Advice For Jazz Students #25: Y is for Youth

“…love, like youth, is wasted on the young” : Sammy Can, Jimmy Van Heusen, “The Second Time Around”

Snappy eh? It trips off the tongue like a good lyric should, it has that smug, smart arsed symmetry that sneaks a meaning more pernicious than at first is felt. George Bernard Shaw said something similar, Shaw and doubtless everyone else in the world who gets “older”.

Youth is not wasted on the young, it is theirs, old people don’t get to choose, them with their knowing glance back at a healthy, happy, tough but fair childhood where things would put hairs on your chest whether you wanted them or not. As with most situations, political or otherwise, you simply have to say: “OK, what would you do? Not what would you do in 1965, when everything was “better”but NOW!

It’s a classic “OK Boomer” situation.

I have youths to think about, two big ones and a very small one. It’s a strange time of inertia and fear. The big ones will have come knowingly through this virus, the small one will doubtless have the tag “corona baby”, as war babies did, and grow up wondering what it meant. They will have their arses kicked by this thing, but a kick that propels them up and out, not wearing them down.

We desperately need young people, old people, everyone, to combine their wisdom, drive, ingenuity, experience, naivety, optimism and free time to reconstruct both the music industry and the world into which it fits. But to be young means you are, I hope, viewing all of this as a challenge, maybe even an opportunity for change, and are not defeated by it. I embrace defeat a bit too easily.

We had it good. Or different. A CD, with its huge markup, abhorrent packaging (jewel cases at least) and precarious physical form (once described as “indestructible”) was nevertheless a thing, a product you could sell to people like a table or a haircut. It was, in other words, a “product”, whereas music is essentially an experience, but you can’t live on that. A CD, like a record, was a product that delivers an experience. It was a disguise in which musicians could enter the market place.

So now what happens? Just the knowledge that a pandemic can freeze the hospitality and entertainment industries, as well as all of those who indirectly rely on movement of people, which is ultimately everyone, will change our lives profoundly. How this happens will be decided mostly by young people, at least I hope so, because they have to live for a longer time with the changes. Right now solitude is the new going out, a tendency that has always been creeping up on us and has finally pounced like an angry cat on a gormless mouse. A social gathering will be, for the next few months at least, a kind of “collection of solitudes”, clusters of laptops looking for love and inspiration and cantankerous bitching. It could be ok. We could get used to it, up to a point. And it’s temporary. But it will, I think, leave a lasting impression.

How does jazz and improvised music fit into this landscape? I don’t know. We will carry on, but it may not be enough. We have to find creative outlets in the isolation. Personally, I like the idea of sending around individual sound files that people add to, a web of musical “consequences”; it may have a texture all its own. The pop and session world has long functioned like this, but in a way that disguises the weirdness and smooths it out, like the band were all there, just playing really tight together. I like that too. But the strange and singular emotion of “remoteness” is another thing altogether.

Frank Zappa’s Rubber Shirt, for example, layers a live drum solo with a bass overdub from a completely different studio session three years earlier. And yet, the two musicians seem to be in a strange and beautiful dialogue that could not have happened any other way except through a third person, in this case Zappa himself, hearing some kind of connection across the years. There’s something ghostly about it, a kind of ouija board hook up. It’s also an example of “Xenochrony”, an absolute banger for “X” that I wish I’d found earlier. And what is composition or improvisation if it isn’t this…hearing or sensing connections between things in varying degrees of separation?

In John Cage’s own recording of his piece “Indeterminacy”, he reads stories, each of which has to fit into one minute, whilst David Tudor, in a separate studio and with the two unable to hear each other, plays through a score using electronics. The result sees Cage often blocked out by barrages of noise or seemingly answered with witty asides, but it feels uniquely human. It makes our “apartness”  into something strangely moving, often humorous and always compelling. The concept sounds unlistenable. Don’t take any notice of people that talk about concepts all the time and don’t do anything. Cage had his ear to the ground (one at time I guess) and was, more than anything else, a maker and doer of things.

These maverick works of art may never pave the way for anything commercial, but to me they remind me that new technologies, through accident or necessity, can and should be used in ways that reveal new emotions and atmospheres. People have been saying this for years, centuries; now, in this tiny bit of time where everything has stopped working, we seem to have no choice. I’m trying to be optimistic, but perhaps middle age is also wasted on the….er…people between the ages of…see, it doesn’t work. It just won’t scan.

