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Dave Douglas: Music, Commerce and Culture Wars

By Published: June 26, 2006
AAJ: Well, that tangent has led us rather appropriately to the song "Culture Wars. I sort of overdid this song. I became so enthusiastic about it when I first got the CD that I played it incessantly and forced it on my friends. I do think it's a classic piece. The components of this one are relatively simple—that little phrase that recurs throughout the piece, a consistent groove—and the results are magnificent. I love your opening trumpet section where for several minutes you sort of declare possibilities for the song to come.

DD: It's a very emotional piece for me and it's all about the unfolding. For me, I was trying to write a song where there would be something that seemed static, but had a lot of micro-level change going on through it. So the harmony is very sinuous, yet it seems like nothing's happening. Then before you know it, the thing has shifted into this whole other dimension. And what you get at the end of the dimension is this climax that suddenly stops. Then there's a very simple melody that comes out of the kinds of harmonies that were happening. It's very soft and subtle, and you don't get the full expression of the melody until the end of the piece twelve minutes later.

So to me as a composer it was worth waiting, because I don't think it would have the same impact if you were to just go, "one, two, one-two-three-four and just play the theme right away. It would kind of be like, "right, okay, here's another tune. So it's very much about how the shape of the discussion is sometimes so intertwined with the meaning of what you're saying.

The culture wars, as generally understood, are really hard for me. When I read that we're still arguing about what to teach in science classes, whether evolution should be taught, or see people pontificating about people's lifestyles and what's acceptable and what's not, or taking the gay marriage thing and turning that into an issue to drive people to the polls, or recreating the whole idea of what science is by replacing scientists with ideologues in our national government, I just feel like it's a discussion—on so many levels in our society—about whether we're going to accept who people are or whether we're going to try to enforce these laws about what things should be and shoot down anybody who doesn't stand up to that.

What you find is that so often the people who want to shoot the others down—there's this hypocritical level where they're just as bad themselves. So I always read about Rick Santorum and Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and I feel like, "he who has not sinned should cast the first stone. You always find out after the fact that these guys were running up enormous gambling debts in Reno or something. And hey, nothing wrong with gambling debts if that's what you want to do, but don't go wagging your finger at everybody else.

I don't feel that any of this stuff I'm saying is particularly original. But suffice to say that it's really something that gets under my skin and I get very emotional about it. And I think I see a parallel in the discussion we have within so-called jazz music about what it is and what it can be. And that's also kind of upsetting to me at times—pushing these hard-core hot-button terms to try to put somebody else down or shut them out.

And I'm not pointing a finger at anybody, because it happens on all sides of this discussion. I mean, there are people who are into so-called free improv that are just as hardcore radical exclusionary as anybody else. And there are smooth jazzers that I meet that think anything but that kind of Muzak-y CD101.9 sound is just not acceptable. And then we've all hopefully been up to the wonderful Lincoln Center—the new building that they have that I think is just remarkable. I love it and it's fantastic. But there is a certain bias to the history that they are telling about music in America.

So I just feel that, okay, we're always going to argue. Fine. But I think to not see that as part of this larger culture war that's going on in the country is to miss part of what's going on. I don't see jazz music as an isolated part of American society; I see it as a central part of American society and so the discussions that we're having come right out of what it means to be American—where we've come from and where we're going.

[After a pause] I'm so lame. Don't print that last bit.

AAJ: No, no, it's good.

DD: Words are just hard sometimes. I just think it's so easy to misconstrue and music is one of the hardest things to talk about in the world. That's probably unique to musicians—to say music is so hard to talk about. But I'll bet tennis players will tell you that tennis is so hard to talk about.

AAJ: That's because these activities are not about talking. They are about action. It's really just music writers that talk about music, and we're forced to use metaphors: music is like "flowing, dancing waters, that sort of thing.

DD: Did you read that Anthony Braxton quote? I don't remember where it came to me from, and I can't quote it for you, but it's something like, "when I joined the academic world, I realized I would have to shift the focus in my music to the poetic and mystical because I am forced to talk about and explain my music all the time. I didn't want that to be the it of the music. I wanted the focus of my music to be something I didn't understand and couldn't explain. And I love that! I love that—I think it's one of the reasons I picked the album title here. Because music means so much to us and yet the reason that it does is completely a mystery.

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