26 July 2013

A Teaching Philosophy

The core of my educational philosophy is an emphasis on achieving “functional” musicianship, defined as the possession of skills and experiences which directly serve students’ inclinations and aspirations as creative music-makers. Ultimately, music is not an object but an action, something that people do. It is hence through the ability to “do” that the facile music-maker is uniquely empowered to create, learn, and collaborate.

The pursuit of functional musicianship is necessarily:

(1) integrative of many different modes of music-making. A true balance of emphasis is sought between aural and written skills, pre-composition and improvisation, expression and experimentation, collectivism and individualism, and between cross-disciplinary and uni-disciplinary projects. The flexibility to operate fruitfully at any point along these respective continua presents a compelling model of citizenship and a powerful blueprint for a fulfilling musical life.

(2) style-neutral and pan-stylistic. The musical skills with the broadest stylistic applications are emphasized first. As students are introduced to a range of musical styles and ideas, active participation brings them into immediate touch with essential affinities and disjunctions among musical cultures.

(3) dignified. The instructor treats children as whole people, addressing them without affectation or humor unless it is appropriate. His willingness to be vulnerable and “on a level” with students ensures that they are comfortable constructively challenging his viewpoints. He comports himself in accordance with the values of “core” academic instruction, modeling respect for music and the other arts as indispensable aspects of human existence and worthy, dignified academic pursuits.

(4) rigorous. To emphasize functional musicianship is to recognize that the extrinsic benefits of a musical education are reaped in direct proportion to student achievement in core music-making activities (i.e. performing, composing and recording). In other words, meaningful context in the form of self-directed musical endeavors is the necessary prerequisite for the making of cross-disciplinary connections. When a concept becomes self-evident through an emotional investment in music-making, it is learned forever. A rigorous grounding in foundational musical skills facilitates such connections by enabling the most direct interface with a diversity of musical ideas.

The aversion in cross-disciplinary, arts-centered learning environments to conservatory-style, pre-professional musical training is warranted, and the pressure, competitiveness, and rote learning styles for which the conservatory is infamous have no place in a humane, functional education. Ambivalence towards nitty-gritty music-making is, however, an equally sure recipe for underachievement. A deficit of tactile and emotional engagement with sound in space and time virtually ensures minimal retention of cross-disciplinary connections and cripples students’ ability to engage in social music-making going forward. Insofar as those two concerns are of primary importance, a healthy degree of rigor in foundational skills and concepts is not merely desirable but in fact indispensable. The task of precise calibration must be undertaken anew for each group of students and frequently reevaluated thereafter as group and individual identities continually emerge and evolve.

(5) grounded in taking the long view. The best musical education is the one which keeps on giving. It breaks my heart to work with middle-aged and older adults for whom functional musicianship has remained elusive for years or decades, frustrating their deeply-held desires to “just play” with friends and pick-up groups. By imparting the foundational skills of social music-making at an early age, we not only empower children to live more fulfilling lives, but also condition them to aim high in any and every area of endeavor.

24 July 2013

[sc]airquotes (v)

Instead of repeating such Western myths of the noncontingency of artworks, why not search for jazz meanings behind the music, in the life-shapes that gave rise to it and that continue to sustain it? Why not, in other words, scrutinize the interactions between our own rules of formation and those we impute to the makers of jazz as the source of our evaluations of it? Why not create a jazz pedagogy in which our construction of the varieties of black life experience takes priority, saving the music–intricately bound up with those experiences, after all–for last, construing it in light of them and resisting the aestheticizing tendency to exaggerate its differences from other manifestations of expressive culture?

...Placing the music first will always distance it from the complex and largely extramusical negotiations that made it and that sustain it. It will always privilege the European bourgeois myths of aesthetic transcendency, artistic purity untouched by function and context, and the elite status of artistic expression. (Such myths concerning the composers of the European canon badly need to be exploded, so it is all the more troubling to see them neatly transferred to African-American composers and performers.) Emphasizing the musical appreciation of jazz only transfers to the study of African-American music the formalist view that remains debilitatingly dominant in Eurocentric musicology, with its continuing emphasis on internalist music analysis." (89)

Gary Tomlinson. Cultural Dialogics and Jazz: A White Historian Signifies. Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 22, Supplement: Best of BMRJ (2002), pp. 71-105.

The academic compartmentalization of scholars and practitioners of music is constructive for neither group. That their respective functions, needs and goals are often quite different is clear enough, but this hardly excuses an insensitivity to each other's necessary roles in a musical tradition. The issue of a musico-academic division of labor is never explicitly raised in this paper, the explosion of conservatory-style education in public colleges and universities goes unremarked upon (perhaps it was not yet so widely observable in 1991, when the paper first appeared), and the notion that a musico-technical bent to jazz appreciation may reflect the particular needs of student practitioners, who I have to think vastly outnumber pure scholars of jazz in most student bodies, is not articulated. These are, at most, minor omissions in the context of Tomlinson's larger objectives, but they do point, along with so many other aspects of the worldview he outlines here, to a certain scholarly obliviousness-verging-on-contempt.

Historically, of course, the Ivy League schools and their institutional peers have always been disproportionately concerned with scholarship at the expense of practice. This tendency was once described to me as a reluctance on the scholars' part to "dirty their hands" in the work of performing or composing music. Tomlinson, who has taught at both Penn and Yale, reflects this old world in new and insidious ways. He rails against its formalist analyses, Eurocentric attitudes, and institutionalized elitism, yet his soft contempt for music-makers themselves merely perpetuates another of musical high academia's concurrent degeneracies. It is, in fact, not reading too far between the lines to detect in the passage above a desire to depose the practitioners entirely ("saving the music...for last?!"), to eliminate their influence on the way jazz is taught to aspiring scholars and practitioners alike, and to install in its place a puritanical irreverence for musical content whose faux-egalitarianism is somehow thought to outweigh its repressiveness. Below, I discuss some reasons why I think this is neither societally just nor artistically advantageous.


