Quotulatiousness

July 7, 2016

QotD: The bebop revolution in Jazz

Filed under: History, Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The problem [the decline in popular demand for Jazz music] goes back to the early 40s, when a revolution took place in jazz. At a Harlem club named Minton’s, while the swing era was still in full bloom, a group of musicians began experimenting with a new approach to the music. Bandleader Teddy Hill formed a house band with drummer Kenny Clarke, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Thelonious Monk. During nightly jam sessions others would join them, most notably sax great Charlie Parker, who had gotten his start in the swing bands of Kansas City. Vats of ink have been spilled deciphering the meaning of bebop. If jazz writers are to be believed, it defies easy categorization and requires sets and subsets to understand, but a succinct four-part summary was offered by Neil Tesser in The Playboy Guide to Jazz a couple years ago. First, the beboppers used small, quick combos — most often of trumpet and sax backed by piano, bass, and drums — instead of orchestras. Second, they used more complex chords, exploring “lively, colorful combinations of notes that previous listeners considered too dissonant for jazz.” Third, they often abandoned the melody of a song in order to improvise, relying more heavily on the song’s harmony.

Fourth, beboppers had attitude: “Instead of smooth and hummable melodies designed for dancing, the beboppers created angular tunes with unexpected accents and irregular phrases — and they expected people to listen, rather than jitterbug, to these songs and the solos that followed. The boppers emerged as jazz’s first ‘angry young men.’ They saw themselves as artists first and entertainers second, and they demanded that others respect them and their music accordingly.”

Some of the new jazz was undeniably brilliant, and many of the bebop and hard bop recordings that have been remastered and reissued only seem to acquire more appeal with age. Albums like Parker’s Now’s the Time, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Dexter Gordon’s Go, Sonny Rollins Vol. 2, and Coltrane’s Blue Train are timeless, bristling with energy, jaw-dropping improvisation, and deep spirituality. But when they cast their spell, they laid complete waste to the pop-jazz tradition. Bebop offered challenges musicians thought they could never get from traditional swing bands, as well as an improvisational ethic that provided an escape from the tough work of writing strong melodies. Some of the players saw this: In 1949 drummer Buddy Rich fired his band because his players “just want to play bop and nothing else. In fact,” Rich added, “I doubt they can play anything else.” Louis Armstrong, whose centennial is being celebrated this year, once referred to bebop as “crazy, mixed-up chords that don’t mean nothing at all.” Before long swing had become a joke. Producer Quincy Jones recalls in the documentary Listen Up that as a young musician he once hid backstage from bebop trumpeter Miles Davis so Miles wouldn’t know he was in the swinging band that had just left the stage.

Suddenly, jazz was Art. Gone were the days when 5,000 people would fill the Savoy Ballroom to lindy hop to the sunny sounds of Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie. Bebop was impossible to dance to, which was fine with the alienated musicians in Eisenhower’s America. (You can bet this era will be well represented by beatnik Burns [in his then-forthcoming multi-part documentary on Jazz].) Even bebop’s own founders weren’t safe from the ideological putsch: when Bird himself made an album of pop standards with a band backed up by a string section, he was labeled a sellout. Then Elvis, to simplify matters greatly, reinvented swing for a new generation, and the Beatles arrived with sacks of great new melodies, and jazz was over as a popular music. Remarkably, beboppers and their fans still blame the drop-off on American racism. Miles once called pop music “white music,” and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in a documentary about the Blue Note label, offers that “whites couldn’t appreciate anything that came from black culture.” Yet whites were as responsible as blacks for making stars of Ella, Basie, and other black swing artists. Only two kinds of music were allowed on the radio following the news of FDR’s death: classical and Duke Ellington.

Mark Gauvreau Judge, “Out of Tunes”, Chicago Reader, 2000-08-31.

July 3, 2016

QotD: The decline of popular jazz

Filed under: History, Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There is a moment at the end of Art of the Trio 4, a live album released last year by 28-year-old pianist Brad Mehldau, when the problem with contemporary jazz is crystallized. After a seemingly endless set displaying his pyrotechnic virtuosity, Mehldau slides into Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film).” He plays the song straight, his suddenly spartan piano style capturing the rich, chilling vocal melody. There’s no endless jamming, no fearful retreat into what has become the classicism of legends like Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie — just a simple embrace of a brilliant pop song, like Sinatra doing Mercer or Ella singing Ellington.

