Advice For Jazz Students #5: E is for Eco System

There’s no one else here. This is only seen by me until it’s seen by you, by which time I’ve finished it. So the first person to hear this advice is me, and it’s as much for me as it is for you, whoever you are.

The jazz world, with its soft borders for some, it’s strict rules of engagement for others, could be seen as a single eco-system. In doing things their way, people make space for each other, whether they like it or not. We feed off each other, support each other even in our differences.

Those of you who know me might be surprised to hear me say that. As I said, it’s for me as much as you.

Musicians can be obsessive, they need to be, and often equally so regarding criticism of other people’s ways of working. Familiar scenarios might include, but not be limited, to the following:

He Sold Out (Has An Audience).

She Doesn’t Know Her Way Around Chord Changes (doesn’t play standards).

They Went “Avant Garde” And Abandoned Their Values (They Abandoned My Values).

It’s All Image And No Music (The Band Are Younger Than Me).

These sentiments are always sincere, often justified, mostly bluster and catharsis, and can often run riot when work is scarce and adulation scarcer. They are not to be sniffed at. Let them in.

In the end though, a musician who plays in a way you don’t approve of is making a space for you. He or she is cementing your own ideas about what you want to sound like. What do you hear in that space instead of them?

Musicians I don’t like much inspire me, they are part of a process of elimination in finding my own way through the endless maze of music. I try and thank my lucky stars they exist.

I often fail.

(Writing this down helps).

I also love to hear musicians who can do things I can’t do, because then I can enjoy listening to them. From my distance of indifference to measuring myself against them.

(Again, writing helps).

Relish the differences in taste, because they come from your history, the million micro-experiences of hearing certain things in music and feeling a light go on.

Bluffers and charlatans are ultimately left to face their own demons, regardless of their successes. The work will be it’s own reward. It’s just like writing blogs. A face in the mirror looks back and tells you to work harder. Or relax. Relax harder.

Ok that may not be correct. I left out the people who a) don’t care about getting better and b) can’t hear how bad they sound.

Don’t be like them. Work hard. Get better and enjoy getting better. That’s my only real advice, and this blog series will probably turn out to be an alphabetically restrictive circling of that thought. I see myself basically as an apple-thumbed hawk above the hapless hamster of musical process.

So, don’t be like them.

Don’t.

Be.

Like.

Them.

Writing this down helps.

I Have Trouble With History

“I didn’t really buy any of Sun Ra’s records because I could just go and hang out when they were performing, or go to one of their rehearsals, so I didn’t need the record!

Lonnie Liston Smith interviewed by Anton Spice .

Well, that’s cool Lonnie. The thing is, I’ve got everything in my little sardine box music screen machine here, so I don’t need to go out. Musically, I am staring blankly at the pasta section in a supermarket that stretches as far as the eye can see, marvelling at what I could eat. I’m not eating it, but I’m marvelling at my marvellous “eating future”. I’m going to check that out. The trolley’s still empty but think of what could fill it. No-Wave, post-punk, fettuccini, stuff my kids listen to, all things I’m going to check out. Really soon. It’s a really exciting time. Or it will be. The future’s bright.

Not all music, however, is designed for solitary listening, and we know that because people keep going out for it. It’s so cheap to have it sent straight into your ears, yet people spend a lot of money to be around other people listening to live music in a field where the wind may all but blow the sound out of earshot, and most of what you can hear is other people singing along to each other as the band do something somewhere out of sight. People do listen, even if it’s often with their eyes. Social media has propped up a kind of military takeover of the other four senses by the one that now reigns unchallenged; seeing. Seeing is believing.

As you get away from the festival experience, an event defined by numbers in many ways, immersion in music is more an act of will. Sometimes you have to do that yourself, make a conscious decision, lower yourself into the bath of it rather than wait for an attendant with a big bucket to pour it over you. Jazz has always been like that for me; and this goes for its history too.