I first must grant that Tomlinson's deconstruction of valuation, institutionalization and canon formation is valuable, compelling and brilliantly argued. Central to these arguments are attractive-sounding notions such as the following:

Parallax is a metaphor for the decentered, dialogical construction of knowledge. It represents a way of knowing in which all vantage points yield a real knowledge, partial and different from that offered by any other vantage point, but in which no point yields insight more privileged than that gained from any other. It represents, in other words, a knowing in which none of our vantage points grants us a claim to any more singular status than that of being an other among others. It suggests that our knowledge is fundamentally indirect, not a knowledge of things in themselves but a knowledge of the negotiations by which we make things what they are. Parallax also configures the most effective means to gain knowledge in a decentered cosmos: the deepest knowledge will result from the dialogue that involves the largest number of differing vantage points. Knowledge is a product of the differing displacements of reality perceived from different viewpoints rather than of a singular, authoritative perception. (82)

Construed at the institutional rather than the individual level, there is indeed something deeply appealing about such an idea. Having myself once had a paper proposal on Thelonious Monk rebuffed in a 20th century music history class and, at the same school, essentially been blacklisted by the orchestra conductor for playing jazz, calls for greater equanimity in quotidian musico-institutional behavior will always resonate with me in the same immediate, pragmatic way that Tomlinson's abiding love of Miles Davis' electric period led him to question the jazz-critical establishment's ideologically-driven unreceptiveness to this music. Indeed, I recall well the shock of discovering my own affinity for this music despite everything I had heard and read about it. Yet from the perspective of an individual practitioner of jazz music, I would insist that forbidding musicians consideration as experts in their own field of endeavor is far too steep a price to pay for better behaved institutions. This not only deprives musicians of their due, so to speak, but more importantly, effectively outlaws their potentially most vital contributions to society, shutting down the mechanisms by which such contributions might be made.

Many musicians, especially African-Americans, do feel, with Tomlinson, who is white, that the sociological dimensions of jazz history are too frequently given short shrift. Even so, I don't think it's putting words in anyone's mouth for me, also white, to observe that African-Americans generally are in no similar hurry to deconstruct cultural authority, and for good reason: they are sick and tired of the idea that everyone and no one is an expert on their work. Marion Guck hits the nail on the head in her reaction to another of Tomlinson's papers when she points to "the observation of some feminists that, just when women and minority peoples have become visible as subjects, individual subjectivity is being questioned."

In any sociological approach to jazz pedagogy, the people who live(d) the sociology, for lack of a better way of putting it, need to be accorded their rightful expert status. Tomlinson's sociocultural profile of Davis is trenchant and veracious, but are we really to believe that it is of no greater or lesser value than Davis' own words and deeds? Than those of Davis' direct acquaintances? Than those of other pure scholars whose depth of engagement with Davis' life and music exceed Tomlinson's? These various observers are not mere "others among others," at least not vis-a-vis this particular avenue of inquiry. The "decentered" construction of knowledge fails here, and the notion that "the deepest knowledge will result from the dialogue that involves the largest number of differing vantage points" is untenable without at least cursory consideration of sources and agendas. There is thus an element of the parallactic approach, though it surely was not intended this way, which, given the facts on the ground, unmistakably threatens the particular disenfranchisement of African-American jazz-historical voices, most especially the voices of musicians themselves, holders of the most esoteric knowledge and experience who thus have the furthest to fall.

Of course, I myself, to open an even bigger can of worms, am thoroughly ambivalent about the sociological approach to music pedagogy and scholarship. Certainly I find much musico-sociological scholarship interesting, even entertaining; as a thinking musician, natural curiosity is reason enough for me to engage with it, sometimes in great depth. My chief practical motivation for doing so, however, is not to inform my own musical work, but simply to be better equipped to debunk the myopic and wide-ranging absurdities that sociologically-inclined non-practitioners so often perpetrate against the world of nitty-gritty music making with scarcely an inkling of just how profoundly their ideas threaten to undermine the work for which they purport to advocate. And so here we are. As primary teaching tools, analyses such as Tomlinson's screed on Electric Miles neither enrich the experience of hearing music nor leave the student with any practical insight into how to perform it. Sociology does not so much explain the music here as explain it away. In "resisting the aestheticizing tendency to exaggerate [music's] differences from other manifestations of expressive culture," the study of music ceases to have a clear purpose, justification, or reward. With this line, it becomes fair game to ask Tomlinson why he bothers at all.

There are, of course, some cynical answers which I have hung onto since my less-informed younger days without yet having been convinced that they are entirely off base. Like the "internalist" musical analysis Tomlinson decries, the sociological approach creates a scalable business model for the professional scholar. The parallactic conception dictates that a new research topic can always be found, no matter how cluttered the landscape in that area of inquiry has already become: subjects (people) are always coming and going even where objects (texts) stay the same, thus generating infinite parallax (and, potentially, publication). Further, far from playing opposing roles, internalism and sociology are merely two parallel avenues (historicism is another) by which those in left-leaning scholarly circles sublimate their true feelings about artworks into more socially graceful false consciousnesses. Musico-scholarly activity, whatever its other redeeming qualities, inevitably becomes a wellspring of faux-equanimous defenses of personal taste, a peculiar, isolated realm of thought where facts are offered in place of opinions more often than the other way around.

To repeat a familiar but timely complaint, it seems to me that the pre-emptively stated anti-goal-orientedness of musico-sociological pronouncements and the inherently vague, inexact nature of sociological inquiry into the realm of art is symptomatic of this larger charade. No one seems to be able to say just what the rest of us are missing here, just that we are missing something, and how dare we doubt its existence? But what is it? A deeper appreciation for the plight of African-Americans? Music is a third-rate proxy for that incredibly complex and pressing issue. Publicly, I cede authority to older musicians who claim a central place for the music in this task. Privately, I look around at the world I and my peers have inherited and wonder what has really been accomplished this way.

I am certainly not stumping here to outlaw any particular form of scholarship. I simply cannot imagine any other area of academic endeavor which saves the law, the chemistry, or the language "for last." I offer that outwardly simplistic view less as a matter of direct analogy than out of the innate pragmatism of a workaday practitioner, someone whose understanding of the multiple musical cultures he inhabits is informed by the uniquely powerful experience of grappling with their widely divergent technical demands. I am convinced that there is deep extramusical understanding to be had in that task, deeper in fact than distanced scholarship could ever hope to cook up by way of either internalist analysis or sociological excursus. As Christopher Small would admonish us, music is not a noun but a verb, not an object but rather something that people do. Where I must respectfully part company with Small, Tomlinson and other deconstructionists is in my belief that the question of why people make the music they do is frequently more interesting for its own sake than it is essential to the living of our lives, whether we are professional musicians, hobbyists, leisure listeners, or philistines. Specifically, as a pacifying mechanism among cultural groups who dislike each other across the board, ostensibly the particular function of asking "why" in which such theorists locate its gravest justification, answering the question can only be as effective as music is central to such conflicts, and that is to say superficially at best. I would have less faith in our world if no one were compelled to ask "why," but I remain unconvinced that there is a pressing need in any corner of that world for an answer.

