylistic labels for granted, perhaps it could be taken as a neutral statement; coming from Stanley Crouch, it is a veiled condemnation. His statement quoted earlier in the article that "Douglas is not a bad musician" now seems suspiciously candy-coated. Of course, he's entitled to his opinion; from reading the whole interview, I would expect that the two of us most likely share many tastes in music. I simply find the elevation of the "what is jazz?" question to be a bit misguided in general, and given what we know about him, I don't think it is one bit unreasonable to wonder if this is really just about music.

Of course, at this point in the interview, he makes it clear enough that he is expressing opinions rather than facts, but these are opinions about sociology, not music. He doesn't like the avant-garde because arrangements make participation in music-making more exclusive? What about the musical results? I don't think it's too extreme to insist that the musical outcome of any given event is far more significant in any evaluation of it's overall success than the logistics of how inclusive the event is, yet Crouch attempts no such evaluation here, not even on a subjective basis. Hence, not only has he elevated the all-trivial question of stylistic definition to the height of concern, but he answers the question not by evaluating musical properties but by wallowing in social concerns.

On top of all of this, it's ludicrous that he assails the avant-garde for being exclusive. As if any old dope could have simply sat in with Charlie Parker! The stories I've heard about people trying didn't have particularly happy endings. A rift between the mainstream and the avant-garde is an inevitable consequence of a virile art form, and in most cases, I'm not sure members of the two groups are terribly disappointed that they cannot play together. Kirk was not exactly a mainstream guy himself after all, and as petty a thing as it is to say, I feel obligated to point out the obvious fact that he was also blind. Could that have had something to do with it? I've sat in with groups playing original material even though that meant I had to read. I'm having someone do the same with one of my groups tonight. The solution is not to do away with arrangements, but to be a competent sight-reader, which most jazz musicians are anyway these days. Of course, the dixieland guys also think that arrangements are wrong-headed, but Crouch's own stated interests would seem to reach far beyond that. Last I checked, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra plays "arrangements." Does that fact by itself "hold the music back?" Wait...don't answer that.

Another grave mistake is to lump the entire avant-garde together. "Free" music most certainly does not use arrangements. It is nothing less than the single most inclusive Western musical form yet devised. Yes, it tolerates charlatans to a greater extent than most musical traditions as a consequence of this openness, but it also enables what are to me some of the most compelling possibilities anywhere in all of art. Any idiot can see that Crouch's ideal of "real jazz" is far more exclusive than this.

Assignment for Stanley:Write a five paragraph essay defining jazz. Use specific and widely accepted/understood musical and sociological terms.

"Defining 'who can play' is subject to a great deal of cultural bias that breaks down largely along racial lines. Of course, to suggest that the criteria for evaluating the music should emanate from the culture that spawned the music would be interpreted as 'reverse racism."
-Eric Gould

Which culture would that be? Perhaps the culture of New Orleans, which was more thoroughly integrated in the late 1800's than some American cities are today? I think you could argue that race became a larger factor in jazz only after it moved on to places where race was a larger factor in general, but that is a superfluous observation to make here. What Gould is saying implies ownership, and that is more worth examining in depth. Outsiders are being asked to take on a false consciousness and assimilate the value judgments of what is assumed to be a largely foreign culture in exchange for membership in the "jazz" club. Even if you find this reasonable, it certainly isn't very nice. Perhaps the reason you seldom hear such things these days from Europeans talking about their classical tradition is because they have not suffered exploitation like American blacks have. At some point, you'll just have to take my word that I aim to be as sensitive to these issues as any outsider can be without actually having been in the victim's shoes. I still do not think that it helps matters to militantly guard a culture's artistic contributions from all outsiders as if it were a trade secret. It would, in fact, be a tremendous gesture of goodwill and reconciliation to be open to many interpretations of what jazz might mean to people of diverse backgrounds, and in fact, that view is not altogether unusual these days. Some will inevitably reply that the ongoing possibility of exploitation precludes this, a view which I find unduly conservative, but which I suppose I can't disagree with entirely. But just to be clear, if this is indeed the way we're operating these days, I hereby grant permission to all non-whites to play classical music, and to synthesize new musical works from this and other streams of tradition. You can bet your life that I would be labeled a racist if I opined to the contrary.

In any case, here's your assignment, Eric:
Write a five paragraph essay detailing the criteria for evaluation that you think should be used to decide who can play. Use specific and widely accepted/understood musical and sociological terms.

