Sunday, July 29, 2007

CosmicBen & Wilson Kick Around Jazz

After years of swapping long e-mails about music, fellow amateur critic CosmicBen and I finally got around to writing up a Point/Counterpoint discussion on the general topic of "Jazz: Worth The Trouble?" We plan to continue these conversations as a semi-regular feature; the first one is available now on
CosmicBen's blog.

23 comments:

Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron said...

This is interesting enough, but undermined by an awful lot of generalizations - on both sides. Jazz seems to be the one genre that most serious pop/rock listeners seem to feel _guilty_ about disliking (hip-hop may be its closest contemporary equivalent). I have no idea why anyone would feel guilty about disliking anything. No-one is a hypocrite in his pleasures.

You either find that first jazz record that turns you on and suddenly become alive to the genre (which happened to me at about the age of eighteen), or you don't. No biggie either way.

All that being a jazz fan has done is double my annual consumption of CDs. (Have you heard Booker Ervin's [i]The Freedom Book[/i]? Damn! It's awesome, and unlike Trane - though comparable to Crescent (not quite as overwhelming) in a way that no major tenor save Getz and maybe Rollins were in '63. It's out now as a cheapo RVG.)

I like your description of Amy Winehouse's posture as evoking "Joss Stone's unwed mother", by the way.

ruben said...

You can have a discussion like this about almost any form of music that is different from mainstream pop music. Replace the word 'jazz' by 'classical' for example and it's more or less the same discussion.

Almost any form of music requires some effort to get into if you're not familiar with it from your earliest youth. Also, some knowledge of technical aspects can be just necassary. No one will enjoy a triple fugue by Bach if a) you've never heard polyphonic music before and b) you don't know what a fugue is all about.

That sounds snobby to many people, but 1): the same goes for pop music. When I listened to the Beatles at a young age, the only thing I really heard were the vocal melodies. It took much more time for John's chord changes and Paul's bass lines to arrive in my ears. Especially at an older age, it's just how much effort you want to put into 'getting' other music.

And 2) a lot of rock music is actually a lot harder to get than most classical music. You can easily whistle or sing almost all of Bach's melodies. You can't say that of about 50 % of popular music (that don't have melodies at all), let alone genres like progressive metal or something.

And that, by the way, is a bit of a problem with jazz. For example, Bach's 'Air' from the 3rd Orchestral suite is used in the movie Seven and it's such an accessible, beautiful melody that even die hard rock fans who've never heard classical music can fall for it immediately. I don't see that happen with Monk or Coltrane.

However, the good thing for jazz is that (as this whole topic indicates) a lot of people are more willing to 'get into' jazz than into classical music. Classical is just uncool for many people and claiming its superiority (which I sometimes do, just for fun) can cause furious reactions ("pseudo-intellectual!"). Won't happen if you'd claim the superiority of jazz. At least in Europe, where I live. Maybe it's a PC thing.

Aaron said...

Said ruben:

"such an accessible, beautiful melody that even die hard rock fans who've never heard classical music can fall for it immediately. I don't see that happen with Monk or Coltrane..."

Well I don't know about Monk - who's rarely 'catchy' in that sense - but Coltrane was a gifted composer of memorable (i.e., hummable) themes. I can sing most Coltrane originals and they're as emotionally rich and moving as any baroque, classical, Romantic, Beatles, Beach Boys or Bacharach you may care to name. _Crescent_ is loaded with catchy (if saturnine) original themes.

Even obscure Trane originals and basic blues like "Bass Blues" off of _Traneing In_, or "Trane's Slo Blues" off _Lush Life_ get stuck in my head all the time. Even as I type this I can call up most of _Sun Ship_ and _Interstellar Space_.

ruben said...

Of course. But my point is that Coltrane tunes (and jazz tunes in general) don't belong to the Western public's subconscious as much as many well known classical pieces.

The classical masters are the superheroes of Western civilization for a lot of (deserved) reasons, but the reason that their music still truly 'lives' today is the popularity of tunes like Beethoven's Moonlight sonata, Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, Tsaikovsky's Nutchcracker, Mozart's G Minor Symphony, etc. etc. Maybe the comparison isn't fair, but jazz just doesn't have many popular tunes like that. In my opinion that's one of the reasons for its lack of popularity with the general public.