It was a rare moment of clarity in jazz, and as such revealed a certain hollowness to the rest of the album. Jazz has become sadly irrelevant. A recent issue of Down Beat reported that jazz sales last year accounted for only 1.9 percent of record purchases, down from even a few years ago. That’s a striking figure, and points to a sad conclusion: the music, once the source of some of the most unassailable popular songs ever waxed, has become an esoteric specialty, like speaking Latin. Next year Ken Burns will unleash his ten-part magnum opus on jazz, which makes sense. Who better to eulogize something deader than the Confederacy?

But then I suppose I’m not fit to judge. I came to jazz only about five years ago, just before the erstwhile swing boom. I liked some of the new swing music, which makes me a pariah in the eyes of “real” jazz fans, many of whom hated it the way punks hate the Backstreet Boys. Legendary pianist Oscar Peterson told Down Beat that he was “quite fed up with guys putting on porkpie hats, tilting their saxes like Lester [Young, the great Kansas City player], and calling it swing even though they still sounded like rock groups. Obviously, they haven’t done their homework and wouldn’t know Lester’s sound if it rolled over them in a steam roller.” Well, sure, most of the stuff was crap — most of anything is crap — but a few genuinely great songs were recorded: “Love” by the Camaros, “Pink Elephant” by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, and just about everything on All Aboard! and Red Light! by San Francisco’s Indigo Swing. If nothing else, these served as a reminder that jazz was once the catchiest music in America. In listening to the massive Duke Ellington box set The Centennial Edition, I am struck by not only the instrumental virtuosity of Duke’s bands but also the sheer stickiness of the songs: “Sophisticated Lady,” “Day Dream,” “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” “Perdido,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “Cotton Tail” — the list could go on for pages. Before jazz became fat with government grants and cozy in its mutual admiration society with academic audiences, it required hits to survive, and hits require great hooks. Unless jazz musicians learn how to write tunes again, it’s doubtful that in another hundred years we’ll be celebrating anything except the bicentennial of Ellington’s birth.

Mark Gauvreau Judge, “Out of Tunes”, Chicago Reader, 2000-08-31.

May 24, 2015

The John Coltrane Quartet My Favorite Things Belgium, 1965

Filed under: Europe, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

May 19, 2015

John Coltrane playing A Love Supreme Live

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 2 Mar 2014

John Coltrane’s masterwork, A Love Supreme, was only played once in live concert. This portion is the only surviving film of that 1965 performance.

April 18, 2015

QotD: The danger of the “deadly genius” in art

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There are entire genres of art that have self-destructed in the last hundred years — become drained of vitality, driven their audiences away to the point where they become nothing more than museum exhibits or hobby-horses for snobs and antiquarians.

The three most obvious examples are painting, the literary novel and classical music. After about 1910 all three of these art forms determinedly severed the connections with popular culture that had made them relevant over the previous 250 years. Their departure left vacuums to be filled; we got modern genre literature, rock music, and art photography.

Other art forms underwent near-death experiences and survived only in severely compromised forms. Jazz, running away from its roots in honky tonks and dance halls, all but strangled on its own sophistication between 1960 and 1980; it survives today primarily as smoothed-out elevator music. Sculpture, having spent a century losing itself in increasingly meaningless abstraction, is only now feeling its way back towards a figurative vocabulary; the most interesting action there is not yet in the revival of mimetic forms but in artists who speak the vocabulary of mathematics and machine technology.

What makes an art-form self-destruct like this? Many things can contribute — hankerings for bourgeois respectability, corruption by politics, clumsy response to a competing genre. But the one we see over and over again is deadly genius.

A deadly genius is a talent so impressive that he can break and remake all the rules of the form, and seduce others into trying to emulate his disruptive brilliance — even when those followers lack the raw ability or grounding to make art in the new idiom the the genius has defined.

Arnold Schoenberg (classical music). James Joyce (literary novels). John Coltrane (jazz). Pablo Picasso (painting). Konstantin Brancusi (sculpture). These men had the knack of inventing radical new forms that made the preexisting conventions of their arts seem stale and outworn. They produced works of brilliance, taught their followers to value disruptive brillance over tradition, and in doing so all but destroyed their arts.

Eric S. Raymond, “Deadly Genius and the Back-To-Zero Problem”, Armed and Dangerous, 2004-09-24.

March 27, 2015

Stanley Jordan – Autumn Leaves 1990

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 12 Jul 2013

Live in Montreal Jazz Festival 1990

Bass player Charnett Moffett

The drummer Tommy Campbell

H/T to Victor for the link.