The reason most of the whites & asians come out and support is because they're still trying to cop what we're doin'...especially the creative music, because they don't have a full understanding which propels them. Blacks in some since have moved on like Miles and on to tha next.

Aargh. This takes the cake. Let's again reason by analogy to European classical music: when was the last time a white classical pianist gave a recital for a predominantly Korean audience and subsequently complained that there were too few white men in the audience and that the only reason it was packed with young Korean women is that they were there to cop his phrasing? I would hope that this a strictly hypothetical situation, and that if it's not, plenty of people would be lining up to speak out against such an attitude. I can only speak for one white person (myself), but that's not why I go the hear live music. I mean, it's just so much easier to cop that shit from records because that way you can hear it more than once (and of course, most of us are pretty slow, so we need to hear things many times before we can remember them).

In all seriousness now, the "full understanding" line is the single most offensive thing I've read in music-related discourse in quite a while. I most certainly do not understand fully why music has such a profound effect on me. I think that if I did, it would lose some of it's attraction. That's not a white or a black sentiment, that's the sentiment of all people who play music for it's own sake rather than to have their ego stroked. If you aren't in it for the music; if you're a Stanley Crouch type who's more concerned with who and how than what; if you believe that people of different races are genetically predisposed to sound a certain way; then you are the one who lacks a "full understanding" and you really need to go hang out at Berkleeuntil you inevitably run into some kid from Uzbekistan who sounds like he grew up in Chicago. How's that for "cultural context"?

Assignment for Corey:at the first set break of your next gig, go up to five unknown white people in the audience and ask them why they came. Report back. (Extra credit: go up to five men and five women and ask them why they came. That question is on a lot of people's minds also, and is no less controversial.)


Wynton Marsalis recently appeared on The Daily Show, where he described the music of Armstrong, Ellington and Parker as "subversive." His latest release is supposed to carry on that tradition. I don't need to see a genuine copy of Wynton's tax return to get a decent idea of what he makes and how he lives, and I don't find that to be the least bit subversive, the provocative subject matter of his music notwithstanding. Let me tell you why. (note: I am not a blanket Wynton hater. J Mood is one of my favorites of all time; why the hell won't he do that anymore?)

To be an art musician of any kind is still subversive, but not in the way jazz used to be. Jazz musicians of all races live in less-than-affluent circumstances, eschewing "American Dream" bullshit in favor of a hard scrabble life with few lights at the end of the tunnel. Many own instruments that are worth the price of a car. Some of their record collections are worth more than that. In an age when "the best thing for America" is to earn as much money and buy as much plastic shit as humanly possible, they refuse to comply, even though many of them possess exceptional intellects and would have no trouble distinguishing themselves quickly in a more lucrative field. That is pretty damn subversive, but it is only indirectly related to continuing concerns about race. I don't think white people purposely infiltrated the ranks of the working stiff musician in order to hijack the subversive power of the jazz community away from race and towards their own agenda. I think it's merely a symptom of the quality of "real jazz" that it inevitably attracted such arduous followers from all over the place. In any case, subversive people are more dangerous than subversive music. If the current situation somehow represents a failure to fans of subversion, I think they have missed the point.

Conclusion/Full Disclosure/Considering The Source:

I am white and had a comfortable middle class upbringing, but my parents did not shelter me by any stretch of the imagination. I went to inner city public schools for all but 6th through 8th grade, including an elementary school that was at one point 70% black. That doesn't make me an expert on or a member of the culture (although a good high school friend once jokingly elected me and another white friend as official black people), but it does mean that I have more than just a cursory grasp on the past and the present of black history. Maybe it is insensitive to say so, but I do in fact feel downright victimized by much of what I've read over the last several weeks, if not in a rather minor way. It is genuinely disheartening. Why is it even worth complaining about from my end? Take these five exhibits together and you have an impossible situation. Go your own way and you are an ingrate, co-opting the jazz label without any justification. Follow tradition and you are simply stealing from black innovators. It's a catch 22.

Notice that only one of these five people take the position that white people are innately incapable of playing jazz, but that the various others lay out a web of demands which, taken together, cannot possibly be met. Simply by being white and playing most any form of American music, you are prone to run up against one of these objections. That's not the attitude that I see in the people I play with, nor is that an attitude I feel entitled to take towards European music. No, the race issue in jazz is not dead, but resolving it has got to be a two-way street. If there's anything I can do, I will, but I will not stop transcribing black musicians, nor will I stop working in avant-garde or "classical" influenced groups, and when pressed by a well-intentioned (if annoying) inquisitor about what kind of music I play, I will not hesitate to answer "jazz". "Full understanding" sounds more like "hidden agenda" to me. I have no agenda in doing these things other than to relieve the constant urge to make music, and I'd like to think that this attitude transcends all racial and social boundaries. I don't seek to understand my musical inclinations, only to translate them into tangible high-quality musical products (the establishment of that criterion being, of course, highly subjective and mediated only by my own value judgments). I take offense to no one who does the same, and I ask only the same treatment in return.

