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Some Notes on Jazz Writing and Scholarship

By Published: January 29, 2007

Much jazz writing stems from and articulates the profound identification which we, the listeners, make with the musicians and the music.

The dawning of the New Year is a good time to reflect on what it is that we do. One of the things that I do, and that I am very proud of, is write articles and do reviews and interviews for All About Jazz. At the same time, I am humbled by the collective knowledge and devotion that makes this website such a stunning achievement. Jazz is a form of entertainment, but surely it must be far more than that to evoke such a range of ideas and passions that are expressed herein and in all the jazz writing, commentaries, and interviewing that have accompanied the musicians and audiences on their journey of creating and appreciating sounds and emotions that flow spontaneously along the river of life and of the times in which we live.

The question is, what are we writing about, and why, if the music speaks for itself, as well it should, and if what we experience in our bodies and souls is beyond words, even beyond the music itself, something that excites and which, at its best, evokes a subtle and wide range of feelings, associations, and rhythms within us?

Much jazz writing stems from and articulates the profound identification which we, the listeners, make with the musicians and the music. In classical music, the audience remains distant from the performer, and great restraint and respect is exercised by those who attend a concert. If anything, the listener identifies with the composer and his or her intent, and rarely with the performer, who bears the message but does not—with some unusual exceptions—create it.

Not so with jazz. Even with a well-known standard, composer and performer are one, because the "composition is not really the song but what is done with it in the moment. The empathic feeling between the musician (or group) and the audience is intense and vital. Even the risks and failures of the spontaneous performance are objects of identification, and we look for the players to redeem themselves as they go in and out of "clichés (which abound in any jazz performance) and strive for the brilliance and expressiveness that create an almost trance-like state within us. It is the Greek theater all over again, with its exposure of our tragic nature and the possibility for redemption.

It is no accident that, for example, the tenor saxophone duets between Dexter Gordon and his lesser known peer, Wardell Gray, were called "battles or "duels. We become immersed in the tragic denouements of the performers, whether it be through the blue moods of Billie Holiday or Chet Baker, the spiraling virtuosic release of John Coltrane and his groups, or the sophisticated, laid back expressions of Duke Ellington and Lester Young. Like the youthful fan Francis Borier (played by Francois Cluzet), who worships and takes care of his hero, Dale Turner (Dexter Gordon) in Bernard Tavernier's film, 'Round Midnight, our relationship to our favorite jazz musicians is intimate and our identification complete and alive in the moment of truth. Boundaries are diminished, and performers and audience share in a poignant human experience. There is no other form of music in which the identification occurs at such a deep level.

When I listen to recordings of Miles' Davis doing "My Funny Valentine, or Bill Evans' version of "My Foolish Heart, I am touched in a way that not even a Beethoven or a Mahler or a Rachmaninoff can move me. The latters' greatness stands above us, whereas Davis or Evans stand with us, become a part of us. (I realize in saying this that some jazz musicians, Davis being one, prided themselves on their isolation from the audience, many of whom were more preoccupied with their cocktails and conversation than the music itself, but I am talking about the "devoted listeners, who empathize and identify with and are excited by the music.)

In like manner, a great deal of what passes as jazz writing and scholarship is intended to create an ambience of familiarity and identification with the musician's life and experience. Countless liner notes and reviews tell us about Lester Young's affection for Billie Holiday, chance meetings between Charlie Parker and, well, just about everyone else from that time period, Miles Davis' temper and personality changes, Pat Martino's aneurysm, and all the way back to Buddy Bolden's nervous breakdown.