And all of this does not yet go quite far enough. With specific regard to jazz, I have always found a unique brand of soft racism in the sociological emphasis. Again, it does not so much explain as explain away. Bebop: black people get hip. Free jazz: black people get angry. Fusion: black (and white) people (try to) get rich. Pardon them; you see, it's a sociological thing. Here, then, is a meta-sociological critique: these musicians did not actually live in a parallactic world! They lived in a deterministic, aestheticizing one. Their music was one consequence of sociology; it was not the inevitable consequence of sociology. Not every black person became a jazz musician! The relativistic steamrolling of art by "vernacular theory" which politely "emphasizes its own boundaries, its own range of authority and territorial claims, in counterpoint with other theoretical domains" (73) is anathema to the black milieus of the jazz era. Seriously! No one would have fucking survived! "Jazz is power" is no less an aestheticist than a sociological explanation for the music's existence. But really, who's demanding an explanation? What justification should anyone need to give for their music? Who's going to sit still for so much as 3 minutes of ugly (to them) music, whether it's played by a notorious asshole like Miles Davis or by Gandhi himself? How good a reason could there ever be for them to do so? Who are the real philistines here?

Devoted as he may claim to be to tearing artistic practice down from its elite, aestheticist cultural pedestal, Tomlinson thus betrays his motivations to lie in an equally specious elevation of art to a different kind of "elite" status, I would dare say, based on the insight it is thought to provide into graver matters than itself. Certainly this posture contradicts a stated aversion to the notion that "the meaning and expression found in artworks are of a different, higher order than those found in all other cultural acts." (84) as well as a naive fixation on aesthetics does. But of course I believe wholeheartedly in the primacy, if not the universality, of the aesthetic experience, regardless of its political implications, a point on which I suspect Tomlinson and I ultimately can do no better than agreeing to disagree.


According to Tomlinson, "the memorization of names, style periods, titles, dates, and other facts" explicitly disavowed by one author of a widely-used jazz appreciation text in pursuit of a music-centric approach amounts to nothing more than "a strawman caricature of extramusical historical understanding." (88-9) One could say much the same, though, of Tomlinson's equation of music-centric approaches with "the formalist view that remains debilitatingly dominant in Eurocentric musicology, with its continuing emphasis on internalist music analysis." Such a maneuver does not demote formalist navel-gazing alone: rather, it posits that the experience of active participation, of creating music, be that a formalist experience or any other kind, confers no particular wisdom that would distinguish the music-maker from any other observer.

Mystification and indignity define such a worldview. The "life-shapes that gave rise to [jazz] and that continue to sustain it" cannot be understood as vague archetypes; they are, rather, the specific life-shapes of jazz's human conduits. The "complex and largely extramusical negotiations" reflected in jazz are entered into and grappled with by them. These are "negotiations" which kill and maim more readily than they deify, yet in Tomlinson's musico-sociological utopia, which no longer "emphasiz[es] the musical appreciation of jazz," and where the "parallactic," "decentered," "dialogical" construction of knowledge forbids the very notion of cultural authority, the people who make the music cease to be experts on their own creation, and the sacrifices they necessarily make in order to "negotiate" the relationship of their work with its social and physical environments are callously disregarded. I might add, to the detriment of all involved. A musicological dialogue in which "no point yields insight more privileged than that gained from any other" (82) is a dialogue in which practitioners as a group are uniquely disenfranchised. Such a society is fundamentally mystifying, repressive, and unjust. The practitioner is the one who stares into the abyss, and who thus risks falling in; he or she is not simply an "other among others," certainly not vis-a-vis his or her own artistic tradition. In any society that encompasses art and artists, the tenability of cultural authority is a precondition to justice.

In rationalization of their demotion, practitioners are reminded that the social conditions under which they operate are inescapable; that they are broadly shared with non-practitioners; that no one creates in a vacuum; that good composers borrow while great composers steal; that cultural ownership is illusory. All true, I believe, but utterly irrelevant here: the peculiar "negotiation" of these and all other "life-shapes" undertaken by the practitioner yields a peculiar wisdom which is inaccessible from a distance. This wisdom is the practitioner's contribution to society. Sharing it is a matter of justice and dignity, equally so for both senders and receivers of such messages. Notions of authority are benign and inherent to this process. In a society comprised of artists, professionals, artisans, tradespeople, service workers, stay-at-home parents, athletes, professional criminals, and others, each individual has wisdom to contribute that is valuable precisely in being otherwise inaccessible to the other groups. Parallax is thus tenable only in this most global sense; within each sector, meanwhile, the practitioners must remain the experts. Otherwise, dignity shrivels and chaos reigns.

Some will object, as many have ever since Milton Babbitt's infamous article crystalized the issue, that the arts are not directly analogous to all or many of these other vocations; that while there is an objectively correct way to bake bread or remove a spleen which requires specific, privileged knowledge, there is no similarly objective beauty or ideal functionality to be prescribed for art; and thus that there is no particular difficulty or injustice in conferring a certain kind of authority upon selected bakers or surgeons and yet grave difficulties and injustices in conferring it upon only some artists. I am inclined to be sympathetic to that argument to a point, but I also think that emphasizing art's inherent subjectivity, and also its "contingency," as Tomlinson might say, makes it difficult to argue that politicization of internal art world dynamics by style and taste could ever rise to the level of injustice. To elevate art's disaffinity with other vocations in this way is to carve out a special place for it in our culture, something Tomlinson is otherwise bent on opposing. But if surgery is life-or-death and art is not, then this place is not so "special" after all, less an elitist pedestal than a padded cell of escapism. In that sense, he has made his own bed here: he can deny practitioners their expert status either in society or in art, but not in both at once.


