Advice For Jazz Students #15: O is for Outlaws and Octatonic

I’ve reached a kind of head scratching mid life crisis alphabet-wise. “O”. “Obvious” was the obvious choice. You shouldn’t always avoid the obvious in your line because a ball in the air always wants to come down the same way. But sometimes you should avoid it, because jazz isn’t just about balls. I’m wary, though, of admonishing potential music makers with moralistic instructions from my electric pulpit. I’ve never seen jazz like that. Pick up a brush and splash some paint around, you’ll know pretty quick if you want to be an artist. Same with music. The rest of it will follow, because the wanting will dictate the learning and the knowledge you seek.

Outlaws, this is how I saw jazz musicians. Clint Eastwood’s solitary wanderings with only an unappetising looking cigar for company. They were also literally outside laws, of supply and demand (lend us a fiver) and of fashion (my God you are still using working from that forties template?). I think you could almost argue the laws of thermodynamics, because if energy in equals energy out why am I so tired and so skint? But maybe this is all word games. For me it was more about mythology.

Duke Ellington, looking impossibly sharp at all stages of his 50 year career, delivers one of his debonair speeches, then wrenches out darkness, groove and pure anti piano out of the instrument, whilst all around him the orchestra glows like a swarm of fireflies. It’s dark entertainment alright, magic slipped under the radar. Monk, precise, child-like, Miles, hard edged and melancholy, Betty Carter stomping around the stage directing her virtuosic, much younger band to make space for whimsical phrases expertly dropped. These are people I am glad I never met in person, great monolithic makers of sound, like pieces Anthony Gormley might have made, and when I tried to practice a tune until I “got it” I was answerable to them. They were mythical, archetypal, symbolic and human. All-seeing eyes from which one couldn’t hide. Benevolent, immovable, they were statues that I would have to walk around to get to my bed.

And now? Now music lingers like a gas, its accessibility at your convenience is its number one priority, to breathe is to consume. Miles Davis with an Instagram feed. Sometimes I just stop and think about that idea. It’s not a bad thing…he would have found a way. I’m looking too. There are ways. It’s not all bad. It’s good and bad, like the outlaws, good and bad.

When something becomes less scarce, it’s cheap. Such is the fate of the Octatonic Scale, hijacked and repackaged by the American Jazz Music Industry as the “double diminished” or the “whole-half” diminished” or the….whatever. I can never remember the name, but “diminishment” seems apt, double or not. Saxophone players (mostly) can run around fast going nowhere on this scale, it’s lack of harmonic direction makes it a brilliant rhythmic device for someone like Michael Brecker to groove like mad on. He’s, for me, the heroic exception that proves the rule, many others simply sounding like Instagram bunnies frantically pumping a rowing machine parked by the side of the river.

But this weird, symmetrical set of notes used to be so much more, a bent mirror through which standard tonality is warped, producing strange visions. Go and find Bartok and Stravinsky to see what can really be done with it. As we skate over our infinite playlists of things to listen to “later”, so the fate of this scale seemed somehow to reflect the gradual cheapening of music, rightly or wrongly. Of course, the flip side of this is access, for all with a laptop and an internet connectionand perhaps that’s worth the trade. We still have these composers when we need them. But the tendency for music to now be a distraction, a soundtrack to something else meaningful, rather than a focus, is a battle we still fight in some way.

The odds are stacked against us. But we are outlaws. Octatonic Outlaws.

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.