Abstractly, such anecdotes tell us little or nothing about the music itself, but they do create a sense of closeness to these individuals and of being "present at the creation. At best, such writing becomes part of the legends of the jazz world, the stories that we suppose are also expressed through the music itself. At worst, a kind of snobbery is involved, in which the critic places himself above the mundane worlds of players drifting across the country and world, their personal struggles, their flirtations with narcotics and the law, their idiosyncratic tastes and distastes. Such pseudo-sophisticated and pompous drivel unfortunately populates many pages of what passes for jazz scholarship and criticism. The identification, which should make the music accessible to our hearts and minds, degenerates into gossip. That is why many musicians do not like critics and journalists. They appreciate honest criticism, but they know that smugness and superiority interfere with the musical experience.

Not too long ago, I went to a hotel bar to hear a favorite singer, Joanna Pascale, with a great backup quartet. She and her band know me as a jazz writer and friend, and came up to me during a break. I found myself wanting to say something brilliant to prove my mettle as a journalist. Suddenly, I realized that for me to proseletize to them would be the height of arrogance on my part. The spirit of jazz is the joy and sorrow of living. With all it's profound musicological innovations, jazz is fundamentally a "gut level blending of happiness and sadness, light and dark, rich colors and shades of gray. For the musicians, it's "instinctive and "intuitive . For the listener, it's "relational and "evocative. Let it be.

Another level of jazz writing, requiring more skill and musical sensibility than the above, consists of the musical insight that help the listener understand the music itself, and sometimes sets a tone for a genre or trend in jazz itself. A quintessential example of such insight occurred when Nat Hentoff referred to John Coltrane's emerging fluidity on the saxophone as "sheets of sound. This simple phrase gave all of us an image and a metaphor for Trane's evolving sonic beauty and for his aesthetic sensibility.

Lewis Porter's comparison of Trane's intensity to the vocalizations of a Southern preacher, extended this understanding of "the Coltrane sound. All About Jazz itself is rich with such analytic gems that enrich our appreciation of what the musicians are trying to "say, and how they are trying to say it. The best of such writing is simultaneously abstract and concrete, analytic yet relevant to the necessity of the musical moment. To "know means both to cognitively grasp the context and at the same time to have "carnal knowledge, to establish an intimate connection. Barriers are broken, yet structure emerges.

The down side of these proffered critiques and insights that occur within the ongoing process of jazz journalism (sometimes collected into books, such as the prolific work of Ira Gitler and of Gary Giddins) is that, intended or not, they often establish clichés that inhibit the spontaneity of the listener and force the musicians into categories. The phrase "West Coast Jazz, for instance, is, in my view, totally meaningless, both geographically and conceptually. One of the progenitors of this so-called "style is Bob Brookmeyer, who comes from Kansas City. Gerry Mulligan himself spent relatively little time in California. Anyone who considers Chet Baker as an exemplar of the "West Coast approach misses his inspirations from Bix Beiderbecke and his indebtedness to Charlie Parker. "Cool jazz is another such misnomer. The recording The Birth of the Cool was neither a new gestation ("birth ) nor was it especially "cool. What that recording did accomplish was to bring together a diverse "committee of up and coming players who were extending bebop in various directions. There is no particular "cool style that characterizes this recording. What is amazing about it is the wide variety of approaches that somehow came together for that event. Throughout his multi-phased career, Davis had a unique way of bringing musicians together and creating fresh ideas. But his music had many musical sources, even the "hot work songs of Southern chain gangs and plantation workers. Jazz critics have unfortunately closed their readers off to such connections by taking a small element in the music and blowing it out of proportion.

The next and more disciplined level of jazz writing is that of serious scholarship, analysis, and education. Here, the writer takes a theme and strives to develop it into a coherent exposition that includes historical, theoretical/musicological, and biographical elements which support the key points that are made. One of the finest exemplars of such writing, which I only recently discovered, is Joachim Berendt's The Jazz Book, which was first published in 1953 and has undergone several revisions and translations through the 1990's. This book has the great merit of combining scholarly comprehensiveness with an exceptionally clear and common sense exposition of what could be very complicated ideas. Berendt is aware of jazz as story, people, performance, entertainment, instrumentation, sound, and creative, culture-changing artistry all at once. A rarity, Berendt, who was German, understood jazz from the inside out. He gets "inside the music. He correctly understands jazz as an organic, historically developing whole. He combines the Prussian obsessive preoccupation with "facts with a laid back, easygoing sense of the stunning variety of musical approaches called "jazz that yet have many features in common.