Though he never puts it quite so plainly, Tomlinson is clearly pursuing a sublimation of the will in a particular manner which aligns him unmistakably but confoundingly with the experimental tradition. I say confoundingly not out of contempt for experimentalism, but out of a recognition (it takes a practitioner) that jazz is profoundly and thoroughly willful music, diametrically opposed to experimentalism, and indeed despised by notable experimentalists since time immemorial for precisely this reason. I would similarly suggest that the will is a necessary evil in the institutions where such musics are practiced and taught as well as in practitioners' "negotiations" of their societies. About this issue, Tomlinson says:

Difficulties arise not in our inevitable making of personal canons but rather in our move to empower them by uniting with others who hold fundamentally similar personal canons. This move toward the communal solace of a shared, metapersonal canon is a play for the political power of an institution. It is a shift away from dialogue with others whose personal canons diverge widely from ours, dialogue by which we might sustain a healthy flux of impermanent and intersubjective canons. It is a bid for control and domination that stymies the parallactic, dialogical play of evaluations. (84)

CalArts, where I attended graduate school for the previous two years, is one of the highest profile attempts at pluralistic institution-building in the arts, as well as, not coincidentally, a notable experimentalist outpost. To be sure, both of these factors contributed to my interest in studying there. But of course, the irony of "outsider artists" who don't believe either in institutions or in the primacy of the will nonetheless insisting on being accorded the opportunity to pursue accredited graduate degrees on their own terms is not lost on many of us who operate in the more traditional ways. It is more than a mere harmless, abstract irony, and that is the crux of this matter as I see it. Whereas the first generation of electronic musicians, for example, fought to be institutionally recognized for their strictly musical abilities and contributions vis-a-vis the Western tradition as it then stood, it seems many of their progenitors, now granted full institutional citizenship, autonomy, and even the possibility of doctoral level study in some locations, cannot typically be bothered with anything that happened before about 1987. CalArts is teeming with cliques and sub-cliques in this mold: jazzheads, experimentalists, tabla players, conservatorists, technologists, and others. Tolerance, exchange, impermanence and parallax abound, as does the black sheep of the family, ambivalence. There are always enough stalwart eclecticists to keep things operational, but we are outnumbered, here as elsewhere, by specialists with minimal truly abiding interest in areas of study outside of their own.

The absence of shared tradition Tomlinson celebrates is palpable at CalArts, and of course, while I had once wished I could share in less of it than the University of Minnesota School of Music so often dictated, I have to admit that the alternative was strangely unfulfilling. Ambivalence is highly destructive, if not to creation, then certainly to implementation. Competing wills, on the other hand, create friction, which is a precondition for gaining traction. I'm sure that sounds too cute and philosophical to be of any value, but to me, it was a defining characteristic of my CalArts experience, and especially palpable when I was new and had no personal relationships with anyone that might compel them to want to play with me solely for that reason.

Tomlinson pays lip service to the notion that judging and ordering are "basic needs" of the subject, but argues for a self that nonetheless "always recognizes and is brought up short by the otherness in its midst and at its horizons" (86) as an antidote to the politicization inherent in institutions formed out of coalitions of taste. The ultimate destination of that outlook is, as the CalArts experience points to, pure individualism, definition by opposition, and a gridlocked musical culture of affected eccentricities without the possibility of common cause. It is precisely at this point that left becomes right, freedom becomes repression, and political correctness becomes injustice; where a pathological distrust of aestheticism drives its detractors well and truly over the edge to steamroll the very concept of beauty right out of their own lives before setting about the business of performing the same service for everyone else. And as such, it could not be greater anathema to the jazz tradition.


...aestheticism, the view that the meaning and expression found in artworks are of a different, higher order than those found in all other cultural acts; transcendentalism, the view that artistic value and significance can somehow travel with an artwork outside of the specific contexts that determine or redetermine them; and formalism, the view, closely related to transcendentalism, that meaning and value inhere in the internal formal arrangements of artworks themselves, independent of their contexts of creation or recreation. (84)

The musical practitioner as sharer of "wisdom," as I call it above, is in fact wise only if their discipline somehow "matters." It is at this point that I must ultimately confess to being non-plussed by Tomlinson's assault on "the view that the meaning and expression found in artworks are of a different, higher order than those found in all other cultural acts." (84) The "higher" part is more easily conceded. The "different" part, meanwhile, is simply mind-boggling, sheer nonsense talk. It seems self-evident to me, having observed them closely for most of my life, that domestic felines can distinguish orders of cultural acts; mustn't humans be able to as well? Similarly, just how "specific" are the "specific contexts that determine or redetermine" artworks? What exactly constitutes a thorough "independence" from an artworks' "context of creation?" Clearly, like art itself, you know it when you see it, but that is not an adequate philosophical maneuver. If the slipperiness of these concepts doesn't necessarily impact their relevance, it at least makes explaining Bach, Satchmo and Hendrix quite a bit more difficult than it needs to be. Certainly if Tomlinson sees them going out of style, I would like to mark my calendar.

To wit, I would argue that no self-respecting aesthete would ever claim or imply that all artworks are "of a different, higher order" than "all other cultural acts." To do so constitutes precisely the variety of pseudo-relativism that us hardcore aesthetes have to fight against much more directly in our everyday relationships with less discriminate peers: make an artwork, transcend a culture, have a beer, repeat. If this is the posture that Tomlinson is writing against, I am with him; I would humbly submit, however, that it is a posture which is in fact anathema to aestheticism properly understood, and concurrently, that the more properly we understand aestheticism, the less there is to get upset about.

Instead, writing as a captial-r Relativist, Tomlinson does not so much define aestheticism as flatten it. The concept is thereby reduced to a fixation on a crude and absolute dichotomy between artworks and other cultural phenomena, a distinction which misses the mark in two important ways. One is this: a truly hedonistic preoccupation with gratifying one's particular aesthetic desires and nothing else is the surest path to a healthy irreverence for airtight distinctions between art and non-art. As "money talks" to the businessperson, so "beauty talks" to the aesthete. I am reminded here of one CalArts instructor's insistence that "some of my favorite musicians aren't human." Indeed, only at CalArts, but this time at least, I think it's a lovely (and timely) thing. Secondly, there is in fact an aspect of hierarchy which concerns the aesthete, but it is one which exhibits far more porous boundaries and variegated contours than Tomlinson's hardline definition implies. Aesthetes in fact understand more immediately than any other group that "the communal solace of a shared, metapersonal canon" is never better than illusory. "A play for the political power of an institution" by "uniting with others who hold fundamentally similar personal canons" is out of the question for us; we do not (cannot) play nearly that well with others. Such coalitions of musico-academic dogmatism sell out aestheticism at every turn by repressing case-by-case judgment in favor of crude dichotomies of "same" and "other."