25 March 2007

My Composition Lessons with Bartòk (Part 1)

The best composition lessons I ever had were the ones with Bartòk. In only 45 minutes, he would show me how to write counterpoint, how to orchestrate, how to manage large-scale form and orchestral forces, and even how to keep a sense of humor throughout the process. I came back every few days for a couple of weeks and we would go over the same material and the same concepts. Despite this, I never got tired of the lessons, and in fact, they just kept getting better. Strangely enough, the fact that he was not alive at the time didn't seem to have any adverse effects.

I'm talking, of course, about playing Bartòk's Concerto for Orchestra when I was in college. Why do I think this single experience (or set of experiences) was more helpful than spending 4 years earning a degree in composition? Many reasons.

•First, when performing a work as part of a large ensemble, one does not hear the music as the audience does, nor does one approach it the way a scholar does. The experience is unique, for you are required to listen across the ensemble for pitch, style, and dynamics in a way that makes you hyper-aware of the most intricate details of the score. Your position on stage "inside" the ensemble also gives you a unique and valuable acoustic perspective (I'd rather listen to music from there than from the audience or on record).

•Second, at least in a student ensemble, the work will be rehearsed many times, perhaps even too many for your preferences as a player in that ensemble, but this affords you many hearings not only of the whole piece, but of movements, sections, and partial instrumentations. You simply can't help but absorb (or at least notice) some of the salient compositional features of the work. Your heightened level of engagement and awareness throughout this process makes it all the more effective.

•Third, the rehearsal process and the conductor (presumably someone who knows a little something about the instruments in the orchestra) reveal an incredible amount about the capabilities of each instrument and how the piece in question does or does not use them effectively both individually and in combination with each other.

•Fourth, it is fun as all get out and keeps you intellectually and spiritually alive as a musician. If as an orchestral composer you have never actually played in the ensemble yourself, I say that speaks poorly on behalf of your compositional pedigree. If you have never even had any such desire in the first place, I say you have chosen the wrong profession.

I was merely skeptical of formal composition study before I played the Concerto for Orchestra. Having now had several such experiences in addition to this, I'm ready to dismiss all of you academic composers outright. Be honest: how many of you who write for orchestra play an orchestral instrument well enough to make it into the orchestra at the school(s) where you earned your degree(s)? How many of you actually did this? And how many of you actually got to play works from which you felt like you could learn something of significant value to your development as a composer? (sadly, the programming in the college orchestras I played in was rarely of the kind I am describing)

Let's stop pretending that just anyone can learn to read score like Pierre Boulez and that a feeble attempt at climbing this mountain is just as good or better than taking it in through your ears. If I ran the world, I would make performing in the ensemble of greatest interest to the student a part of all composition degrees. I would also demand that college orchestra directors program more works that are capable of serving this purpose effectively. During my college years, I played for one who did and one who didn't. The former experience was an absolute unqualified joy and is where the "lessons" I'm jokingly referring to took place. The other was an absolute unqualified disappointment where I learned nothing useful as either a composer or a performer. Do you think it's a coincidence that the former conductor was also an accomplished composer?

The majority of "great" composers have also been virtuouso performers, going back at least as far as Ockeghem and continuing through Bartòk, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev. It has been pointed out recently and frequently that Steve Reich has played an important role in his own success by performing many of his works himself. And the jazz world speaks for itself on this matter.

People like me really should not accept the "autodidact" label from the credentialed elite. The next time one of them asks me who my teachers were, I'm going to answer "Bartòk, Debussy and Thelonious Monk among others. You?"

20 March 2007

Your Musical Talents Needed

For only the third time in my adult life, I went to a protest/demonstration/rally last weekend. Such events were held worldwide to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War. The event included a march of roughly a mile during which my fickle ears (hyuk hyuk) took note of some curious musical phenomena, including:

•a trumpet player playing "Charge" on the wrong partials (you can play it correctly on any brass instrument using any fingering if you start on the third partial and end on the sixth partial; somehow, this person was consistently ending on the fifth partial);

•a spontaneous a capella rendition of We Shall Overcome which modulated not only chromatically, but also diatonically (!) so that it ultimately landed in a key noticably below where it startedand ended on scale degree 7 instead of 1;

•a variety of solo and ensemble percussion music which displayed an exceptional rhythmic ineptitude.

