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Opinion/Editorial

What Music Tells Us about Our Lives; or, "Well, Git It" by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra

By Published: January 21, 2006
In "The Opposites in Music class at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York, I'm so fortunate to be learning about what makes for beauty in music and what it can teach us about ourselves. In one class, the teachers, Barbara Allen, Anne Fielding, and Edward Green asked, "Can music be used to be a courageous critic of oneself? The answer to that is a resounding "YES!

I've cared for the big band instrumental "Well, Git It since I first heard it performed by the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra at the Paramount Theatre in 1956, because in its all-out boldness and exactitude it's a criticism of a contained, cool and also bland way I had. I recall this piece nearly knocked me out of my seat that day.

For instance, that opening sounds wild. But when we look at it, what's there—the trumpet playing the same basic pattern four times—and then, on the fifth time around, taking off freely in a surprising direction. And what does that lead to? A new pattern with its own order, played by the whole band, followed by the solo trumpet going even higher. I feel the power of this is explained by Eli Siegel, poet, critic, and founder of Aesthetic Realism, (1902-1978) in his broadside Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites, as he asks about the opposites of freedom and order:

"Does every instance of beauty in nature and beauty as the artist presents it have something unrestricted, unexpected, uncontrolled?—and does this beautiful thing in nature or beautiful thing coming from the artists mind have, too, something accurate, sensible, logically justifiable, which can be called order?

The composer and arranger of this jazz classic was the great Sy Oliver, and in the Swing Era the arranger was very important in terms of these very opposites. His job was to structure the piece so that the solos come precisely at the right time and in just the right way to set the players free to give their most imaginative improvisations. And as the musicologist Gunther Schuller noted except for Duke Ellington, no one did it better. Speaking of "Well, Git It he wrote: "[the solos] are carefully selected as to contrasts of dynamics and colors, and [are] integrated into the total work. [The Swing Era, P.686]

Sy Oliver joined the Dorsey band in 1939 following a stint with Jimmy Lunceford's orchestra. This 1942 performance is a spectacular example of his work. As I said earlier, in its all-outness, its bold assertion, it's such a criticism of the desire in a person out of conceit, to hold back, to be coolly above things. This form of contempt—thinking my freedom lay in how little could affect me—made me with all my seeming affability, deeply mean. While others were excited, I remained aloof, apart—and this state of mind was endemic in the newsroom I worked in for many years at a major radio station.

In a class early in my study of Aesthetic Realism, Eli Siegel asked if my motto was "the fur flies, but none of it gets on me. It was. That this changed through my study of Aesthetic Realism is something to celebrate every day. And in this piece, lots of fur flies with such delightful accuracy, we wouldn't have it any other way!

After that wild opening in "Well, Git It there are a series of solos: Heine Beau on clarinet, Don Lodice on tenor sax and Milt Raskin on piano—each showing how unexpected, unrestricted they can be as they follow with exactitude the logical and bluesy chord progressions Sy Oliver provided. And the final segment features the two lead trumpets, Ziggy Elman and Chuck Peterson. They begin by responding to each other, and there's a back and forth conversation, which in jazz is called "trading, not one instrumentalist trying to outdo another. This mutual encouragement is so different from the way I competed with people, for example, getting furious when a classmate kept getting 100's in our Junior High German class, while I was strenuously just managing to pass. "Damn, why does he have to be so good? I felt.

Here the trumpeters are showing how far they can individually "reach to the skies and then they kind of cascade over each other, finally joining beautifully in the rousing conclusion or coda. All the while, the whole band is encouraging them to reach those heights. This is the relation of freedom and order the world desperately needs, because all the horrors going on now arise from a corrupt relation of these opposites—seeing one's own freedom as running over the rights of other people, demanding that they follow the order we hand down, and not giving a damn about one's effect—as long as we can have our way. This music is a joyous refutation of that.

In his talk, "The Orderly Extreme, on Shelby Foote's jazz novella, Ride Out, Mr. Siegel, speaking of the leading character, a horn player, said: "If you can let go and still be orderly, you're an artist because you can reach extremes and still be graceful."

I see this as a great illustration of how music can teach us that freedom and order, wildness and exactitude do not have to fight—in fact, the more we look lovingly and exactly at what's before us, as these musicians do, the more gracefully we'll be able to express ourselves, really be ourselves!



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