All of this is to say that aestheticism, if it has any power at all, derives this power not from dealing in broad classes of cultural artifacts (i.e. "artworks" or "symphonies"), but from the human capacity (tendency? dare I say need?) to judge these artifacts case-by-case, even moment to moment in the case of the temporal arts. Nor is the aesthete forbidden from leveling outwardly conflicting concurrent evaluations of the same artifact based on a multitude of its components and/or properties, issues of "surface" and "depth" making for a particularly obvious example that will be familiar across disciplines. By the same token, the transcendentalist contends that some "artistic value and significance" travels, the formalist that some "meaning and value" inheres, and both contend, unless they are in fact closet relativists themselves, that this happens only some of the time. And only if these hypothetical spokespeople possess a child's view of the world together with a woefully shallow survey of the technical and historical development of their respective artistic disciplines do they refuse to grant that some of the time in practice means exceedingly rarely.

The political dimension of these three -isms that gets self-righteous cultural critics in such a tizzy of course derives from just this Darwinistic view of artistic creation, grading artists as it does on an impossibly steep curve, and thereby fanning the flames of inequality and, inevitably, dogmatism within artistic traditions. Such it is that a fourth -ism, escapism, inevitably enters the discussion, threatening as it does to redeem this Darwinistic worldview by creating a padded cell for it to inhabit isolated from "real" political issues and art-institutional power struggles alike. Thus there is an internal consistency here, a symbiosis, perverse perhaps but undeniable, between aestheticism and escapism, a point often raised in service of harsh criticism of artists who espouse either or both, or who otherwise disavow political art. The validity of such criticism of course hinges, among other things, on questions of what art is truly able to accomplish politically, questions for which I haven't the space or energy at present, but about which I must take the opportunity to say that the aesthete's proclivity to judge case-by-case certainly would come in handy for those artists so inclined to act as political conduits. Indeed, was it not at precisely that juncture when radical artists ceased speaking of activism as something their art can do and began to define it as that which their art does that they officially stooped to the level of their reactionary counterparts?

That Tomlinson's definitions of aestheticism and formalism read as absolute could as easily be the result of carelessness or expediency as of malice (and as easily on the part of the editor as the author). However, seeing that they are allotted only a sentence each in a 30-page journal article by an Ivy League professor, it seems safe to assume that if there was more to say it could and would have been said. And it is in the first place a bit unusual to see dictionary definitions of foundational philosophical concepts offered at all to the readership of an academic journal, a gesture which betrays an underlying desire to frame them in a particular way. To my admittedly rather unusual sensibilities, they are strawmen of a sort, describing an extremism of which I'm hard-pressed to locate an example. I'm not even sure they apply to a classic Old World asshole in the mold of, say, Wagner, who had to be aware of the Other in order to loathe it.

The academicians most vociferously distrusted by practitioners have traditionally not been the scholars but rather their own kind, academically-inclined faux-practitioners, eminent life-suckers whose codified rigidity hits closer to home than pie-in-the-sky post-structuralism ever could. Though a few such practitioner-scholars never fail to make positive contributions, it is in any case shocking to ponder (not to mention to hear) their impact on the jazz of the last 40 years. The pure scholars, conversely, have never had the standing or the influence beyond the walls of their own institutional perches to pose such a threat to musicians in the trenches, which it's safe to say reflects a general state of affairs in American culture more so than any dynamic particular to the jazz world. I am normally inclined to lament this for all the usual left-wing reasons, but after reading this article, a screed so far left it is right, I was perversely thankful for a change. The academic who codifies and prescribes musical practice is far less hazardous than the one who shows a sociopathic disregard for it.

21 July 2013

Backing Chinen

Nate Chinen has a humorous (at least to me) column on the "Jazzbro," defined as "a self-styled jazz aficionado, overwhelmingly male and usually a musician in training himself" who demonstrates

a compulsion to signal the awareness of any mildly startling musical detail, with muttered exclamations like the aforementioned "Woooo"; the emphatic adjectival use of the word "killing," as in "that solo was killing"; and the exploitation of jazz knowledge as a private commodity selectively put on public display.

That offense could possibly be taken to this only-half-humorous article merely confirms that the problem is real. Driven by just such a response from some corners, Chinen actually had to clarify that his beef is with "the performative exclamation, the posturing, self-congratulatory yawp," not with genuine expressions of audience enthusiasm. I couldn't agree more.

This kind of writing, in which hyperbole and sarcasm serve an earnest message, is deceptively difficult to pull off gracefully. I sometimes try it here and usually fail. Seriously, though, if you didn't LOL even a little bit upon learning that Jazzbros "ritually converge anytime Chris Potter is in town with his Underground band," I have some pretty serious reservations about you. And if Chinen's emphasis on age and gender understandably gives this piece an edge to those of us who find ourselves doubly implicated, this is in another sense actually an error of understatement: it has seemed to me for several years now that Jazzbroism is slowly spreading beyond its core demographic group of young males to define a broader swath of jazzland, one that, IMHO, is better defined stylistically. The website Nextbop, for example, though I value and commend them for the service they provide, operates squarely within this space in both style and substance.

In high school, when I first got serious about jazz and started going to more jazz camps, I was alternately enthralled with and taken aback by the top hats, banana ties and unruly comportment so self-consciously flaunted by "the jazz kids." My surly temperament, inexperience playing jazz, and background in classical music kept me from ever truly assimilating to this environment, and it was not much later that in pondering the prospects of becoming a teacher myself all of this began to trouble me in earnest. Though much of my own recent jazz work is concert-oriented, there is a time and place for vocal expressions of approval (perhaps even disapproval) even there, and I would agree with the most butthurt in the Jazzbro caucus that we could probably use more of it, not less. The point of Chinen's piece, which I think is equally important, is that disembodied affect is profoundly destructive, equally so to the experience of the music itself and to the social relationships immediately surrounding it.

13 July 2013

Brad Mehldau and the Naive Audience

I imagine I'm not alone in having substantially modified my listening activities in recent years to take full advantage of the advent of digital music streaming. I now spend long stretches investigating particular artists or other themes, listening once to everything I can find, taking note of the things I'd like to hear again and returning later to spend quality time with them. At that point, I do in fact purchase my own copies, digitally or otherwise, rather than streaming; the internet still doesn't work everywhere all the time, and who knows if it will ever be allowed to.

"You know that record, right?" Yes and no. I probably listened to that record once and forgot all but the name of it, unless it was killing, but even then, it's probably still dangling in the purgatory of Listmania, waiting its turn to either change my life or frustrate the hell out of me. As many elders have pronounced, the danger of failing to truly absorb anything you've heard is now ever-present for students of music. I would take the present situation a hundred times out of a hundred, though, in exchange for almost never having to plop down $5, $10, $20 worrying that it might not be worth it in any number of ways that records, good or bad, relevant or otherwise, often are not. Thankfully, you no longer have to buy the chair having only been shown the legs; now you actually get to sit down in it and scratch yourself.

Truthfully, I can't in good conscience recommend single audition investigation to younger students or any other new listeners. For years, I had to hear something at least 3 times to begin to form an opinion; I didn't just observe this after the fact, but actually felt it in the moment. My formative years would have been quite a bit less formative had I indulged first impressions the way I do nowadays. It makes sense to me, though, that with experience comes acuity, and indeed, my evaluation is now far less likely to change from the first audition to the second, and almost never from the second to the third. Perhaps this also suggests that the well-documented inflexibility of age is beginning to set in; then again, don't these digital treasure troves of damn-near-everything offer by their very scatterbrained nature a particularly powerful antidote to just that affliction? Without the internet, Gentle Giant, Univers Zero and Lightnin' Hopkins would likely have remained mysteries to me until it was truly too late. It used to cost too much to take shots in the dark on stuff you weren't sure about; were we really better off that way?

I've now gone down the Spotify rabbit hole, but plan to keep my eMusic subscription as well, and so for just a bit more than the cost of a new CD, I get a month of unlimited investigation and future offline access to the cream of that crop. As a professional skeptic, I am so optimistic about all of this that it scares me just a bit. I understand that those afflicted with the scourge of audiophilia are not so optimistic, nor are those who aspire to someday raise 2.5 kids solely on their record sales. For me, however, there's no ethical or practical reason not to jump in with two feet. The "promise of technology" is so often just a capitalist ruse, but for musicians, I think this much of it is real. We had better make good on it, don't you think?


One of my first lines of inquiry a few years ago was Brad Mehldau. I have never been one to keep up with the latest developments in music, often feeling too bogged down with catching up on what happened before I was born, but the new digital music paradigm has been a great excuse for me to begin to remedy that, especially since artists active today tend to be represented fairly completely in the digital realm, unlike those who released lots of records before such technology became widespread. For his part, Mehldau has been prolific: my survey took weeks to complete, but it painted a vivid picture as a result. After a couple of years, I have just recently returned to the record that came out at the top of the heap based on those single hearings: The Art of the Trio, Vol. 4: Back at the Vanguard from 1999 with Larry Grenadier (bass) and Jorge Rossy (drums).

Repeated listening has clinched landmark status for this record in my mind for many reasons. Mehldau's playing is original and distinctive, identifiable from the first note, and nonetheless drenched in tradition. The live energy on this recording is positively crackling, the band playing exceptionally well as a unit with all three musicians producing incredible sounds on their instruments. The originals are fresh, the standard material is reinvigorated, and the repertoire is enhanced. I'm purposely repeating every jazz cliche I can think of, and I think they all apply here. Stated in such vague terms, however, they apply to many great jazz recordings, not just this one, which is why we are all sick and tired of reading them over and over and feeling as if we have not really learned anything about the material we are researching. Further, detractors will grant a record every one of these points, even the energy part, and remain unmoved aesthetically. That should tell us something.

I am, as I hope I have made clear, hardly a detractor in this case, nor am I, to be sure, suddenly aspiring to critic-hood, but as the greatness of this record began to sink in, some unique explanations presented themselves which I think go beyond the standard critical tropes namechecked above in a much-needed way. Specifically, I think that the dialogue surrounding audience development for jazz and other art musics is a potentially fascinating lens through which to consider the content of this particular record. Such is my primary purpose here.

As a trained musician with loads of technical knowledge and focused listening experience, this music presented me from the opening piano intro a decisive choice between two distinct modes of listening, and it turns out not to be the structural option that affords me a degree of enjoyment and fulfillment commensurate with a "landmark" jazz record, but rather something more moment-to-moment, akin to what is typically ascribed to the hypothetical naive listener. Why is this? On one hand, it is just plain difficult to hear this music structurally because the style of playing makes the songforms really hard to follow. There is, however, a crucial redeeming quality here, namely that these techniques consistently serve the creation of attractive musical surfaces.

Music like this can actually be a more disconcerting experience for the structurally inclined specialist the more familiar the material is, since there is then a proportionally higher degree of expectation to be violated or neglected. The degree of spontaneous displacement, reharmonization, and riffing that takes place, often at breakneck tempos, is severe, making following along a full-time job, even for large stretches of the warhorse standards "All The Things You Are" and "Solar." On the other hand, I still don't know the form to Mehldau's composition "Sehnsucht" and I don't particularly care to; I would have to listen structurally, and in the case of this record, that is usually not as much fun. The specialist is uniquely equipped to make this kind of decision by reading such performances for technical cues as to how they might best be heard. It is hardly in my nature to do this quite so consciously, but as I say, this record seems to demand a firm decision from the get-go in a way I've scarcely experienced before. What, then, about the hypothetical jazz naif around whom the audience development discussion necessarily revolves? Is he or she not by default the ultimate surface-oriented listener? Does he or she get to make a decision?


The critical dialogue in jazz can, in my opinion, be thrown for quite a loop by the style of playing on this record, which has many contemporary exponents besides Mehldau, and which I would venture does indeed have the potential to polarize reception between initiates and non-initiates to a greater degree than many other jazz styles. Of course, the critical reception of this particular record was scarcely less than glowing; part of my goal here is to unpack why that is and what it means. But I need to clarify what I mean, then, when I claim that this kind of playing is frequently misunderstood.

