The Way We Were

It seems to me what we don’t need now is people that come out waving their hands and claiming they know the Right Way.”

Brian Eno

 

Writing is hard.  Somehow what I want to say in this opening sentence, and it’s now my second sentence, escapes me.  I had an idea, but it just won’t sit.

Recently I re-watched “Fame”, Alan Parker’s film about a performing arts school in New York.   It’s a brightly coloured, pacy affair with a lot of muscle and good looks liberally splashed around the edgy New York streets.  There’s a character called Doris who does an audition.  You can tell from the inexplicable change in lighting that it won’t be going well.  She has in tow a very pushy mum and, in case that doesn’t illustrate her subservient squareness enough, she has a blouse done up past her nose almost.  She sings “The Way We Were”, a famous song from a famous film of the same name, she sings it very badly, accompanied by a very bad piano accompaniment recorded on to a cassette by her equally clueless brother.  It is supposed to illustrate bad musicianship, and it is pretty terrible.  She can’t sing, the brother can’t play, it’s all out of tune and out of sync.  It is a disaster.  But I keep thinking about it.  I want to play it.

My idea was that this scene, on a knife edge between comedy and pathos, unknowingly opens up the song in a way that Barbara Streisand, with all her belting bravura, couldn’t.  Where Streisand moves effortlessly through the tune like a hot knife through pink candy floss, Dora’s rendition reminds me of a nature documentary I saw once where a dung beetle keeps trying to push a pile of shit three times its own size, which it has fashioned into a perfect sphere, up a hill, only to watch as it rolls down to the bottom again.  Now that’s a song.

It reminds me of Nancarrow.  “The Way We Were” came out in 1973.  Conlon Nancarrow had, by then, been quietly working on his player piano studies in Mexico for years, beavering away at music that could not be played by humans.  The player piano removes the need for a performer, it is a machine; human beings were not up to playing his music.  His studies are supposed to, in other words, go beyond what a performer could do.  And yet, the effect of them is somehow to sound like three kids playing at once, randomly doodling catchy melodies without a care in the world and without any consideration of what the other is doing.  A nice illusion.

So I go back to it, back to Dora’s audition, I find it on YouTube here .  And it doesn’t really sound like any of these things.  I remembered it like that, not because it has those qualities, but because I do.   In reality, the girl can’t sing, and to find her direction in life she must first (spoiler alert) escape her domineering mother and start taking her clothes off in a nightclub, thus releasing her sexuality and her real calling, which turns out to be acting.

Films, music, art, politics.   They transmit messages, and depending on what we are set to receive, we hear what we want to hear, regardless of what might be called “facts”.  William Carlos Williams once described the idea of a poem as a “machine made of words”; substitute images, sounds, shapes, movement for words, and I think it’s a good description of any other art form.  Politics might even be called a “machine made of statements”.  Statements are often summaries of devilishly complex situations, so it’s good to go back and check the facts before letting your imagination running away with them.  With machines, perhaps watching the whirring of the wheels for the fun of it is the best use of them.

I have been thinking about a new version of “Fame”, set not in a performing arts school but in a chess club.  A somewhat more introverted setting which could preserve the elements of social realism, racism, illiteracy and poverty, sex, neurosis, class and coloured gym wear.  Sexual tensions would simmer in the background, there would be arcs, characters would learn things, hopes and dreams would be dashed and fulfilled in equal measure.  Ups and downs would be described in unflinching detail.  Basically, it would be like the original but with less noise, some peace and quiet.  We all need that.

But even that is not true, not for everyone.  Some people just work and work and get better and better, faster and faster, the noise of progress in their ears.  So around we go again.  With every sentence, an anti-sentence.  Rather than come to a conclusion, I have just had to leave it all lying here in pieces, which Doris I’m sure would understand .  Writing is hard.

Fame.

I’m going to live forever.

I’m going to learn how to fly.

I feel it coming together.

Checkmate.

Who Do I Listen To?

“Nature then, is just nature. I admit I am very impressed with it. The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can do for is to put some order in ourselves.”

Willem de Kooning


The cloud comes down, but too fast and too heavy, more like a blanket, or like jelly just before it sets. It always happens like this. I’m in a room with someone, and I’m teaching them. And they say something, and the room fills slowly up with an imaginary, cloying, sticky liquid. This person is aged between 18 and 21. They say :

“Who should I be listening to?”

