28 October 2021

Bodies and Artifacts (iii)—Jones' Voice

LeRoi Jones
Blues People (1963)
For a Westerner to say that the Wagnerian tenor's voice is "better" than the African singer's or the blues singer's is analogous to a non-Westerner disparaging Beethoven's Ninth Symphony because it wasn't improvised.
(p. 30)
So what if a Westerner says this about Beethoven? What if a small but vocal subculture emerges within the Western world itself where this disparagement of Beethoven is nothing less than the storefront signage, the secret handshake, and the honor code all rolled into one? What if several such subcultures emerge independently, and what if they have little else in common among them besides this?

What tf then?

The Western concept of the cultivation of the voice is foreign to African or Afro-American music. In the West, only the artifact can be beautiful, mere expression cannot be thought to be. It is only in the twentieth century that Western art has moved away from this concept and toward the non-Western modes of art-making, but the principle of the beautiful thing as opposed to the natural thing still makes itself felt. The tendency of white jazz musicians to play "softer" or with "cleaner, rounder tones" than their Negro counterparts is, I think, an insistence on the same Western artifact. Thus an alto saxophonist like Paul Desmond, who is white, produces a sound on his instrument that can almost be called legitimate, or classical, and the finest Negro alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker, produced a sound on the same instrument that was called by some "raucous and uncultivated." But Parker's sound was meant to be both those adjectives. Again, reference determines value. Parker also would literally imitate the human voice with his cries, swoops, squawks, and slurs, while Desmond always insists he is playing an instrument, that it is an artifact separate from himself. Parker did not admit that there was any separation between himself and the agent he had chosen as his means of self-expression.
(pp. 30-31)
An all-time forest-for-trees moment. We get the point: fuck prejudice! But the way Jones goes about making his point here is full of dizzying contradiction.

No doubt Parker was a
raucous
player in the (white) context of his era. Vis-a-vis the raucous quality of Parker's bebop in comparison to, say, Ravel's ballets, the effect could only be to heighten awareness of a certain disjuncture between two macro-aesthetics. And yet, to offer Parker as an exemplar of the vocal quality of jazz horn playing is to strain credulity, not because
cries, swoops, squawks, and slurs
are not occasionally in evidence, but because pretty much everything else about Parker's playing is a spirited departure from the vocal conception. Indeed, he and his cohort mark this departure point definitively. Evidently neither this author nor much of the white critical establishment had ever tried to sing a Parker chorus, or not with any musical fidelity whatsoever. It fell instead to the pedants and the scale nazis to make this task compulsory for their mostly white, mostly haute bourgeois, mostly dilettantish charges, thus doubly ensuring that no one would bother to ask the people who would actually know (despite not knowing much of anything else!) whether such sentiments as the above had any basis in material (not to say cultural or poietic) reality.

Many wise tuba teachers have declared,
If you can sing it, you can play it.
Finding this statement not quite as wise as I had once assumed, and being a stickler for semantic and empirical precision, my first experiences as a tuba teacher quickly led me to embrace a slightly revised version, to which I still very much subscribe:
If you can't sing it, you can't play it.
To which it seems superfluous to add,
If you can't sing it without many hours of practice, then it is not quite
the natural thing
and probably betokens something more than
mere expression
.

Desmond is a perfect rhetorical foil vis-a-vis raucousness, but not in any of the other ways Jones would like him to be. To my ears it's just not accurate to say that Desmond trades in
cleaner, rounder tones
than Parker. Desmond's tone is airy and his control in the extreme registers is inconsistent. His alto playing
can almost be called legitimate, or classical
in the same way that someone could be a little bit pregnant. I concede that drawing such firm boundaries is usually both artistically stifling and socially ungraceful. Where it is indispensible, though, is ethically. If we truly wish to escape from the sniping colloquialism whereby
reference determines value
then we would do well to consider ethics both in parallel and in relation to aesthetics. At that point, taxonomies and distinctions which may be stifling in our capacities as working artists or receptive listeners may nonetheless prove indispensible in our role as citizens. To which point, there is a hell of a lot more to
the natural thing
than the occasional
squawk
;

ditto
the beautiful thing
and
always insist[ing] [one] is playing an instrument
.

If we're nonetheless bound to get mired in drawing room anecdotes somewhere along the line, then for those occasions I'll add that to my ears Desmond is in fact a much more vocal player than Parker. Parker's tone, admittedly, is not particularly "round," but nor do I find it particularly vocal. And again, Parker's cultivated instrumental technique (defined not just as athleticism but also control) seems to me far in advance of Desmond's. (Not exactly a hot take there!) Anybody out there in cyberspace want to pick up the other side of this polemic where Jones has left it?

By way of further illustration of this, another quote from Mr. Borneman:

[Ernest Borneman, "The Roots of Jazz," in Jazz, ed. Henthoff and McCarthy]

"While the whole European tradition strives for regularity—of pitch, of time, of timbre and of vibrato—the African tradition strives precisely for the negation of these elements. In language, the African tradition aims at circumlocution rather than at exact definition. The direct statement is considered crude and unimaginative; the veiling of all contents in ever-changing paraphrases is considered the criterion of intelligence and personality. In music, the same tendency towards obliquity and ellipsis is noticeable: no note is attacked straight; the voice or instrument always approaches it from above or below, plays around the implied pitch without ever remaining any length of time, and departs from it without ever having committed itself to a single meaning. The timbre is veiled and paraphrased by constantly changing vibrato, tremolo and overtone effects. The timing and accentuation, finally, are not stated, but implied or suggested. The denying or withholding of all signposts."
(p. 31)
The funny thing is, obliquity and ellipsis cannot operate without some straight business as their mark. In language the possibility of exact definition or direct statement is all but taken for granted, whether or not the conceit is ever put so bluntly, and whether or not it is strictly speaking possible. In music? Regularity—of pitch, of time, of timbre and of vibrato will have to suffice as analog, even though Jones has previously been at pains to emphasize (correctly) that there is nothing inherently or universally
regular
about the Western tonal-timbral ideal.

There is, further, another ethical tangletown inherent in
circumlocution
,
of
the veiling of all contents
,
and of
direct statement
being
considered crude and unimaginative
.

How relativistic is everyone feeling about all of that? I confess that in absence of any further context it all sounds quite wicked. In offering it up as a macro-trait of an entire people, the suggestion is that it has indeed sustained itself (and those people) for some non-negligible period of time. If it is first and foremost my sheer distance from the world into which these words were first released which causes them to grate on my conscience, then this same distance also furnishes the legitimate basis for questioning whether we are still living in a time where such
veiling
of intent can be unproblematically accepted as just one cultural idiosyncrasy among many without considering its social ramifications.

No comments: