22 April 2011

Mingus Dynasty

"How would you characterize the kind of music you play now?"

"There once was a word used--swing. Swing went in one direction, it was linear, and everything had to be played with an obvious pulse and that's very restrictive. But I use the term 'rotary perception.' If you get a mental picture of the beat existing within a circle you're more free to improvise. People used to think the notes had to fall on the center of the beats in the bar at intervals like a metronome, with three of four men in the rhythm section accenting the same pulse. That's like parade music or dance music. But imagine a circle surrounding each beat--each guy can play his notes anywhere in that circle and it gives him a feeling he has more space. The notes fall anywhere inside the circle but the original feeling for the beat isn't changed. If one in the group loses confidence, somebody hits the beat again. The pulse is inside you. When you're playing with musicians who think this way you can do anything. Anybody can stop and let the others go on. It's called strolling. In the old days when we got arrogant players on the stand we'd do that--just stop playing and a bad musician would be thrown.
"What about British jazz? Have we got the feeling?"

"If you're talking about the technique, musicianship, I guess the British can be as good as anybody else. But what do they need to play jazz for? It's the American Negro's tradition, it's his music. White people don't have a right to play it, it's colored folk music. When I was learning bass with Rheinschagen he was teaching me to play classical music. He said I was close but I'd never really get it. So I took some Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson records to my next lesson and asked him if he thought those artists had got it. He said they were Negroes trying to sing music that was foreign to them. Solid, so white society has its own traditions, let 'em leave ours to us. You had your Shakespeare and Marx and Freud and Einstein and Jesus Christ and Guy Lombardo but we came up with jazz, don't forget it, and all the pop music in the world today is from that primary cause."
"I'll never make much money and I'll always suffer 'cause I shoot off my mouth about agents and crooks..."

-from Charles Mingus, Beneath the Underdog, His World as Composed By Mingus, 350-352.
Mingus was not simply making music, he was creating a canon of American art music. But it wasn't simply American music, it was a reflection of his identity as a light-skinned black man in a racially segregated country where he felt alienated from both white and black people (hence the title of his memoir, Beneath the Underdog). As such, he drams from so many traditions (blues, gospel, classical, various Latin folk musics), but brings it all together into a style that is completely jazz but also a departure from it. Like his hero, Duke Ellington, Mingus saw himself as creating a high art form that was self-consciously African American. Of all Duke's children, he has gone the farthest in fulfilling Duke's aim, "the development of an authentic Negro music."1

1Eric Porter, What is this Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists, 1.

17 April 2011

Jazz and Neurology

The most fascinating thing I've read about music lately was not written by a critic or a musician, but an economist.1 Tyler Cowen's The Age of the Infovore is a broad examination of the information economy, and he makes some suggestions about the way people experience and think about culture. It makes for a thoroughly thought-provoking read, not least of which because he shoots down the annoyingly glib "Is Google making us stupid?" thesis with relative ease.

Most pertinent to this discussion is Cowen's chapter titled "Beauty Isn't What You Think it Is," wherein he argues that neurology plays a far greater role in musical taste than you may think. The internal wiring of individual brains, more than cultural backgrounds and aesthetics, determines whether people can connect emotionally and intellectually with a certain piece of music. To prove the point, he discusses atonal classical music, which sounds like noise to many people.

An assumption undergirding his argument is that "part of the joy in atonal music and related forms is discovering the order and in the meantime enjoying the surprise of what is to come next." While this implies a "mechanical" relationship with art, Cowen argues that emotion and structure are actually "quite connected." Pop music bores some people because it is too easy to figure out, and no amount of emotional content can make up for that (Cowen likens it to "doing a crossword puzzle we have already solved").

If listening to and appreciating music is about finding order (in addition to tapping into the music's emotional core), then those that listen to seemingly disordered music must be especially adept at finding order. It is here where he expands his discussion to include people on the autism spectrum, who excel at finding order and are overrepresented in the population of atonal composers.2 At one point he goes so far as to write, "it could be said that non-autistics have systematic cognitive deficit when it comes to music."

What does this have to do with jazz? Cowen does not mention jazz in this case, but surely it crossed his mind while writing (he is, after all, someone who once called Sun Ra "a musical god of sorts for me"). It is relatively easy to extrapolate his argument into the jazz world, where audiences are small and neophytes often struggle to grasp the emotional content and structure of the music. That struggle itself is why there is a smaller audience for modern jazz (relative to most other "popular" musical genres): it is (purposefully or not) geared at "pleasing people with unusual neurologies." Thus, "The aesthetic lushness of the world will be increasingly distributed into baroque nooks and crannies," to borrow a phrase from Cowen.

