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.

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