My knowledge of jazz came from record covers laid out on the floor like a soap opera storyboard, this follows that, swing-bebop-cool-hardbop etc etc. I knew the accepted story, but my knowledge was not a bodily thing, it wasn’t in me, wasn’t backed up by any kind of experience. Jazz history played out like the Battle Of Waterloo with toy soldiers, and you just kind of put them in whatever position you felt most likely. The music’s past, and the past I would like to have experienced but didn’t, was for me a construct, pieced together from the musical fragments available at the time.

It all started around 1983, or thereabouts, The Churchill Library, Bromley, an exploded sonic star where the slowly falling fragments were catalogued alphabetically. Records I took home because they were there. Sun Ra’s “Mystery Of The Two”. Stravinsky’s “Requiem Canticles”. One casualty of the move from analogue to digital was the Duke Ellington with Jimmy Blanton album, which now sounds wrong because the scratch that made it jump a beat in 1984 is missing. Nothing was in any kind of order. Earl Hines, for example, he was an early favourite, but nobody had informed me that learning to play jazz required starting with later players, where it’s less about playing the piano and more about “information”, “content”. It was too late for me. Hines, Stravinsky, Ellington, Cecil Taylor – I started a file under “piano sonorities” and staggered on. For me they were connected by sound, as if the sounds themselves lived, went to school, met other sounds and reproduced.

But if I’d seen Hines bump into a young Cecil Taylor at the florist, I might have made that other connection, might have seen those worlds joined for myself. A kind of social bond that ensures the passage of the tradition, where it finds its own winding path, through accident and circumstance, seemingly disparate worlds coming together in a shared taste for daffodils. I had no history, no tradition, no reason to be doing what I did aside from a general dissatisfaction with life as it was presented to me and so, lacking a social connection, I made my history up, a fake news repository of unchecked facts and suppositions, and I surveyed it as I imagine the owner of a train set would, congratulating myself on the detail whilst knowing real engines don’t run on tables.

History was never my subject, I just couldn’t hold facts or remember names, couldn’t visualise the things happening. I never understood how, considering our impressive roster of cruel mistakes when we get together in big groups, we never learnt from them. It’s unlikely that lessons in jazz history would have helped me, but I would have liked to have seen where Duke Ellington bought his vegetables, I think I’d have learnt a lot from that.

Small things

“The guy who lived downstairs didn’t have a nasty bone in his body. This made getting around difficult.”

(Unpublished, unfinished short story).

I’ve been reading “Sing To It“, a new collection of short stories by Amy Hempel, her first in over a decade. She doesn’t write many, but when she does they are extremely good. They don’t take long. There is no time for an arc as such, not easy to say for sure what happens to her characters either side of the text. If there’s a moral to these stories, it’s ambiguous. Some stories are only a page long (and the font is obligingly large).

Chuck Palahaniuk, who, if I knew him, would presumably hate me to refer to him as the author of “Fight Club”, said this about her:

“Every sentence isn’t just crafted, it’s tortured over.”

So I got into Amy Hempel simply because someone who I think is a great writer recommended her, and sometimes you want a doctor’s opinion about who should take your kidneys out.

I also like that quote about torture, I can believe it.

Short stories are the shrugged shoulder to the raised pointy finger of the giant literary work of genius. There is not much to look at except the sentences, their melody, little observations shaped into something more than simply what is being said. More than the person saying it and more than what they stand for. Something outside the visible, something you could look at and not see the writer.

I wish performing was a bit more like that but it isn’t always, and it especially isn’t always now. We all want to know who made everything and how, and why, perhaps so we are tempted to think we could do it ourselves. We want to see the evidence, check with our eyes that what we are experiencing is authentic, that we are justified in feeling something.

My opening sentence remains, the vertical blinking cursor daring me to add to it. Perhaps I won’t. This blog is already too long, and by the time you read it I probably will have shortened it still further.

One thing shorter than an Amy Hempel short story is a tweet, originally the sole preserve of anthropomorphised songbirds, now a popular vessel of communication amongst humans that customarily lacks the musical quality of the feathered variety.