To be clear, this is obviously my problem and not theirs. No one notices or cares about these things save for the few of us public conservatory-educated music dorks, and you can hear them anywhere and everywhere that large crowds gather and attempt to make spontaneous functional music (major league baseball games are the worst in my experience). It's not life and death by any means, but I am always intrigued (and call me an elitist, but also very disappointed) at the overall level of musicianship of the average Joe. I'm quite tempted to show up to the next one wearing a sousaphone, and if any of you other musicians out there ever have the time and inclination to attend such an event, please bring your instrument and musical talents along if at all possible. They are in high demand.

16 March 2007

Another Pet Peeve About Music Blogs...

...is when they don't deal with music. I'll grant an exemption to politics given the dire events of the last several years, but that's it. I'll pass on literature, film, sports, literature, food, literature, literature, and most of all, the freaking LITERATURE!!!

For pretty much my entire life, I have had what could fairly be described as a pathological aversion to literature, or at least to fiction. I can only guess at the underlying reasons, but one might be that I do not desire nor have I ever particularly desired to escape reality. That's not to say that I'm content with the state of things, just to say that I generally struggle with the willful suspension of disbelief. Actually, I hated music from an early age also. It was a sheer accident that I ended up playing music in the first place. I've been hooked from the start, yet I've since had more extensive exposure to literature and theater without ever shedding my aversion to either. Not surprisingly, abstract visual art is the only other medium I feel a natural affinity for. There something about twisted piles of scrap metal and arbitrary smears of color that appeals to me much the same way that music does.

Maybe it's not so important to know why, but I do wish I could offer an explanation if for no other reason than that it is hard to defend a narrowly focused interest in abstract art. It has always irked me that whenever the "value of the arts" is under discussion, the last thing out of people's mouths is anything about enriching our lives aesthetically. No, instead it's always about making kids smart, keeping kids off drugs, keeping kids off the streets...come to think of it, it's almost always about kids period, always portraying "the arts" as the means to an end rather than an end unto themselves.

What is missing from the picture is any discussion of the mechanism by which the kids are to be engaged by the art. Is it too much to assume that this is accomplished through aesthetic means? And if it is accomplished some other way, what is the value of art, then? Nothing! Any old diversion can occupy (detain?) little Johnny and Susie, including knitting, bridge, and forced manual labor. If the results are any different with art, then there must be a reason.

The function of art as a means of keeping kids out of trouble or of clarifying or commenting on some social issue is indeed valuable, but it tends to overshadow the fact that any of these secondary functions of art are dependent on the art itself appealing to and engaging some audience. Would we be debating Wagner's anti-semitism today if his music had been average? We wouldn't even know who he was if that had been the case. (How many mediocre composers can you name who were active in the 1860's?) Whether or not it is acknowledged as such, the aesthetic experience is the source of all interest in art. Trace your way back from the co-optation du jour and you will arrive there every time as if tracing Earth's energy resources back to the sun.

Speaking of co-optation, the value of art may be an entirely separate discussion from the value of the arts at this point, the latter phrase being not only too broad to have any real legitimacy, but also having come to stand for something shallow and dishonest. If we really are willing to embrace the whole unwieldy collection of "the arts" as a unit, it follows that there is something for everyone hiding somewhere in that massive pile crap. That is where their eminent value lies. The trivial whiling away of the hours can be accomplished equally well by means of any old diversion, but where there is the potential for the unique form of engagement known as aesthetic experience, the arts have contributed something unique and important to the world. Artists themselves should be the last people to take that for granted.

We all know that the reason this value is never emphasized in any public arena is that granting agencies and elected officials are unimpressed by it. Hence, as a mere survival skill, artists have learned or been groomed to fall back on all of the secondary functions of their art, especially the ones involving kids. (What can we say? Everyone loves the little buggers.) My questions are: how much longer can we go on living on a little white lie? And with so many people in the art community actually believing this themselves, what is the value of "the arts" to the people who actually shape them?