Advice for Jazz Students #24: X is for other stuff

It seemed like a good idea, the alphabet. Something to build on or around. Bereft of ideas, it’s like a good friend that offers suggestions. However, I’ve reached that cliff edge that I knew was coming. I put off the dealing with it until now. And here I am. X.

I could say “X is for xylophone”, which is how I imagine of the piano if it gets too “singing” and the rhythm starts to suffer. It’s more like the drums,

If you areXanthoriatic”, you will find you are generally smart but lacking that trait in one particular area

“Xeniatrophobia” is to fear seeing a doctor you are not familiar with. I started this blog before the corona thing got really serious, so I’m over that fear (I’ll see anyone who’ll have me). In fact, the “xen” opening seems to refer often to strangers and our relationship to them. I’m not keen, generally speaking.

.

But what I really want to say is, I know when I’m beaten. If a system fails you, move the pieces, get rid of the dead letters and carry on. Note rows, chord sequences, whatever system you might use in music, know when to ditch it. Even Schoenberg cheated in the interest of a good tune.

There are 400 words in the English dictionary beginning with “x”. All of them would just be there for the sake of it. If “x” stands for anything, it’s that. It marks the spot, the spot where I relax the scheme. I don’t want to like a smart arse. Maybe it’s too late for that, but the “X is for Xerxes” episode would be the final nail in the coffin.

And I still have to do “Z”…..tap tap tap….

 

 

 

 

Advice For Jazz Students #23: W is for Why.

In 1958, if you were a jazz musician, things were surely on the up. “Milestones” by Miles Davis, “Freedom Suite” by Sonny Rollins, “John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio”, “Ahmad Jamal: Live At The Pershing” and countless other albums came spewing out, a steady stream of inspired, revolutionary and important music. And everyone would have been waiting with bated breath, had they known it was going to happen, for the official “Best Year Of Jazz Music”- 1959! (I’m sure once it arrived, Mingus and Ellington breathed a huge sigh of relief and said “aha, at last! It’s all going well for us now! No more struggle!“)

In the same year, serialist composer Milton Babbit wrote an essay called “Who Cares If You Listen”?, a title that was stuck on by headline hungry editors (it wasn’t his) as if to reduce Babbitt’s whole thesis to a raised middle finger. I’m not interested in dissecting it all here, but he says this at one point:

…the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.”

A retreat, then, to boldly not go where you are not wanted, as Captain Kirk might have said, but to research quietly, in a lab coat, the properties of musical structure understood by others in the same line of work. It’s like he was working on a cure for musical illiteracy, and then keeping it only for people who don’t have any symptoms. His disdain for the “whistling repertory of the man in the street“, the curse of populism, comes across like someone chastising their kids for not washing their hands before dinner. He’s a human making music, but for who? And why?

Public and private performance now overlap somewhat, for better or worse. The bedroom arena route to stardom on the stage was undreamt of in 1958; Babbitt’s bedroom gives the impression of a place full of sharpened pencils and bad dreams. He was, as you can see, on a bit of a downer about the future of “serious music”. I don’t want to argue the toss about whether music should reach out to the public, or draw them in (God forbid it should do both). I’m looking at the dates. Babbitt saw an end to what he regarded as serious music by 1958, but for Coltrane, Brubeck, Cecil Taylor and others it was only just beginning.

There will always be detractors, you will always wonder why you are doing it, you may or may not be dismayed by the apparent lack of appreciation from family, friends, the general public or the media. Don’t let that stop you. It is difficult, much easier with a deadline, especially when such a line has a fee at the end, but an audience of one (you) is enough as a starting point. Stravinsky used to just write all day, then when a commission came in, he’d often have something that fit the brief. We aren’t all Stravinsky, we aren’t even all composers, but improvising is the same, because what you play for yourself goes in somewhere and come out, somewhere else, later.