Aaron said...

You've inadvertently pinpointed the weak spot in your argument (& possibly also in Ben's). The problem is that baroque, classical and romantic music belong to the Western canon and the dominant ideology (i.e., white western patriarchy) has a vested interest in preserving and sanctifying that culture. The fact that it's all in the public domain is also a strong commercial concern that enables the music to be instantly familiar to all Westerners virtually from birth - because everyone can play it and record it and use it in cartoons and advertisements without paying royalties!

[All, or almost all, jazz and twentieth-century pop are still under copyright.]

Historical academic racism also has a lot to do with why jazz only started being seriously studied in the '70s or so, and even then by the slimmest minority of scholars.

This is not to say necessarily that something 'in' the canon lacks merit, or that something 'outside' has more (or even as much). The point I'm making is that there's nothing particularly numinous about concert music from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries - it's 'good', 'great' even, in fact 'perfect' because it's the artwork against which we judge other art.

But it's not by any objective standard the ne plus ultra of world (or even Western) culture.

Aaron said...

And let's not forget that, in its day (which was not, in the grand scheme of things, too long ago), what we call "classical music" (i.e., baroque, classical, and Romantic music) was only listened to by the monied elites.

Everyone else was into folk music!

ruben said...

Aaaargh! Sorry, but I really hate that argument about classical music being sanctified by some male white western 'elite' as if it's a jewish conspiracy or something. I thought we were over that kind of PC rhetoric by now.

The western general public and elite have embraced black culture since the '60s, often simultaneously moving away from the old 'uncool' western culture. Like I said, the dead black males of jazz are more likely to be popular than the dead white males of classical. Still, their music is not.

You can't blaim that on some kind of conspiracy that exposes the public to classical tunes. It's not copyright, bias or whatever that has kept jazz from achieving that status. The 'blackness' of a lot of popular culture hasn't kept it from becoming part of our subconscious. Just not the jazz masters. Why? Maybe it's all in Mark Prindles famous (ahem) introduction to Miles Davis.

ruben said...

By the way, classical music as the ne plus ultra of the western world wasn't the point I was making. It's interesting though. I actually think there is something particularly numinous about the music of that handful of composers we still listen to today. Not concert music of the 17th, 18th or 19th century in general, as you put it, but those few composers that survived everything, precisely because they were different than everybody else. There's also nothing particularly outstanding about 60's rock 'n roll in general, but there is about the Beatles, because they rose above the standards.

No one says you actually have to like Bach, Beethoven etc. That's the subjective part - you obviously like Coltrane more, for all I care Celine Dion brings tears to your eyes. But it is objective that these old white guys went further than anyone when it came to melody, harmony and orchestration (to name a few things). And hey, I think things like originality, diversity and adventurism are pretty okay 'objective' standards, not just for the white patriarchal elite.

Finally, it's a common misunderstanding that classical has always been an elite thing. In the 18th and 19th century opera really was entertainment for the masses. That's where many of those catchy, popular tunes come from that you still hear today.

Aaron said...

I fear that you may be getting a bit out of your depth. Opera and what I call concert music (the term "classical music" has specialized meaning) are _not_ the same thing and were not considered as such until very recently (the early twentieth century, in fact). It is true that opera was considered vernacular entertainment in its day. But you'll kindly note that I never mentioned opera. And it's an indisputable fact that peasants did not listen to Brahms.

I never said I liked any one thing any more than any other, or think one thing is better than the other. Quite the opposite.

I find a lot of what you've argued here pretty naive at best. To say that there's something special about the Beatles that there isn't about the Beach Boys, and to say that said specialness exists independent of commercial concerns, is ridiculous.

Furthermore, your attempt to dismiss my attempt to contextualize the hegemonic popularity of classical and baroque concert music as "PC rhetoric" is really distasteful, implying as it does that the 'PC' world of feminism, civil rights, and social analysis are all irrelevant or that we've moved past or 'beyond' them.

Aaron said...