Sadly, the kids don't dig my atonal orchestral pieces or my free jazz excursions. If I'm going to keep them away from drugs (and I might be the only musician I know who's actually capable of doing that), it's going to have to be some other way. Not only is it better for them that way, but it also gives me the freedom to continue wallowing in the realm of the abstract. There is no intuitive certainty strong enough to guarantee that our artistic output is valuable enough on its own to excuse us from any other efforts towards leaving the world in better condition than we found it in, and in fact, most of the time its probably more tenuous than we'd like to admit to assume that any old person in need would even like what we do. It is all too convenient to think that we can simply tie other obligations in with what we "really" want to be doing by giving our latest masterpiece a provocative title. Unfortunately, that only works if the work is world class, or if it has mass media hype behind it.

11 March 2007

Who gets to go?

There was a time when I refused to show any inclination whatsoever towards moving to New York City. Every midwestern jazz player practically drools over the thought whether they've ever been there or not, which meant that my need to be different just for the sake of being different was in full effect. Sadly, I've still never been there, but now that I know a little bit more and have had some frustating experiences here in middle America, I have finally started thinking seriously about taking the plunge. What else is there to do?

The level of playing has never really intimidated me. That's not to say I expect to fit right in, but no matter where I live, I expect that I'll have to confront it anyway at some point in my career. If I don't, that will mean that I either got complacent or failed entirely. Competition is healthy and inspirational; why not embrace it?

What bothers me much more is the money question. A 2006 Worldwide Cost of Living survey conducted by Mercer Consulting named New York as the most expensive U.S. city and the 10th internationally. Rent.com says:

The overall cost of living here is 364% compared to the national average, making it just slightly less than California's Silicon Valley, the most expensive area in the nation. Average apartment rentals go for $1,600 per month, with utilities costing an average of $189 per month.

So, has money become the greatest determining factor in who among us naive young musicians is able to actually get up and strategically place ourselves in the center of the action? It's hard to believe that it hasn't. That's a dire situation in my opinion, not nearly as dire as the larger question of access to music education generally, but it is a result of the same deplorable phenomenon, namely of middle and lower income people being priced out of music on some level. One way that the internet will never really be able to bring us closer together is by facilitating in-person collaborative musical performance. Geographic isolation is a tremendous barrier to musical collaboration, so it's not so far-fetched to think that there really ought to be a "musical capital" of the world or country where we can all be available to each other. An astronomical cost of living, however, kills the whole thing.

It's not that wealth and artistic vision necessrily preclude each other, but in order to continue being a Mecca for artists of any kind, a scene must select for the latter and not the former. What's the consequence of the opposite case? A fetishized rat race dominated by brats with more money than talent. That's what college music programs are. That's what I want to get away from. That's what kills music. The thought of encountering a "real world" manifestation of that is nauseating. I'm crossing my fingers now.

I'm somewhat on the fortunate end of things. If I decide to go, I will find a way to make it work financially. However, none of the possible scenarios look easy. Maybe that means that the people who do manage to survive there are exceptional in many different ways. Maybe that means that there's a grain of truth to all of the idealization and mythology surrounding the place. On the other hand, that's part of the problem: mythology » co-optation » commodification » fetish, and then it's entirely too late to really get in on the action because there is no more action.

Having never actually been to the place, I probably don't know what I'm talking about, nor am I saying that music has to be made by poor people to be any good, nor am I slamming native New Yorkers. (although before posting this, I did check with a friend of mine who grew up there, and she made many of the same observations). It's something that makes me wonder, and the more I think about it, the more apparent it gets that as long as the cost of living remains so disproportionately high in our musical capital, and as long as the country as a whole continues to hemorrage decent-paying jobs to the third world, wealth will continue to eclipse talent as the primary determining factor not only in who gets to go to NYC, but in who gets to play and even listen to music in the first place. This is the major issue facing American music right now and it is seldom if ever discussed. The topic that does get discussed semi-regularly is the cost of going to jazz clubs. Maybe that will eventually lead to a more comprehensive discussion.

10 March 2007

Pattern Recognition

The ability to recognize patterns varies in individuals and is not universal. It is a skill that can be honed, but it does not come to everyone with equal ease. The people who design standardized tests seem to think it's quite important. I remember that in elementary school, there was always that question where you would be given a sequence of numbers and asked to say what the next number in the sequence was. For some reason, I had a knack for these things from an early age. A knack that is, not an interest. Fast forward about 15 years to my first encounter with Schoenberg's statement that sequences in music are worthless and serve no particularly important function other than to take up space. There was a time when I might have disagreed, but by the time I read this, it served not as a challenge to but as an affirmation of my own feelings towards sequence in music. Sequence grates on me like few other devices. Particularly with regard to jazz musicians, it truly has become nothing more than a fallback, a way to take up space and avoid embarrassment when the player doesn't know what else to do.