It is fair to say that the kind of escalated structural deception and rarefied technique on display here is often met with knee-jerk accusations of over-intellectualization and technical overdevelopment. Musicians themselves have many reasons besides taste for leveling such criticisms, but in the case of non-musician critics, I wonder if it is not more significant that such music subverts a dearly held value of the jazz music they know best, namely clarity of structural articulation. I certainly am not writing to plant seeds of ambivalence about structural articulation, to which I once devoted its own outreach-oriented screed. Rather, I want to make the case for understanding The Art of the Trio, Vol. 4 as songform-based jazz where structural articulation is, shockingly, more or less incidental to the listening experience, and which is therefore a prime candidate to connect with listeners whose structural awareness is less than that of the average professional jazz musician.

The most basic lesson here about bugaboos like structural displacement and expansive instrumental technique is that when it all works, no one complains. It sure would be nice to see more analysis from critics as well as musicians that makes constructive suggestions as to how technique might be put to better use in the music under discussion rather than simply declaring how dearly they wish the players' chops had been purposefully stunted. As a model combination of chops and sensitivity, Mehldau should have an important place in such discourse, and those of us who play would do well to learn what we can from him in this way. More germane to the topic at hand, though, I am concerned that musicians and non-musicians only think they are speaking the same language if and when matters of structural articulation and displacement come up for discussion. Most anyone who has not played the music at a high level, whether a professional critic or just an anonymous listener, is reduced to face-value acceptance of futile attempts by musicians to verbalize what they do. Leading questions like "How do you know where you are?" or "How do you all stay together?" are, tellingly, the same questions that young students ask when they lack the grounding and bandwidth to "just play" tunes without getting lost, just all of us once did, possibly for a longer stretch of our lives than we would want to admit to the rare critic who has taken an interest in us.

The teacher, if he is not careful, can sow the same confusion in these students that he sows in critics who ask him these things after a gig if he breaks down and says something like, "You just always have to know where you are in the form of the song," and leaves it at that. As an answer, that is literally 100% true, but it is also highly misleading. The truly inquisitive will follow up with the inevitable, "But you're not really thinking about measures/scales/chords/keys/fingerings, right?" "Right," you say, and send them off more confused than they were before. Or, you just keep digging yourself a deeper semantic hole until you've stopped making sense and they decide to leave you alone.

The ineffability of music is not a new topic of discussion, so forgive me for belaboring the point a bit. The reason I do so here is to highlight the fallacy in reasoning such as this:

Jazz musicians love jazz the most.

Jazz musicians always know where they are in the songform.

Therefore, love of jazz varies directly with the ability to know where you are in the songform.

Jazz songform, unfortunately, is a nuanced, dialectical concept that defies a simple explanation. The diligent student of jazz appreciation following along with "All The Things You Are" is not doing the same thing as the high-level jazz musician "always knowing where they are in the form" throughout a heated performance. In the syllogism above, the musician and the non-musician are, as usual, talking at cross purposes. If we therefore reject equating knowledge gained through high-level participation with that gained from a distance through scholarship but accept the thesis that love of jazz varies proportionately with structural fluency, we thereby resign ourselves to the notion that jazz can only be truly appreciated by people who play it at a high level, since that is the only way to obtain a central skill required to appreciate it. For the reasons I have given, I indeed believe that we equate those two types of knowledge at our own peril, but I also believe that according such centrality to structural concerns is a mistake, and therefore that this conclusion, thankfully, is incorrect.

Consider, if you were not already aware, that there are circles of jazz musicians working today, peers of Mehldau's in age if not always in stature, who take structural obfuscation and displacement on standard material to absurd lengths, far beyond what takes place on this record. As a nominal fellow professional, I will refrain from naming names, but I don't doubt some readers will know just who I'm thinking of, and if they have people in mind I've never heard of, better yet. I have alternately tried listening to this music in each of the two modes I referenced at the outset, that is structurally and non-structurally. I found neither appealing. Displacement does not always create an attractive surface, and it also makes the alternative of structural listening difficult and unpleasant. I have had a foot in gnarlier music than this my whole adult life and this music appeals to neither my head nor my heart. I am secure in dismissing it.

Mehldau has never been so easily dismissible on these grounds, and for better or worse doesn't seem likely to put himself in danger of it from hereon out. This may actually be one of his least accessible records, one which, even if it goes down as his best, as I think it could, will never be recommended as a starting point for students investigating his work for the first time. Even so, accessibility has always been one of Mehldau's defining qualities, and without getting on too sharp a razor's edge about what the word itself might mean, I would posit that no one has ever made more accessible jazz music with such a healthy disregard for traditional structural articulation, and yet without ever begging the question of why form was not abandoned from the outset. Donning my critic's hat for just a moment, I contend that this is a staggering achievement that deserves to be part of this music's enduring legacy. That is to say that if this record is remembered first and foremost for "deconstructing" or "messing with" standard songforms because the non-musician critics drank the structural listening kool-aid and the musicians had their fingers too far up their noses to be able to break the rest of this down for them, I will turn in my grave. (I'll double-time it if it is remembered first and foremost for covering Radiohead, though after checking out some other versions of "Exit Music," including the original, I can't say I'm not impressed with how much Mehldau manages to squeeze out of it.)

Songforms shape the surface qualities of this music profoundly, but they do so from an immeasurably greater distance than textbook jazz appreciation is accustomed to dealing with, and that is to say that the clarity or obfuscation of the underlying songform is irrelevant when the work's defining feature is its surface. This music demands to be heard moment-to-moment and in that sense is made for the naive listener as well as for the specialist. That is not to say by any means that any particular naive listener is guaranteed to like what they hear on that surface (witness this lonely and inadvertently hysterical Amazon review), but it is right there for them to judge, served up with a loving transparency that would make Kyle Gann blush. We do violence to the voices of naive jazz listeners and to the larger dialogue about audience development in jazz, if we indeed want to have one, by insisting on a structural hearing where none is necessary. Similarly, sending grant-funded troupes of mediocre local heroes and underdeveloped college jazz majors out to perform in acoustically disastrous spaces isn't going to win jazz very many new fans, but presenting music like this could. First, though, we must give some thought to how to spot it among the mayhem of the burgeoning digital archive.