(Kindly insert the words "for example" after the phrase "Beach Boys", please - I'm not trying to suggest that the Beatles and Beach Boys are equally 'special', just that 'specialness' does not exist beyond a certain baseline ability to entertain and innovate. I could easily have mentioned Television or Afrika Bombaata.)

ruben said...

We’re moving away from the original topic I guess. CosmicBen and Wilson discussed the point that jazz is popular with the elite but not with the general public. The same goes for classical and the reason seems obvious: the general public doesn’t care what the elite thinks and, since the 60s, actually has the tendency to dislike what the elite likes. Now in fighting the bias, jazz has some things going for it – it’s still a lot younger and cooler than classical, for example. But one of the advantages of classical is that it has a lot more catchy tunes than jazz. That’s an unfair comparison (500 years of classical to 50 years of jazz), but Western dominant culture isn’t the only reason for their popularity.

My other point is that those catchy tunes actually exist because classical hasn’t always been just for the elite. If so, we only would have chamber music and that’s not where the catchy tunes come from. Those are in the opera’s, concerts and songs that really had a larger audience – and composers wanted to please their audience. (I don’t understand your remark about the difference between opera and concert music). By the way, peasants actually did listen to Brahms: his Hungarian dances. Of course they’re not his critically most acclaimed works, but that’s not the point and in Bach’s music, for example, there even isn’t a difference in compositional depth between his ‘serious’ works and popular nonsense pieces as the Coffee of Peasant cantatas. One of the tragedies of ‘classical music’ (I agree that the term isn’t appropriate) is that in the 20th century it really became an elite (intellectual) thing. That’s how we got Schonberg, Stockhausen and ended with the complete loss of melody.

ruben said...

Also, if there’s a ‘certain baseline ability’ to entertain and innovate, there’s also different levels of that ability. We could have a long, pointless discussion about that, but to dismiss that difference entirely is what I call ridiculous. Like I said, things as originality, diversity and adventurism in arts are pretty ‘measurable’. To call an artist that excels at all such points ‘special’ is still debatable of course, but not ridiculous.

Finally, my comments on PC were meant to be distasteful, precisely because of the use of terms as ‘white western patriarchy’ outside the territory of real worthy causes as feminism and civil rights. Forgive me, but it reminds me of the days that an innocent guy like Beethoven was snubbed, just because he was liked by the ‘wrong’ people.

Aaron said...

We basically differ on two issues.

1. 'But one of the advantages of classical is that it has a lot more catchy tunes than jazz. That’s an unfair comparison (500 years of classical to 50 years of jazz), but Western dominant culture isn’t the only reason for their popularity.'

2. 'the use of terms as ‘white western patriarchy’ outside the territory of real worthy causes as feminism and civil rights [strikes me as distasteful]'

My response has been: a) 'catchy' is subjective; b) you're (naively, I think) ignoring the absolute power of commerce; c) what we call 'classical' music hasn't actually existed for 500 years yet. (400 at most, if you include baroque.) Shakespeare, for example, had never heard of it, and I don't think Dante felt bereft.

And: d) social analysis is always relevant. No one is saying that Beethoven sucks or is evil or that it's wrong to like him. What we're saying is, there's a reason why we like the things we do, and the reason isn't simply that we're innately attracted to 'good' music. That's ridiculous. Musical interests are pure nurture and if they weren't, the instant an Indonesian baby heard her first gamelon she would hold her ears and say gosh - and we would all emerge from the womb singing eine klein nachtmusik.

ruben said...

We don't really disagree on the second issue. The problem is a period in recent academic history when it was trendy to dismiss traditional western culture in favour of everything that was 'different' (exotic, black, female). Thankfully these days of radical PC are over, but your words 'white western patriarchy' in this context (though obviously not meant that way) caused an allergic reaction with me, that's all.

That said, I don't believe in the universal value of any art or culture. But I insist on the universal value of aspects like diversity, originality and creativity. A baby wouldn't hear that; then again, esthetic appreciation is completely subjective. One can like Bon Jovi more than the Beatles, but no one can state that Bon Jovi is more original or diverse than the Beatles. I'll eat my shoes if such standards aren't used in Indonesia to judge the 'value' of the music a gamelan is playing.