Babbitt felt he was creating something new that, paradoxically, needed to be preserved, creating a closely guarded method of advancement for music, a weird museum of the future. But, you know, whatever floats your boat. He made stuff, he found a way, an academic on a mission to keep music from those who don’t understand it. I feel as if I’m stuck in the middle of a whirlpool of detritus and debris, and, arms outstretched, I catch whatever is passing and I like the look of, and make something out of it. We come and go, and the storm blows on.

But also, to some extent, I’m with Babbitt. To be ambitious is sometimes merely to get really good. When people say “you’re not very ambitious”, I think, well my ambition is to finish this piece or this album or this sodding blog. And to do it well, so everything adds up and makes sense. When that happens, it’s kind of finished. Then the concerns about being a performer start, and I’ve never been one of them. The piano makes music a kind of desk job, coupled with the concentration of a particularly taxing evacuation of the bowels. Works for me, perhaps not for photographers.

So why then? We all have our reasons, but in the end no amount of news about revivals, revolutions, deaths and rebirths will stop people from wrestling that nagging tune out of their head and on to a laptop or a piano or some manuscript paper. You can even whistle it into your phone. The people that want to tell you it’s over or it’s just starting or it’s in need of a rethink, well, I hope someone is writing something like this for them too, because they also need to survive…

After all this, I went back to the music. Listening to Babbitt’s piano pieces, I feel that the two seemingly unrelated experiences of 1958 collided, became absorbed in each other. Serialism’s sound world eventually found its way into a landscape where Cecil Taylor or Alex Maguire could improvise something every bit as detailed as Babbitt’s painstakingly rendered notations and do a new one the next day.  So I’m not feeling Babbitt because somehow it doesn’t seem good economics. But it’s all over the internet now, so he can’t keep it from me any more. I’m not sure whether he’d like that or not.

 

Advice For Jazz Students #22: V is for Virtuosity

What a nebulous term this is. What does it mean? The Merriam Webster dictionary has this to say:

“1: great technical skill (as in the practice of a fine art)”

“2: a taste for or interest in virtu

In music this seems to be perceived as something to do with speed of execution, and, when the fingers hit light speed and can go no faster, you can always make the material they are executing more complicated. This all seems reasonable when you are starting out, mainly because in the early stages of learning to improvise your fingers probably don’t work spontaneously at all. It’s an appealing trajectory, it’s measurable progress. I saw Chick Corea’s Electrik Band in 1989, I remember.

But let’s look at this logically from the viewpoint of a working group. Let’s assume everyone is working to this brief, which will produce, invariably, an increasingly complex web of sound where each voice is only alluding to the original idea. A mass of tangential turbulence like a room full of hyenas. That can be fun.

Fun to play. To listen to, I’m not so sure. Jazz musicians can be very snotty about the reasons why audiences for their music aren’t larger. I’m like that sometimes. When I play music that has that level of activity, now I try to accept the audience numbers. In fact, I mostly try to rein in my (admittedly) stupendous levels of dexterity and let some air in.

Virtuosity assumes this forward motion that never ends, the forging onward to greater and greater depth and intensity. What if that energy went backwards too, inverted itself? It takes energy to leave space. It’s as tiring as producing notes. It’s more like dodgems than stick car racing. But it’s rewarding, and audiences, in my experience, like it. The constant striving for balance, of groove, texture, part motion. The warming of the air between sounds. It might at least reinstate the “virtu” that Merriam Webster are banging on about which, among other things is, according to that same source, the seventh-highest order of the ninefold celestial hierarchy in Christian angelology.

It’s knowing when to be flash. It’s knowing when to shut up.

Which is about now.

Advice For Jazz Students #21: U is for undead

There’s a David Lynch film, before he got famous , where a boy’s plant gives birth to a fully grown grandmother. I always think of this image when I hear the “Is Jazz Dead?” argument, a supposedly sensational headline that comes up once every few years. It is usually followed by the canny observation that “jazz is alive and well” or “safe in the hands of x, y and z”. Even people writing about it like this is interminably dull. Jazz is like the grandmother born to a cactus: how many times can this same creature live, die and be resurrected. Even Jesus only managed it once, which I imagine is enough for anyone.

The answer, of course, is like the idea of a “piece of music”, jazz is not a living thing. Neither is it dead. Earl Hines and Bill Evans the humans are elsewhere, other atoms now, but their records will be new to someone somewhere today, and tomorrow. What is unknown to someone is always new, which is why those same three guitar chords come back and back again.