March 5, 2015

John Coltrane – A Love Supreme (Full album, 1964)

Filed under: Media, Religion, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

The album that made me start paying attention to jazz…

Published on 9 Dec 2013

JOHN COLTRANE
“A LOVE SUPREME”
1964
(Impulse)

Genre: Modal Jazz, Avant-garde Jazz

Tracklist:
1. A Love Supreme, Part 1: Acknowledgement
2. A Love Supreme, Part 2: Resolution
3. A Love Supreme, Part 3: Pursuance/Part 4: Psalm

Personnel:
John Coltrane, tenor sax
McCoy Tyner, piano
Jimmy Garrison, bass
Elvin Jones, drums

H/T to Josh Jones at Open Culture for the link.

What can I add to the chorus of voices in praise of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme? Recorded in December of 1964 and released fifty years ago this month, the album has gone on to achieve cult status — literally inspiring a church founded in Coltrane’s name — as one of the finest works of jazz or any other form of music. It cemented Coltrane’s name in the pantheon of great composers, and re-invented religious music for a secular age. Composed as a hymn of praise and gratitude, “the bizarre suite of four movements,” wrote NPR’s Arun Rath last year, “communicated a profound spiritual and philosophical message.” That message is articulated explicitly by Coltrane in the album’s liner notes as “a humble offering to Him,” the deity he experienced in a 1957 “spiritual awakening” that “lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.”

November 29, 2014

What happens when an artform becomes “too refined” for its audience

Filed under: History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:36

Pretty much all forms of artistic expression above the tribal dance/folk art/cave painting level have had to depend on the patronage model to survive — well, not so much the art itself, but the artists. It must have been some kind of artistic revolution when a village was wealthy enough to have an artisan who had enough spare time to produce items of aesthetic value over and above the purely functional: there was now at least one worker who now depended on the taste (or greed) of others for the means of survival. With the development of larger communities, and the rise of a ruling class, the most skilled artisans would eventually drift into a patronage relationship with the rulers, where the artisan (and eventually the true artist) was dependent upon producing their work strictly for the consumption of the wealthy and powerful. Jewellers were probably exceptions to the rule, as they could produce items of interest to many more in the community and at prices that allowed a much wider base of custom (even slaves and freedmen in the Roman empire could own and wear small pieces of jewellery, for example).

This was the basic pattern of art that lasted from the early settled villages down to the late middle ages: artists were unable to produce their work (and survive on the proceeds) without wealthy patrons. There were a few isolated examples of artists with multiple patrons (but still not really customers in the modern sense, as the patron had a lot more control over the artist’s work than a customer would). The idea of a self-supporting artist only became “a thing” around the time that the industrial revolution was also starting to become “a thing”.

The change from the patronage model to the customer model transferred much of the artistic control from Duke Cosmo the Munificent and his ilk to the artists themselves: now rather than being told how to use their skills and talents, they were now able to decide what to make and also to learn what would or would not sell from their customers. Many failed the test — we don’t have the “starving artist” meme for nothing — but enough of them succeeded that it became a viable lifestyle to paint or sculpt or compose for the wider community rather than the aristocracy (who as a group were still very important, but now as customers rather than as patrons in the original sense).

A problem for artists in dealing with wider audiences is that pretty much by definition, the artistic tastes of a larger number of people will not be “as refined” as those of a smaller, somewhat self-selected group. This means rather than doing the kind of cutting-edge work you think you should be doing, you have an economic incentive to produce for those less-refined tastes of the wider group: the most avant-garde stuff gets you the appreciation (or hatred) of fellow artists and critics, but might not be salable to the average prospective client. With rising prosperity in the western world as the industrial revolution took off, so did the absolute number of self-supporting artists. I’m sure the individual artists would say that artistically speaking, things didn’t improve that much, but as a whole both artists and the community at large benefitted from the wider availability of art and related works.

But, as Jonah Goldberg explained in one of his Goldberg File newsletters back in 2011, at some point the various artistic endeavours tended to start catering more or less exclusively to the critics and to fellow artists rather than to the community. That is usually the point that the artform loses its relevance to the wider community:

I once read somewhere that architecture is the best example of an “artistic” school that has completely broken with popular tastes. Architects certainly seem to design buildings to please each other and the critics and not the public. The average intelligent person goes to the Louvre in France and marvels at the beauty of the 17th-century buildings. The average architecture critic yawns at the musty old antiques and gushes over I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid. I don’t hate the glass pyramid (okay, maybe I do a little). But I don’t go to Paris to see a structure that I could see at a relatively upscale suburban mall. The phenomenon is even more pronounced when you look at modern architecture in more conventional businesses and houses. What’s more appealing to the eye, stately Wayne Manor or the Hall of Justice?