I know what I'm talking about when I say that Bach's Art of Fugue is harmonically more daring than any jazz or rock piece. But it's also a completely useless remark on an esthetic or emotional level; even I like many jazz pieces more than the Art of Fugue (which for the most part is just far beyond my imagination). Still, the appreciation of extreme harmonic adventurism may be nurture, but I think it's quite useful to analyse the value of music (as long as it's not the only standard, of course).

ruben said...

For some reason I don't think we can go on like this much longer before Wilson posts 'Please shut up, you're boring the hell out of me!'

Aaron said...

It's Wilson's own damn fault for giving us contrary loons a forum!

"The problem is a period in recent academic history when it was trendy to dismiss traditional western culture in favour of everything that was 'different' (exotic, black, female)."

That's a gross and irresponsible simplifaction. The 'period' to which you're referring represented simply the first awkward steps in some necessary work. No-one was ever putting down Beethoven, or Shakespeare, or Bosch. But generally people were beginning to realize that there was a lot of worthwhile art that was being ignored.

Why was this necessary, you might ask? Well, because of attitudes that find expression in statements such as this one:

"I know what I'm talking about when I say that Bach's Art of Fugue is harmonically more daring than any jazz or rock piece."

Not only is that a spectacularly philistinic thing to say (have you heard _every_ "jazz [and] rock piece"?), but you have the nerve to insist that a strictly Western notion like diatonic harmony is of any objective significance outside the realm of the music we are conditioned from birth to like, with its familiar rectilinear majors and minors. In fact, much Debussy is more harmonically venturesome than _Art of Fugue_ (Debussy did have _Art of Fugue_ to work with, after all) and it's almost axiomatic that jazz draws much of its harmonic vocabulary from Debussy so...

Two tidbits:
1. In India, there exists an entire subgenre of music called "English Notes" that parodies the lockstep rhythms and punctilious harmonies of Western concert music.
2. It seems to me unlikely that you are familiar with Coltrane's posthumously-released album, _Interstellar Space_. Regardless of its 'merits' as a jazz recording (I think it's spectacular, Wilson doesn't), it is indisputably more harmonically sophisticated than _Art of Fugue_, which, again, stands to reason because it was composed more than two hundred years later and with two hundred years extra of Western musical development informing it.
Lewis Porter's transcription and analysis (from his book, John Coltrane: His Life and Music) might be an instructive read.

At any rate, for someone who insists so obstreperously that he knows whereof he speaks, it seems to me peculiar that you would describe Art of Fugue's complexity as 'harmonic' when the majority of baroque music is extremely harmonically static and most of Art of Fugue's motion is, well, fuguic - i.e., arithmetical and metrical, not harmonic.

Aaron said...

ha - 'simplifaction'. I guess that's something like a cross between simplification and putrefaction.

ruben said...

In my first post on here I said that I sometimes, just for fun, claim the 'superiority' of classical music, because it often causes such angry reactions with people. That's what I just did (sorry).

However (there we go again), your remarks on the harmonic sophistication of Western music after Bach strike me as somewhat silly (unless you're playing the same trick on me). I know my Debussy and, although I love him, compared to Bach he was a clumsy child (and he knew it damn well). I don’t know that Coltrane piece, but saying that it’s ‘indisputably’ more sophisticated than Bach is strange enough, especially when it ‘stands to reason’ just because of 200 years of extra development.

The point is that Western music only caught up with some of Bach’s inventions and always lost something in the process. For example, 200 years before Schonberg he already frequently crossed the borders of tonality (after he was already the first to compose in all 24 major and minor keys of the tonal system – unlike most baroque you really can’t call Bach ‘static’). But he did so with conservation of flowing melody, while the dodecaphonists ended up in a dead end street on that one. As far as I’ve heard, there are some elements of Bach in jazz (unlimited exploration of a theme for example), but I definitely can’t hear 200 years of development in it.

Aaron said...

The problem is, in Bach's day, tonality hadn't strictly been codified the way it was in Mozart's day. So it's fatuous to say that Bach flirted with atonality - he was drawing on vernacular elements that were fundamentally modal.