It's no mystery how this happened: jazz musicians are taught theory largely through sequence. Instead of taking the most direct route towards studying the way past musicians "used"scales, students today are constantly nudged towards constructing patterns in order to internalize the sound and feel of scales and keys. I myself worked out of Coker's Patterns for Jazz and Nelson'sPatterns for Improvisation quite extensively in my late high school and early college years. As well asaccomplishing the afore mentioned objectives, it helped build my chops tremendously.

We must, however, be very careful in defining the word "use." Does anyone really "use" scales or scale patterns? It depends on what that means. A phrase that happens to only use C's, D's and E's could be said to "use" the C major scale, but did the player really arrive at it this way? If this observation is not supefluous, it should be. Obviously, some players do actually think of themselves as "using" scales and some don't. I should not necessarily be predisposed to prefer one group over the other, but in fact, given the situation, the "use" of scales equates directly to the "use" of sequence in a way that I consistently find distasteful.

To put it another way, very few musicians who play sequences truly "use" them, as this term implies some certain intent on the part of a sentient being. Instead, they have spent so much time practicing scale patterns that when nothing else comes to mind, they habitually lapse into regurgitating a literal statement of what they have been praticing, even if it was never intended to be "used" this way in performance.

My point? Sometimes an etude is just an etude. In classical music, there are etudes that are performed (like Chopin's) and etudes that no one would dare allow to be heard outside the practice room (like much of the Arban book). Jazz could learn something from this practice. Patterns build chops and help the player conceive of keys, but they make poor materials with which to construct a solo, or any piece of music for that matter. (And I have to add that I have about the same feelings toward "materials" and "construct" in this context as I do toward "use.") In my mind, technical exercises that were constructed solely for their value as technical exercises and not as "real"music should not be available to be "used" (or abused) at all. They are of a fundamentally different nature than any "lick" a musician might pick up from others, which originated as a spontaneous and effective musical statement and retains at least a small amount of this potential over time. That's my opinion, at least. I am appalled that some musicians apparently do think that their practice of scale patterns serves to literally prepare "material" for"use" that they can pull out at any time while "constructing" something. I have no problem with such perparation, only with the chosen material. As an early teacher of mine wisely told me, use patterns with "extreme caution and restraint."

But what of the ability to recognizepatterns? If it was more universal, musicians would not get away with these shenanigans as often because more people would understand what they are doing and hear right through it. I hypothesize that my loathing of sequence is at least partially a consequence of it being so easy to recognize, and perhaps also that the ability to view something as sequential even if it was not intended that way has ruined my ability to enjoy a good deal of music. But the ability to recognize sequence is not the only variable: the other is how the listener responds to success or failure in this activity. Hence, I further hypothesize that some people must be gratified simply by recognizing sequence in music (i.e. by "getting it") and some people (like me) are indifferent or putoff by it. Given two two-way variables, that makes for four groups of listeners who will each approach the issue differently

04 March 2007


Why are so many "serious" musicians so mystified as to how to garner mass appeal? It's the backbeat, silly.

You can play whatever you damn well please over a strong backbeat. The masses want to hear the thunderous footsteps of mythical beasts on beats 1 and 3 along with massive quantities of ear-splitting high-frequency brittleness on beats 2 and 4. If you give them those two things together, they will go ape shit for your musical presentation, no matter what melodic or harmonic atrocities you commit over the top of Western man's most primal rhythm.

Seriously, when was the last time you saw a song on myspace with 48,629 listens?? And when was the last time that so many of the harmonic and melodic ideas were so unabashedly "outside"?

Personally, I can only appreciate the backbeat thing when there's this kind of playing going on along with it, but I'll bet that many many people who think a tri-tone sub is a sandwich could be engaged by this kind of music also, if not for entirely different reasons.

It's not that us modernists have no heart, soul, or rhythm. We just need a little side of pitch to go with a heaping plate of rhythm.

In Between, But Not On Top Of

The imitation of another musician's personal style is often considered to be an act of reverence. If the imitation is too close, it may cross over into the realm of plagiarism. But more often than either of these, it is an act of vanity.

When John Q. Composer writes a new work that is significantly indebted to a previous one yet is of lesser quality, the most important thing about the new work is that he is the one who created it. It fills no particular void or need, for the work he has imitated does so already, and in fact does so more effectively.

Even within the confines of an antiquated musical style, there is always room for expansion in between extant masterpieces. However, there is no room for stacking new works on top of them.