Still, I don’t know if architecture is the best example of the phenomenon. Modern art caters to popular tastes just as little as architecture. A great deal of performance and installation art strikes most normal people as a colossal joke or a straight-up con. And please don’t tell me that my failure to appreciate three squares and a triangle or a blob of paint on a canvas is my shortcoming. If something isn’t aesthetically pleasing or interesting, doesn’t require skills I do not have, and makes a stupid point stupidly, I don’t appreciate it as art. That doesn’t make me a philistine. It makes me a non-rube.

Anyway, it seems to me that the more a relatively artistic field of endeavor caters to critics over consumers, the worse it gets. You can see this all over the place, from haute cuisine to music. Some of my best friends in college were music majors, and they would ramble on about how Philip Glass is a genius. Maybe he is. But I’ll take Beethoven or the Beatles over him any day. I don’t follow the literary world too closely these days, but my impression is that the same is true in the world of fiction. If you write for the critics, only the critics will read you.

Academia certainly suffers from this problem. Visit the history section of a bookstore and you’ll find a fascinating disconnect between history books written by popular historians and those written by academic historians. In fact, you won’t find that many histories written by academic historians or for academic audiences. Arguably the most popular form of history is military history, but the academic establishment shuns the field almost entirely, preferring far more relevant topics like lesbian mores in antebellum Delaware 1856-1861.

Now, obviously this is a generalization. There’s good academic history, good modern art, good high-end food, and good modern architecture. But there are some really interesting things to noodle here. Interesting to me, at least.

First, I think people underestimate the importance of mass markets. When you become wholly disconnected from the metric of commercial success, catering wholly to elite micro-markets — like the eccentric rich and unknown critics — you become untethered from your culture and from quality. Iconoclastic shock and newness for their own sake become the standard, because that’s what will please the a-holes bored with the canon.

Of course, there are problems if you go completely in the opposite direction as well. Designers of Happy Meal toys don’t exactly strive for beauty or excellence.

But there’s one area of performance — broadly defined — where the performers are driven by excellence, are hugely popular and successful, and haven’t been captured by either the market or the critics.

A more recent example of an artform that stopped creating for their wider audience and started concentrating only on the tastes and interests of a tiny minority would be Jazz music.

About twenty years ago, I became interested in learning more about Jazz. I picked up a number of Jazz collections and discovered that I really enjoyed the progression from the 1930s and 40s big band sound to the smaller groups of the 1950s and 60s. And then ran into a musical wall that I was unable to penetrate as Jazz went in odd and unusual musical directions in the early to mid 1960s. I would characterize it as the Jazz greats stopped producing music for mainstream fans and started creating music for fellow musicians. I don’t know enough musical terminology to explain why I was unable to enjoy the later compositions and performances except that they stopped being “musical” and became “sound”. The rise of rock music almost exactly coincided with the retreat of Jazz from being literally “popular music” to a niche interest of self-consciously aesthetic listeners.

August 15, 2014

Miles Davis and John Coltrane – So What

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

April 29, 2014

QotD: The music business, from 1959 to now

Filed under: Business, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

The music business has flipped 180 degrees in his lifetime, and he led the charge a bit. It used to be that the bandstand was filled with disreputable drunks and drug addicts, womanizers, and plain bums, and the audience was filled with staid drones, dressed for Easter, who instructed their teenage daughters to stay away from musicians and marry a nice accountant, maybe. Nowadays it’s more likely for the audiences to be filled with disreputable cave people, higher than a kite and all dressed like a roadie for Metallica, while the stage is filled with the hardworking, sober people. And the only work for an accountant these days is counting a musician’s money. No one in the audience knows where their next meal is coming from.

Lots of cool cats in attendance in the video. Music used to be more intimate like that. The world would be a better place if you could get dressed up like you’re going to be buried, take the chariot down to a supper club, slide into the banquette, and listen to jazz made fresh daily over the sound of your glasses clinking. It sure beat today’s version of a concert: getting groped by amateur TSA diddlers, then standing three hundred yards from a stage, looking at the TFT side of ten thousand crummy phones pointed at the replacements for the bandmembers that died in bizarre gardening accidents.