And I still don't get - despite all your apparent erudition - how you can apply a concept like harmonic sophistication to Baroque music of any kind. Bach was obviously the most (mathematically?) gifted of the Baroquers, but neither he nor any of his contemporaries were especially interested in what we call harmony. That took another hundred-odd years.

But you're not wrong in supposing that jazz derives some significant vestigial influence from Baroque themic variation. Most (actually no, that's wrong - let's say many) jazz musicians were classically trained, often on GI Bill schooling.

Since you can't respond to my claims about Interstellar Space and Art of Fugue without listening to the latter and taking a look at Porter's book, you should probably leave off challenging them for now. By the way, by no means am I claiming that that one Coltrane album is more sophisticated than all Bach. But I do think that Coltrane and Bach are comparable thinkers.

ruben said...

You're making some revolutionary statements about Bach's music being 'fundamentally modal'..... In fact, Bach had complete control over both modality and tonality. In one early organ piece (BWV 572) he even recreates the historic 'battle' between them (and lets tonality win). It's true that tonality wasn't strictly codified in his days, but he did explore it like no one else (in his Well Tempered Clavier). And precisely because he immediately went so far (crossing over to atonality), he opened the possibility for Wagner, Debussy and finally Schonberg (and Coltrane, from what I've heard of him) to eventually destroy tonality. It's not a wild overstatement to suggest that Bach achieved in one single work what all his successors tried in 200 years.

That brings me to your comments on Bach's approach to harmony - which I really don't understand. Bach was all about harmony as we know it. Maybe your misunderstanding is caused by the fact that Bach was somewhat of a loner in his days: most composers moved to the 'galant' style, which Bach found a bit superficial (though he was a master of melody too). Things changed only after Mozart and young Beethoven picked up copies of the Well Tempered Clavier and started to incorporate Bach's harmonic inventions in their work. That blew the 19th century wide open and soon thereafter Bach was acknowledged as the 'God of Music' (Debussy's words, actually).

You've made me curious for Interstellar Space by the way. I already have some of Coltranes well known work (Giant steps, My favourite things) and I've heard bits of (I think) Stellar regions some time ago, which as far as I remember was pretty weird, fascinating stuff.

Aaron said...

I never said Bach's music was "fundamentally modal". What I said was, his alleged flirting with atonality was the result of him drawing on fundamentally modal vernacular elements. In other instances, it's ridiculous to liken diatonic tonal ambiguity (e.g., bitonality, etc.) or chromaticism to atonality. By that logic, the coda of the Beach Boys' "Girls on the Beach" is atonal. Which it most certainly is not.

In any event, too much talk of Bach's tonal innovations runs the risk of confusing a head for arithmetic with genuine musical invention.

Interstellar Space overlaps with Stellar Regions in some ways. The former was recorded about a week after the latter. But IS is an album of duets from drums and tenor, and is thus much more adventurous. To me, Stellar Regions is a little staid, quite conservative, aloof and even 'European', although Alice C plays lovely harplike piano.

Speaking of 'European', something else you might consider looking into (it can be found pretty cheaply) is Ornette Coleman's At the Golden Circle, Volume 1. For years I thought I couldn't stand Coleman, but it turned out my problem was with his sidemen. The unfettered trio settings of that album are revelatory. Pure invention in delirious ten-minute chunks. Hella fun too.

ruben said...

I want to hear Interstellar Space (and Coleman) someday, but I think I’m going to try some more earlier things before. I like exploring new genres and artists chronologically.

One final remark, Bach’s exploration of tonality was just an example. If I would have to call one thing ‘undisputable’, it’s that no other composer covered as much compositional styles, genres, forms, instruments and (dare I say it?) expressions.

Now that’s one of my problems with modern music (including jazz). My theory about 20th century composers is that, in order to keep on revolutionizing, they had to dig deeper and deeper in increasingly smaller pieces of musical ground. In other words, they became rather narrow minded. Inevatibly things got lost along the way, like flowing melody, sense of humour, accessibility and diversity of expressions. Too bad.