Thursday, October 04, 2007

Perpetually Yours

Dan Melnick at Soundslope linked to an article that is a shining example of some honesty and clear perception of this music people insist on continuing to call "Jazz." The author, Salim Washington, tenor saxophonist and professor at the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music, gets so many things right, in my opinion. Reading the essay is like inhaling gulps of fresh air.

Washington's detailed analysis of Mingus' All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother and overviews of other performances from what was originally Candid's Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus shed light on the formalist strategies of Mingus the composer and arranger, in balance with his daring and innovative risk-taking. The Candid recordings in general, reissued or released for the first time in a miraculous box set by Mosaic about 17 years ago, are landmark performances in the history of the music. Washington frames the astonishing range and expressiveness of these sessions as "oneupmanship" with Ornette Coleman, which I'm not entirely sure I buy. But it doesn't matter. Washington insightfully chooses these dates as examples to support his central thesis:

"The entire history of jazz, with its rapid advancements of styles and genres, could be understood as an avant-garde movement. As historians attempt to frame jazz as the quintessential American music, it has become a symbol of United States culture, and is beginning to gain some of the intellectual prestige and institutional support previously reserved for the European art music tradition. As the more celebrated cultural and educational institutions of the country help jazz gain the reputation of a respectable, bourgeois art, its official face accepts an increasingly restrictive view of what is ‘real jazz’ and what is not. This is not only a matter of personnel and repertoire, but also of aesthetic criteria, and social/political orientation. The emerging canon of jazz history frames jazz as an American music rather than as an African-American music. No widely accepted jazz history text denies that the music is an African-American creation, or that most of its innovators have been black. In many dominant narratives, however, certain black social and aesthetic practices are routinely marginalized, if not rendered invisible. One way that these important emphases tend to be lost or misrepresented is by severing the avant-garde character from the mainstream of the music. Rather than explain avant-garde aesthetics as a primary principle of the music, jazz writers and critics have often chosen to isolate the avant-garde as a style practiced by a fringe element of the jazz community."

Important to note that on the same date for Candid that produced Bugs, Lock 'Em Up and a searingly stark and lovely version of Reincarnation of a Love Bird featuring Lonnie Hillyer, Booker Ervin, Dannie Richmond and Paul Bley, November 11 1960, 5 other tracks were laid down with the amazing line up of Roy Eldridge, Tommy Flanagan and Jo Jones, with Eric Dolphy and Jimmy Knepper added on three of them.

Canonical approaches to either so-called mainstream jazz or so-called free jazz often simply ignore these cross-fertilizing events. Outliers or anomalies. Curiosities. It's so much easier to construe a manageable history of the music by emphasizing aberration, by pathologizing the avant garde, or by formalizing the mainstream. Washington's thoughts center on certain socio-economic reasons for this willful ignorance.

Washington accurately speaks to the "litmus test" of be-bop as a reified, formalized style, and takes dead aim at the subtext of mainstream snobs everywhere (including on occasion the formidable Mr. Mingus himself) when they use the coded phrase "playing changes." Washington's reference to David Murray as an inscrutable figure in this regard is another shining insight. There are small quibbles (referring to Murray and Threadgill as "free boppers" misses something essential, namely the loving transcendence of be bop's hegemony altogether that this innovative period represents, especially standing on the cusp of the emergence of the regrettable "jazz repertory" movement of the '80s).

If I didn't have to get to my day job I'd write more, but it will have to wait. For now, another quote from Professor Washington's essay, which I'm rendering in 24 point type, printing, and nailing to the wall in my studio:

"Jazz at its best has always been a perpetual avant-garde movement."


Dan said...

I'm glad you dug that one Peter. I remember the first time I read it I had a similar reaction - it explained something that I had been trying to put in words for a long time, and did so in a cogent and clear manner that I still find enviable for the subject matter involved. I'm planning a couple more posts revolving around that essay and Mingus' open letter.

rosS Hamlin said...

thanks for swaying me to the dark side; i'm on blogger now too. creepily, i'm quite near you right now as well...