Sippican Cottage, “The State Of The Art In 1959: The Ahmad Jamal Trio”, Sippican Cottage, 2014-04-28

March 27, 2014

Smithsonian on the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme

Filed under: History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:04

One of my all-time favourite jazz albums is turning 50, and the Smithsonian is marking the occasion:

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will kick off the 13th annual Jazz Appreciation Month March 26 at 11 a.m., with donations from Ravi Coltrane, son of international music legends, John and Alice Coltrane, and from notable jazz photographer, Chuck Stewart. Coltrane will then discuss his father’s career and the famed studio album, A Love Supreme, widely considered one of the greatest jazz albums of all time and celebrating its 50th anniversary. During its own 50th anniversary year, the museum is displaying Coltrane’s original score in the “American Stories” exhibition through June 17. The ceremony will be webcast live online.

Ravi Coltrane will donate his father’s Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone, made in Paris about 1965, the year that A Love Supreme was released. The saxophone is one of three principal saxophones Coltrane played and will be on view in the “American Stories” exhibition starting June 17. An accomplished bandleader and composer in his own right, Ravi Coltrane tours extensively with his own groups and with many other artists, including jazz musicians. He is a Blue Note recording artist.

“Today, a cherished and beloved Coltrane family heirloom becomes a national treasure and through Stewart’s never before seen images, our view of Coltrane expands,” said John Gray, director of the museum. “These generous donations help us preserve not only the legacy of individual artists, but of jazz music as a whole and its integral role in the history of music in America.”

H/T to Julian Sanchez for the link.

February 24, 2014

Terry Teachout interview on Satchmo at the Waldorf

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:17

Marc Myers talks to author and playwright Terry Teachout about his latest play:

Satchmo at the WaldorfAs Terry Teachout was finishing Pops: A Life, his 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong, he had an idea. Realizing that Armstrong’s final performance at the Waldorf in 1971 was an operatic moment — a meet-your-maker crescendo in the life of a great artist — Terry wrote a theatrical work where the trumpeter reflects on his life, and his white manager, Joe Glaser, adds his thoughts. The radical device was having the same black actor play both parts.

The result is Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man play now in previews at New York’s Westside Theatre Upstairs. The show, which opens March 4, stars John Douglas Thompson and is directed by Gordon Edelstein. Terry, of course, is the Wall Street Journal‘s drama critic, which places him in the tricky position of walking the talk — putting himself out there as a playwright. It’s one thing to critique plays and performers and quite another to become the artist behind the work and face criticism.

Flying back from Boston yesterday, I posed five questions to Terry a week from Satchmo at the Waldorf’s premiere…

JazzWax: Why place Louis at the Waldorf Hotel—aside from the event being his last performance?

Terry Teachout: One of the themes of Satchmo at the Waldorf is the extent to which Armstrong had lost touch with his original black audience by the end of his life — a fact of which he was well aware, and one that hurt him deeply. It struck me that to use a high-priced uptown hotel as the play’s setting would serve as a powerful and telling symbol of this transformation. Even the title ties into it. You hear it and you ask yourself, “What is Satchmo doing at the Waldorf?”

In addition, the setting is an aspect of what I hope is the complexity of the way in which I portray Armstrong, who wasn’t a simple man by any means. He’s proud, rightly so, that a black man who was born in the Storyville section of New Orleans in 1901 can now play and stay in a hotel like the Waldorf. At the same time, it breaks his heart to look out at the all-white crowd and realize that his own people have turned their backs on him. There’s nothing remotely simple about that situation, or about his emotional response to it.

November 17, 2013

QotD: Mixed drinks

Filed under: History, Law, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 14:45

If, as Philip Larkin observed not so long ago, the age of Jazz (not the same thing as the Jazz Age) ran roughly from 1925 to 1945, the age of the cocktail covered the same sort of period, perhaps starting a little earlier and taking longer to die away finally. The two were certainly associated at their inception. Under Prohibition in the United States, the customer at the speakeasy drank concoctions of terrible liquor and other substances added in order to render the result just about endurable, while the New Orleans Rhythm Kings or the Original Memphis Five tried to take his mind further off what he was swallowing. The demise of jazz cannot have had much to do with that of the cocktail, which probably faded away along with the disappearance of servants from all but the richest private houses. Nearly every cocktail needs to be freshly made for each round, so that you either have to employ a barman or find yourself consistently having to quit the scene so as to load the jug. Straight drinks are quicker and guests can — indeed often do — help themselves to them.

Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008.