I have been trying to think of what to say in reply to this for as many years as I’ve been teaching. It’s the key to everything. When a person says this, and eagerly awaits an answer, they are unwittingly telling you that they think they will never be a jazz musician, pure and simple. They have made this choice. Obviously I can’t tell them that. They want answers. Their parents have just forked out twenty seven grand in used notes in exchange for little nuggets of information such as the one I am about to impart. The great spirit of rebellion that spawned this music, the anger and joy coexisting in Bud Powell’s recordings, the machismo and feminine battling it out in the mind of Miles Davis, the sheer don’t-give-a-fuck fire running through Sonny Rollins’s titanic improvisations, Geri Allen’s fragile spider-like lines underpinned with the swagger of a New Orleans marching band, has it all ended up here in this room? I am starting to feel a bit claustrophobic.

Look, I’m no writer. The opening paragraph of this blog has, compared to my others, a lot of short sentences. This is because I’ve just finished James Ellroy’s brilliantly nasty, disparaging and fictionalised account of the years leading up to Kennedy’s assassination, “American Tabloid”. The anger and disgust of the unseen narrator jumps off the page at every turn. And it has lots of short sentences in it. My ear started to like the sound of them. And how they look. And that reminded me of the anger in Bud Powell’s music, anger that in his case was transformed into a kind of ecstatic energy. I imagine a lot of jazz musicians had this experience; there was plenty to be angry about, and in some kind of chicken and egg coincidence the way music was made was undergoing an explosive revolution.

With this in mind, I get on the tube; Jesus everyone looks fucking angry. Bill Evans comes on my headphones, even he sounds angry today, a taunted bull rampaging through a room full of rose petals. Ellroy, Powell, Evans, their energy is being let out in order that they can get up in the morning, write a new book, make a new record, they are making things ok.

Then something else happens; I go and see some very close friends of mine for a couple of days. The anger, the idea of anger, drifts away. The energy of friendship, of common ground both musical and personal, the way time passes and we are still here years later, the same and different. Bill Evans sounds different today, like he’s reading me a bedtime story. Monk’s angles are child-like, sincere, playful, but not quite as belligerent.

At a band reunion, a band in which I played an instrument I no longer even have, there are faces from even further back, the same but different. I remember sitting in the third clarinets playing Vaughan Williams’s “Folk Song Suite”, medleys of Broadway shows, newly commissioned overtures, “The Rockford Files”. From my vantage point, along with five other clarinets playing the same line, I could feel the air move, we were all somehow engulfed in it, embraced by the sound, so different to sitting at a piano, where one somehow hovers above it. (Watching Bill Evans play is, to me, watching someone trying to actually “climb inside” the chords, ear cocked to the keyboard with bird-like attentiveness, anxious to catch anything that passes.)

I remember the impossibility of looking demure whilst playing the bassoon, the irresistible urge to show off that frequently befell the lead trumpet or the percussionists, the way the conductor would lean inexplicably back in his seat for the “jazzy” numbers and then tense up like a cat eying its prey for the Gordon Jacob suite. I remember how, when we played “What I Did For Love” in the Marvin Hamlisch medley, I would feel waves of emotion that were almost physical and in the room, coupled with a teenage, slightly manufactured distaste for such sentimentality (anyone who’s ever listened to Keith Jarrett will know what I’m talking about). In particular, I learnt how to play with other people, and from that how to be with other people. I discovered that I wasn’t the only freak in Bromley in the 1980s. This is all valuable information that I still think about; well, maybe not the bassoon bit.

Look, I’m no psychologist. But when someone who wants to be a jazz musician asks me what to listen to, I imagine them asking me how to choose their friends. They are almost asking me how and what to feel. And it’s not entirely their fault. They are the customers now, and like all customers they are always right. Time is money, they don’t have a limitless apprenticeship to figure this out at their leisure, there’s no time for accidents, wrong turnings, red herrings. And the amount of energy needed to resist the increasingly conformist, consensual nature of modern culture is enormous. Jazz musicians are not, on the whole, still being beaten up by the police and given electric shock therapy in hospitals. But we are in a bit of a state over this whole role of music in contemporary life thing. Maybe this could, in some way, be our source of anger, our disgust, the unseen enemy that we kick against whilst all the time only putting “some order in ourselves”?