I am tempted in spite of my formalist tendencies to argue that the defining feature of every work of music is its surface, but you don't have to be willing to go that far to be led to question the need for listeners to hang on every structural landmark. I have to think Mehldau would agree: in his notes to Sam Yahel's album Truth and Beauty, remarking on the band's ability to "[make] an unconventional meter sound natural and fluid," he adds that "It only becomes tricky when you try to count it!" And now we are back to cliches about jazz, but this one, I insist, is crucially important, for only in taking just such a step back from The Art of the Trio, Vol. 4 is the true depth of Mehldau's contribution revealed.

It is true that "surface" and "depth" are concepts which often cohabit plenty of slippery ground, but I am nonetheless content that this language helps immensely in communicating the essence of how I hear this music and how I suspect it is most readily underappreciated, if only relatively so. Such it is that exalting the "surface" could be taken to imply the charge of superficiality. I would not go quite that far. I have already called this record a "landmark," which I stand by, but hand to heart, I cannot bring myself to see it in the very top echelon for precisely this reason. It is unusually intricate surface-oriented music achieved by means of frighteningly intricate but inessential deeper structures. It is not music where I notice something shockingly new every time I listen, one of those faux-intellectual litmus tests of musical profundity, but one which throughout my journey I've only become more perversely inclined to accept. And of course, returning to questions of methods, it now occurs to me to ask whether this is not precisely the kind of music that the listen-bookmark-return method is destined to privilege over every other kind. It's hard to imagine this dynamic doesn't exist at all; only time will tell, I suppose, if it proves a hinderance.

It must be borne in mind that surfaces are not by definition "accessible" in the abstract, though we might say that they are by definition more accessible than whatever it is that constitutes the corresponding depth. Bach's most densely populated fugues, for example, could legitimately be said to present a simpler underlying structure but far more daunting surface than Ligeti's Lontano. Dealing in thousands upon thousands of tiny grains of time and pitch right at the threshold of perceptual recognition allows Ligeti to construct larger units with shockingly simple-sounding, blurred surfaces; Bach's voices are, meanwhile, coarser grains with fiercer independence, thus running up against a wholly different set of perceptual limitations.

I was, in fact, reminded of both of these composers during the imitative passage between the left and right hands in "Solar." (I trust that those who "know" the record will follow my references and those who don't probably won't want to be bothered with listening to it right this second. And if they do want to be bothered with it, they should listen to the whole thing!) The contrapuntal technique here is somewhere between Bach and Ligeti, not exactly a true blur but nonetheless similarly disorienting in the context of a swingin' jazz piano solo, and yet lent ample clarity by the space between the voices and Mehldau's stunning independence. Does this snippet make this a "great" solo? Like most of them on this record, it is a solo that takes a moment to get going and doesn't always seem to develop in an ideally straight line. And yet there are extraordinary moments that leave you breathless, moments which wouldn't be nearly so powerful if they were more numerous and happened in the "right" order. I'm not sure the power of a more terse, sculpted solo could rival this one's cumulative impact.

Two other breathless spots in "Solar," once it gets cracking: the F blues romp that emerges out of the contrapuntal section referenced above, and shortly thereafter, the snatch of unison that materializes between the two hands in middle of a driving bebop line. (Sure, I'm being lazy about references again, but if you "know" the record and can't recall these, do you "know" the record? And if you don't "know" the record and have read this far anyway, are you really going to cue it up just for me and my stupid blog?) Mehldau's writing reveals a near-obsession with issues of irony and sincerity, and it is a credit to him that all three of these gestures are deathly serious, not to mention utterly shocking (in the best way) the first time you hear them. A credit due, this time, to the listen-bookmark-return method in that given enough intervening time you get to hear these moments for the first time twice.

It stands to reason that just how shocking they remain to new listeners of the future will directly impact the long-term critical standing of this music. Beethoven specialists eventually started sounding like idiots to just about everyone else when they continued building their interpretations on the supposed shock value of starting a piece on a secondary dominant or introducing a non-functional flatted seventh over the tonic triad. There are better explanations for that music's staying power. In the postmodern era, even such purely contextual shock is in danger of ceasing to be possible, but from my necessarily limited vantage point, it is a defining feature of this record nonetheless, which is precisely why the record, as great as I think it is, doesn't grow on me the way other music that is otherwise equally great often does.

That is to say that with each hearing the shocking parts lose their luster a bit. You cannot hear them the way they demand to be heard if you know they are coming. The first note of the out head on "All The Things," stated with a directness, metrically and otherwise, that hasn't yet been heard at this late stage of the tune, is stunning the first time and too obvious after that. The suspended alternating-hands figure in the piano that is high point of the "London Blues" solo (you know, where the knucklehead in the crowd starts shouting) is so exciting that at first you don't even notice that the last chorus of it starts with a comically plain C7 sound. Once you start to hear through the odd voicing, this becomes a disappointing resolution to one of the swingingest passages on the record. And the angular non-sequitur lick in "Nice Pass" only truly works as intended (that is, I have to think, unironically) when it is unfamiliar enough as to seem that the band really did collectively decide to stop on a dime in the 29th bar of Rhythm Changes and go all Cecil Taylor on it. Additional hearings of this epic performance inevitably confirm that the selfsame lick ends the tune, which colors its first appearance tremendously and outs all of this as the one ironic lapse on the record. (And really, wouldn't it just happen to be at the expense of the avant-garde?)

If anyone reading this hasn't heard this music and is inspired to check it out, I fear that I've now ruined it for you once and for all. Similarly, if I could shout through a computer screen, I would shout at the people in charge of musical outreach programs of all types: STOP PREPARING YOUR AUDIENCE!!! The truly profound in music tends to endure quite a bit more sturdily in the face of such tampering but does not offer up its secrets quite so readily. Hence, that this is decidedly music-for-the-moment should not detract from its greatness, especially not in jazz, which of course has always been moment music of a sort. As great as I think this album is based on my initial reactions, and as important as that stance implies I am willing to take initial reactions to be, I find surprisingly little here that threatens to grow on me in that "timeless" way. By speaking so directly, though, it just might speak to the naif in ways the specialist wouldn't normally anticipate. It's likely that anyone serious enough about music to be evangelizing for it has been shaped disproportionately by music of great depth which may not be a reliable hook for newbs, but I would hope it is also clear that mediocrity isn't going to hook anyone either. What is needed for this purpose is great surface-oriented music that lives in the moment. I for one will be looking to this record as a model.