He is equally at home with Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson as with Lennie Tristano and Ornette Coleman. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the details he provides, and the English translation I have does not provide documentation or scholarly citations, but Berendt's singular merit is that he "gets it, he has the right sense of what's going on. He makes other jazz scholars seem like "bulls in a China shop, i.e. making points that seem to stand up in terms of their logic and facticity, but knocking down the whole structure as they go along.

For jazz, history, scholarship, and biography should have an uplifting effect. They teach us that jazz is not just entertainment but a rich tapestry of artistic development and innovation. Jazz is placed in its musical and cultural contexts. We see how it evolved and continues to move forward. We learn how certain difficulties, whether musical, circumstantial, or historical, had to be overcome. The problematic nature of such disciplined scholarly work, however, is that it is akin to a still photograph of a humming bird. The scholar must "stop the action in order to make an abstraction or concept that fits the facts at hand. The music goes silent. The flow is too easily lost. Yet it is necessary to attempt this. For example, reading Lewis Porter's exposition of transcriptions of Coltrane recordings feels a bit like going to the Acropolis and seeing the remains of buildings and statuary that were living and breathing beings three thousand years ago. But when you go back to the recordings after reading Porter, your listening experience is greatly enriched. Not so with all scholars.

Finally, there is a rarefied form of jazz writing that one might call "jazz-osophy, the study of what jazz is, of jazz-in-itself, of jazz as being in time, as the philosopher Heidegger might have put it. (Heidegger would have been pleased at Count Basie's response when he was asked to define jazz. He simply said, "Tap your feet. ) Alfred Appel Jr.'s book, Jazz Modernism (reviewed by me on this website), tried to expose jazz as continuous with modern visual arts. Coltrane approached the philosophical essence of jazz with his well-known remarks about jazz as a spiritual striving. Pat Martino has rooted jazz in a numerological and geometric structure of musical notation, inspired partly by the architect Buckminster Fuller's understanding of form. J.J. Johnson used the phrase "jazz syntax to define the intuitive "logic that makes a performance true to the jazz essence. Marshall Stearns' discussion in his classic, The Story of Jazz of the multicultural roots of jazz offered insights into the nature of the music that anticipated today's emphasis on "world music. Of course, not even the deep thinker can define jazz for all eternity. The musicians themselves continually define and re-define the art form as they pursue their craft. Louis Armstrong, Lennie Tristano, Ornette Coleman, and Uri Caine, for example, are among our greatest "jazz-osophers. They have broadened and deepened our understanding of music to the point where it no longer follows the established outlines and dimensions, sometimes enduring public hostility as a result. (Even Armstrong was debunked as an "Uncle Tom and a mere "showman in his time, rather than being recognized as the brilliant creator of a musical idiom.)

The fact of the matter is that "opinions are like assholes—everybody has one. All jazz writing is merely a form of "word play using jazz music as a stimulus. The philosopher Wittengstein and others showed that the words and phrases of a language do not refer to "objects in the so-called "real world, but rather are defined in and through other words and phrases within the same language. So, too, jazz writing is its "own thing, narcissistically self-referential. In a way, jazz journalism and scholarship are vain enterprises ("mirror, mirror on the wall ), for jazz writing is nowhere near as beautiful and exciting as the music itself. We jazz writers are ultimately a lonely crew, looking for scraps of understanding and recognition where we can get it and sometimes basking in the glow of the musicians themselves. We are merely "seekers and not cultural icons. But we perform a necessary "social function, bringing together musicians, audiences, and thinkers in a dialogue and extended conversation. That is great—and it is great fun. For me, that is what my tenure on All About Jazz has been about—and I love it.

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