Reading short stories helps me recover from time spent on Twitter. So it’s not just the brevity then.

(Sorry that was a bit of a moralising ending. Writing well is hard. Baby steps……)

Vinyl

After checking the size of Hokusai’s print “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” against the size of a large shoe box I can confirm that one will not go inside the other. It’s completely buggered my analogy. I wanted to say that this image, which has been plastered all over the world in posters, murals, fridge magnets and billboards, was originally small enough to go in a shoe box. I’ve seen the print at its original size. You have to lean in towards it, squint a bit, shrink yourself down to the size of the people in the boat beneath that frozen wave. Seemingly dwarfed by a flattened perspective and camouflaged by colour, the eye then zooms in to Mount Fuji in the background, miles away yet vivid in its presence. Scale seems a huge part of the experience of art in general, from huge, immersive installations to miniatures that force us  to reduce ourselves to a tiny, critical mass.

This is how it feels to me to listen to vinyl, memories frozen in an unwieldy, outdated format that now thaw on to my new turntable with a slow drip-drip of recognition. This is not, by the way, a treatise on the sound quality of vinyl versus that of digital music. I’m supremely unqualified to comment on that.

I’m thinking about Hokusai again. There is the wave, the mountain, the boat, then there is the artist, and finally, the painting, each represents a kind of mental jump, a process.  The bumps as the needle finds its groove act as a ritual clearing of space, everything after that is announced as a representation of sound, a mirroring of tiny motions of air made at some other time in some other place. As a listener it puts you in a different place, imagining the wires that can carry vibrations through time and space, back to the source.

If you are lucky, there’s no real noise on the record itself, but if you are luckier still, there’s a just a little, like textured notepaper, a skin even, a glimpse of the moon through clouds.  The covering is a kind of invitation.

I used hurl myself off diving boards at my local swimming pool, and the hardest thing was that the boards got higher, you started to see not the surface of the water but the bottom of the pool, which added a cool 20 feet to the apparent distance. I would stand on that edge until someone made a splash, reminding me of the point at which I would be hitting, slightly out of whack, the water. Those were the days.

Records have that crackle that tells me it’s not real time, it’s a record of the time. To hear the music is to peer beyond that skin, through it, to make oneself the size of the fishermen and feel a wave you could fit in the palm of your hand threaten to upend your boat. Digital music is like a gas, it’s like tightrope walking in space, where there is no real difference between your feet on the rope or off. There are no edges to it, a borderless noise that appears in the air, a swimming pool with no discernible bottom. It’s sort of creepy. You can’t fall off.  It’s like swimming by lying on a table and moving arms and legs, hoping that one day you’ll get over your aversion to water.  It’s far away, distant somehow, a hologram of Frank Sinatra in your living room. It’s a kind of pre-listening….it says, I’ll listen to see if I want to listen later on. I listen to a lot of digital music, and I’ve realised that it’s me that has to lean in to it, it won’t come to me.

It seems the most remarkable thing about the recent surge in vinyl popularity (and I realise I am, true to form, thinking about it some ten years after it started) is that life can go backwards. The niggling thought that all human beings are condemned to a kind of pathological progress ending in disaster has eased off a bit. All is not lost, all is not forgotten. Will we all sit around the piano on an Edwardian Sunday again, singing songs we all know whilst our shopping is bought, delivered, cooked and quite possibly digested by some kind of automated cyber drones? Will music ever be injected in a liquid form, bypassing the cumbersome necessity for moving air and eardrums whilst outside people discover the pleasure of travel by stagecoach? Can we combine forward and retrograde motion? Is this the future? 

Maybe the “newest” thing we can do as a species, is to stick the car in reverse occasionally? To take back some of the stuff we bought, wear our clothes more than once, to listen to a scratched copy of “Bad Manners'” first album again.  Perhaps going forwards and backwards at the same time is the greatest leap forward, and always has been. One thing’s for sure, shoes won’t come in a box in the future, so enjoy that while it lasts.

 

 

 

 

Notes