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Music and the Creative Spirit

Ken Vandermark: The Passion and Ascension of a Brilliant Mind

By Published: April 28, 2009
It's like any kind of art; it has its own set of threads. It's a very complicated and touchy subject because the things that define music in this country come out of the black American experience and those influences have affected European and Asian interests in the music too. All the primary influences that are connected to jazz are coming out of the black American experience as far as I see it. I don't see how anyone can make an argument against that.

So what's going to happen to the music now? I don't have an answer for that and I think it's out of our hands. I would be incredibly naive and ignorant to suggest that I understand black American culture. I'm not a black American. I'm totally influenced by it, and it's completely changed my life down to my DNA, but I'm not a black American. And if I can't understand or appreciate what it means to be a black American culturally, socially, and politically, then how can somebody in Europe or Asia really say that they could possibly understand the answer to what that culture is and how it would affect the art? As participation from people outside black American culture increases, there is no question the music is going to change radically because the source has shifted. That's a real issue and is neither positive nor negative, it's just reality.

I'm really curious, fifty years from now, what happens? Is improvised music or jazz—is it just an anachronism? Or does it become something totally unrecognizable to someone who thinks they knew what jazz is because of this move away from the culture that developed and defined it. And the only way for someone today to sound vaguely like jazz in a Coltrane and Miles classic quintet way, is to completely work counter to the way that the music works. Because improvised music is of its time in every possible way that you can define it. And to sound like classic jazz now, you've got to re-create and imitate the sounds, rhythms, harmonics, melodic approaches of something that's like OK, mid-'50s. We're talking forty-five or fifty years ago at this point. As soon as you start doing that, you're killing the creative drive of the music. It has to follow a timeline. It's not an art that's based on re-creation. It's based on creation, which is consistent with almost any art. One of the problems in this country is that race is still a touchy and loaded issue and it's a sad statement about what little distance we've come in the United States. Jazz is tied to race issues in this country and we have to be able to discuss these things and I find that when I talk about subjects that are connected to race, I find myself walking on eggshells. There are so many different ways to interpret what I am trying to say and if I'm not as articulate as I need to be, and not as informed as I need to be on the subject, it's not from lack of trying. And yet to have someone that's a white middle-class American try to talk about race relations in the United States, it's a problem because I can't fully appreciate a huge part of the situation.

A discussion of the subject really needs to happen from all the parties involved, and I find that those circumstances arise so rarely without them becoming combative. That's a really strong statement about how screwed up race relations are in this country. I want to point this out because it's the kind of thing where some people just won't talk about it because it's a really loaded subject. It touches on so many very sensitive and painful aspects of the problems in the United States. Yet I would rather try and talk about it and do the best that I can to articulate my own subjective point of view, rather than leave it not discussed. To be honest, I think it's a bit risky because it's so easy to misinterpret or mishear what I'm trying to say. I have nothing but respect for the people who have been developing this music, both black and white. From the friends that I have who are black American and the things I have seen them deal with socially, culturally, and politically, there are serious lasting problems going on with how black Americans are treated, and it's important to discuss in forums like this or nothing is going to change and that would be the biggest crime.

LP: Is it possible that what's happening creative music is too forward thinking or complex for much of society?



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