Jazz is undead, it is both living and dead. Jazz needs both to rejuvenate and consolidate, its constituent parts, drawn from all over since its beginnings, will continue to do so. They will lift and separate. The new will build on the old, and the old on the new, there will be both continuance and innovation. And pursuing us in this simple endeavour to stay productive and sane, the media, good and bad men and women, and maybe, who knows, (in the future), plants, vegetable scribes looking for the gossip or the substance and everything in between, giving birth to their living grandmothers so they may in turn die and rise again, older and wiser. Eventually that pattern gets so old it wears out. Is resurrection dead? Grab a pencil and paper, let’s find out.

Advice For Jazz Students #20: T is for Teaching

I never wanted to teach. I did my best not to, but the hours are flexible and people think they want what they think you have, so it’s good business model. It wasn’t that I felt “above” teaching so much as unworthy of the responsibility. And introverts don’t always like to hold forth, to “present” things. Ask me a question instead, I have a million answers.

Anyway I started small with teaching, kids of 11 or 12, escalated to teenagers, adult learners, and finally, as the cravings escalated, the higher education crowd. It can sometimes feel that teaching works against creativity, it’s the “other thing” we do. However, acres of spare time doesn’t work for me, I need to be boxed in. And teaching is great for that. Deadlines and windows work well together.

At some point, acknowledging that teaching can enable you to play and be “creative”, financially and mentally, led me to the conclusion that one has to somehow combine teaching and performing so that they feed off each other. You probably will have to, so make plans about how to enjoy it.

It’s good to think about how you want to teach from the off. After all this time, it fascinates me how people learn, why they learn, and whether it is any of our business as teachers what our students do with that information. As I said above, I’m more of a reactive person, responding to questions, finding out where people are and going from there. Some teachers have a method, a syllabus almost, and that is great too. Charisma and humour are good, but mostly people are simply paying for you as a musician to be isolated in a room with them and to get what they can from that opportunity. Don’t abuse this by being taciturn and abusive.

My advice is to think of how you can make learning creative, the same way you have to when being taught. You know, assessments, patterns of this and that in every key, one day you might be on the other side, dolling this stuff out. It’s tedious, unmusical, but as long as you accept that it will feed into your music and be useful. Don’t learn it as music, don’t teach it as music. You are teaching people to make lemonade, to find mistakes profitable, to soldier on.

Not all of your students are destined to become jazz musicians. An English Lit course does not churn out forty novelists every year. Jazz education is a general musical training for all kinds of work (and play). It’s not a straight line to virtuosic stardom for everyone. But you might be creating an audience, a group of promoters, journalists, that will support you, and us, in the future.

Advice For Jazz Students #19: S is for Scalextric

If you don’t remember this toy, have a look at it here. Two cars race around a track, each fixed to their own path by tramlines, which which drive the motors via brush contacts on the bottom. You hold the so called controls, which is basically one button for acceleration. These are essentially very fast, upside down trams.

Whoever is on the inside lane has less distance to travel. This is a fixed position, as there is no possibility of overtaking. So the competition is an illusion, a feat of suspended disbelief cloaked in a pretence of excitement. We all loved it in the eighties.

Jazz can feel like this at first. It’s good to get your strength, and your speed, up. A button for acceleration. But this is only the first part of a very long process, and letting go of this bit is what we are all aiming for. At least I hope so. If what you play does not affect the other musicians in the band, and if their reactions do not change your trajectory, then you are reduced to a pair of metal brushes stuck on a track. To create new ideas endlessly without input from your band mates is not easy, but to listen and react is a gradually maturing skill for us all. When teachers say you are “not listening”, they don’t mean that you can’t be bothered, they mean you aren’t yet able to show you are listening by letting go….

Every chord sequence has its bumps and bends, but no one wants to see you whistle round them in record speed. (Coltrane did that once and thereafter his curiosity was satisfied). You are not trying to win, but to entertain and enrich. I guess it’s more like stock car racing, pieces falling off, wondering if we will make it. Monk in a beaten up Morris Minor, ramming into the bumper of a disgruntled Miles Davis.

This is what it’s like to drive as a jazz musician.