This is not to say that the brains of jazz listeners are wired wrong (or that jazz cannot appeal to more than a handful of minds). But when we wonder why jazz always struggles to get noticed into the mainstream, we would be wise to remember Cowen's argument, coupled with Scott DeVeaux's observation about the development of bebop in The Birth of Bebop. When the beboppers realized there was a market for more challenging jazz that may not attract dancers, but still fill nightclubs, they seized on this new art market and propagated a music which, while it may not gain an audience as large as swing did, it was enough to make a living and fulfill their own artistic desires.

Combining Cowen's demand-side analysis with DeVeaux's supply-side history of bebop, it becomes clear that jazz has a small audience because of a break from pop music (not always enforced, as the history of the music shows) made over half a century ago. Since then, the trend has mostly reinforced itself. I'm willing to bet a majority of jazz listeners played music as children, and a majority of those played jazz in school bands, creating an early habit of listening to more challenging music (and probably overrepresenting a group of neurological outliers). Jazz self-selects from a smallish segment of society: musicians (or former musicians) who can see order in music where others do not.

This does not mean that jazz will never become popular again, or that the music is worse off (the musicians may be a little worse of financially, but that is another topic altogether). But it does make it seem like the odds are stacked against a popular renaissance of jazz.

1The second most fascinating thing I've read about music lately was Ethan Iverson's blog post on Stravinsky's rhythm.
2Cowen also argues early in the book that people on the autism spectrum should not necessarily be viewed as disabled. Indeed an autistic mind is particularly well-suited to the information age, for a number of reasons. He goes to great lengths to correct any misconceptions or gaps in knowledge about autism that the reader may have, and as a result he does make you reconsider autism.

16 April 2011

Happy Record Store Day

Today is Record Store Day. This is just a hunch, but I imagine jazz fans are overrepresented in the community of vinyl fetishists (since we listen to a lot of old music, obvs.).

Rolling Stone has a slideshow of the 30 best record shops in America, so if you live near one of these stores, go check them out! There's nothing better than perusing the bargain bin at a shop like Amoeba Records, you never know what you'll find. Three of Rolling Stones' 30 selections are in my soon-to-be adopted home of Seattle, giving me yet another reason to look forward to my impending cross-country move.

I won't be heading to a record store today, since the only decent shop in Charlottesville doesn't have a bargain bin (it's my silent-but-futile protest). I will, however, be spinning a lot of vinyl this afternoon while I catch up on some unfinished posts and watch some basketball. Today's playlist:
  • Cannonball and Nat Adderley: Them Adderleys
  • Miles Davis: Saturday Night at The Blackhawk
  • Leo Kottke: My Feet are Smiling
  • Jimi Hendrix: Band of Gypsies
  • Thelonious Monk: Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins
  • Charles Lloyd Quartet: The Flowering

04 April 2011

Kind of Dub

Via Largehearted Boy:
In 2009 Secret Stash Records dusted this collection off breathing new life into it via a vinyl-only release. From the label: 'In the spring of 1981 a group of reggae studio musicians from Jamaica gathered in New York City under the direction of Jeremy Taylor, a music professor at NYU at that time. The result was this Reggae Interpretation of Kind of Blue.' As fate would have it, several weeks after directing the sessions Taylor passed away in his Paris hotel room while on a speaking tour of Europe. A final mix of the album was never released though it existed subrosa in rough, lo-fi, cassette form among genre enthusiasst. In 2009, Secret Stash Records began working with the Taylor estate to finally release the album creating both final mixes and dub versions. Reggae Interpretation of Kind of Blue the result of their efforts.
Listen to the reggae rendition of So What here.

03 April 2011

Artistry and Sincerity

Donald Glover on LCD Soundsystem, who played a farewell show last night at Madison Square Garden:
The sincerity is what made LCD Soundsystem really dope to me. There's no half-ass. No one's "cool." They like stuff. They're really particular and hardworking. Everyone's always talking about how they hate shit. Cause if you say you like something, it makes you a little weaker cause people can attack that. So, as I look at it, LCD Soundsystem are super brave. One of the braver bands ever, especially since they were around when irony and sadness about the state of the world is pretty high.
Truer words were never written. This taps into why I like musicians like Robert Glasper, The Bad Plus, Jason Moran, and Esperanza Spalding, among others. They like what they like, and they've found an interpretive framework (jazz) which allows them to work it all into their art. And their polyglot tastes often end up turning me on to hosts of new music that I may not have found on my own.

The great thing about art in the 21st century is that music nerds can carve out these wonderful little corners of the universe to create their own monuments to whatever they like, and thanks to the technological revolutions that brought us Twitter, Facebook, etc., they often find that their own combinations of tastes are shared by more people than you might suspect. Further proof that we are living in a golden age of music (though not necessarily a golden age for musicians, but that's another issue for another day).


Via Elements of Jazz:
30 Best Blogs for Jazz Students
Hot House: Jazz students hoping to pump out some well-researched criticism should turn to Hot House for inspiration and advice. David Hill may be an amateur, but his stuff still leaks passion and insight well worth consideration.
Read the whole list here.