September 26, 2013

Charles Mingus

Filed under: History, Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:09

In The Nation, Adam Shatz looks back at the turbulent and creative career of Jazz giant Charles Mingus:

Mingus rarely left his pieces alone when he took them on the road with his Jazz Workshop, as he began calling his bands in the mid-1950s. When the Workshop played “Fables of Faubus,” a dart of sarcasm aimed at Arkansas’s segregationist governor Orval Faubus, at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the jaunty eight-minute tune swelled into a half-hour suite, punctuated by tart allusions to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “God Bless America” and a bass clarinet solo of blistering intensity by Eric Dolphy. (The performance is one of five concerts included in The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964–65, a seven-disc boxed set on Mosaic Records.) In the studio, Mingus was always splicing, dicing and overdubbing, enriching the texture of his music, increasing its density. He tinkered with titles, giving old pieces new and sometimes cryptic names: the tender portrait of a woman he loved, “Nouroog,” reappeared after their breakup as “I X Love”; “Better Get It in Your Soul,” a foot-stomping gospel tune that’s still played on jukeboxes, became “Better Get Hit in Yo’ Soul,” a message to junkies that they’d be better off with a boost from the Lord than one from the needle.

Mingus was always true to his ever-changing moods: he wanted to create music that, in his words, was “as varied as my feelings are, or the world is.” For sheer range of expression, his work has few equals in postwar American music: furious and tender, joyous and melancholy, grave and mischievous, ecstatic and introspective. It moves from the rapture of the church to the euphoria of the ballroom, from accusation to seduction, from a whisper to a growl, often by way of startling jump cuts and sudden changes in tempo. Vocal metaphors are irresistible when discussing Mingus. As Whitney Balliett remarked, music for him was “another way of talking.”

Though he wrote only a few songs with lyrics, his compositions — and his own bass playing, which revealed new dimensions of the instrument and helped liberate it from its traditional time-keeping role — were supremely vocal. He collaborated with poets in East Village coffeehouses and never hesitated to call out to his sidemen when the spirit caught him, as if he was leading a gospel choir. Each instrument in a Mingus tune evoked the voice, invariably in conversation with other voices; and each voice was an extension of his famously tempestuous personality. (“We don’t need a vocalist,” he told the trombonist Britt Woodman. “This band can have an argument with instruments.”) Philip Larkin was astonished by “how every Mingus band sounds like a great rabble of players, like some trick of Shakespearian production.” No matter how small the ensemble, he could create a sense of passionate, often combative dialogue: as one of his sidemen put it, Mingus “liked the sound of a struggle.” If his Workshop settled into a groove, he would suddenly change the time signature: he didn’t want anyone to get too comfortable. Struggle — against complacency, against the confinements of race and genre, against the record industry and the American government — inspired him; he depended on it to create. Though he dreamed of finding refuge on some “colorless island,” it wasn’t clear how he’d spend his time there. He needed something to fight against; his anger, in Geoff Dyer’s words, was “a form of energy, part of the fire sweeping through him.”

February 13, 2013

The Jazz Sweatshop (or the Harvard University of Jazz)

Filed under: History, Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

In the New York Review of Books, Christopher Carroll discusses the great Charles Mingus:

Mingus (1922-1979) would have turned ninety last year, and in celebration, Mosaic has released The Jazz Workshop Concerts: 1964-1965, a new box set with rare and previously unreleased performances by some of Mingus’s greatest ensembles. These concerts, recorded near the apex of Mingus’s career, are visceral and often unvarnished. At times, the music here can be forbidding — several tracks run beyond thirty minutes — and though it may not be as uniformly polished as some of his studio albums, at its best this set captures an element of shock and surprise that Mingus’s studio recordings sometimes don’t.

“Mingus music,” as he called it, was so complex and so much an extension of his own personality that it was largely played only by his own group, the Jazz Workshop. Turnover in the Workshop was high, partly because he couldn’t afford to pay his musicians very well, partly because the experience was so grueling (members called it the Jazz Sweatshop), and partly because so many of them, after sharpening their skills with Mingus, went on to lead their own bands (Gary Giddins once called it the Harvard University of Jazz).

Even with Mingus at the helm playing bass (and sometimes piano), Workshop performances often resembled practice sessions more than concerts. He did everything in his power to push his players beyond their limits: while a musician was soloing, he might double the tempo, cut it in half, or drop the accompaniment of the bass, drums, and piano entirely, all without warning. Often, players would buckle under the pressure and songs would grind to a halt, with Mingus screaming recriminations and heaping shame on everyone in sight. But sometimes his musicians would rise to the challenge, and it was the possibility of this transcendence that gave Jazz Workshop performances such an electrifying sense of expectation and adventure.

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