Ajay Heble: Landing on the Wrong Note

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Landing on the Wrong Note: Jazz, Dissonance, and Critical Practice Landing on the Wrong Note: Jazz, Dissonance, and Critical Practice
Ajay Heble
Routledge, 2000
ISBN: 0415923484

Landing on the Wrong Note is a very serious book. (By definition, any work discussing the idea of dissonance in jazz must handle the matter with care in order to avoid becoming noisy itself.) To properly appreciate Landing on the Wrong Note you have to put on your thinking cap, find a quiet place, and wade through a high density of ideas. (I personally recommend a long flight or train trip as the ideal opportunity to bite into the book.)

If you're willing to put in the effort, it can be a really enlightening read. In reviewing this book, I've chosen to deal with the ideas in the author's own terms—in order to effectively communicate some of the complexity involved. It is my hope that AAJ readers might also benefit directly from a blow-by-blow summary of the seven substantive essays in Landing on the Wrong Note.

What I've written here can be taken as encapsulated information and argument on its own. Those interested in the gory details should view this discussion as a starting point for their own exploration of Landing on the Wrong Note. The rest will hopefully find my summary an item of interest in and of itself. Heble's book is truly outstanding—the very fact that I've chosen to discuss it at such length should be evidence that it's worth your attention. And most importantly, it's not just a book by a critic for critics.

So take the review as a starting point, or use it as an endpoint. It's your choice, but I would heartily encourage any reader interested in the deeper ideas behind the evolution of modern jazz to read onward...


Much has been said about the role of dissonance in expanding the palette of sounds available to the jazz musician. Ajay Heble, a professor at the University of Guelph in Canada, offers a collection of essays in Landing on the Wrong Note which deals with specific sociocultural/musicological/linguistic aspects of this idea.

Heble's primary interest, apparent throughout the book, is the conceptual and cultural framework behind paradigm shifts in jazz. His style betrays an academic bent, with an abundance of quotes from other sources and a marked degree of sophistication in vocabulary and construction. This intellectually demanding aspect may deter readers interested in quick and easy consumption, but it has the advantage of offering a rigorous framework often missing in books about jazz.

To be honest, much of the extant literature about jazz relies upon personal anecdotes, subjective opinion, and storytelling. Landing on the Wrong Note , on the other hand, relies on logic, precedent, and systematic integration of ideas across many fields of study.

Essay 1

The first and by far the most compelling essay in the collection addresses linguistic aspects of the free jazz revolution. Heble uses as his musical framework the innovations put forth by Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor around 1960. The author contextualizes the invention of free jazz with post-structuralist linguistic developments from around the same time. Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics from 1966—perhaps the most compelling of these documents—advances the idea that verbal meaning can be viewed as a relational construct among words. Thus linguistic expression offers a distinct realm of meaning when words are considered not just in relation to objects in reality, but also relative to other words.

One example Heble chooses from Saussure's book is the idea that the Geneva-to-Paris express train holds its particular identity not because it's a train, but because it's "different from all the other trains in the timetable." Using the same framework, one can view musical ideas within collective improvisation as holding meaning not in relation to the distinctly European concept of diatonic structure and the all-important root, but instead (most significantly) in relation to simultaneous improvisation.

Heble's thesis, elaborated upon at length, is that musical lines can hold specific meaning relative to other musical lines—in the absence of any adherence to conventional tonal structure. Thus the "dissonant" musical statements of Coleman and Taylor from around 1960 offered something novel by making use of inter-relational meaning. It's a compelling argument which is hard to deny. Multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter, one of today's most articulate proponents of post-structuralism as a basis for collective improvisation, makes a similar point in his interview for AAJ.

Essay 2

The rest of Heble's book addresses other concepts relating to jazz innovation. Using Chicago's AACM (and more specifically the Art Ensemble of Chicago) as an example, Heble describes attempts to use jazz as a means to define and empower black identity. The AEC, consisting at its heyday of Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, Roscoe Mitchell, Don Moye, and Joseph Jarman, made a conscious effort to unify black music from the "Ancient to the Future." These musicians elaborated a broad-spectrum musical form with combined roots in African primitivism and twentieth century free improvisation. For example, Favors, Moye, and Jarman might dress in tribal garb with face paint, while Bowie made his own statement in a white lab coat and construction hat.

The underlying concept, which has been adopted by a number of other American black musicians, is that jazz can be a means for expressing identity. In other words, the music of improvisation cannot be considered in isolation: it exists within a meaningful cultural and social context. The theme here is not a particularly new idea, but it's nevertheless essential to consider if one is to understand the sociocultural underpinnings of a music largely developed by African-Americans.

Essay 3

The third essay in Landing on the Wrong Note deals with an interesting aspect of jazz documentation: the jazz autobiography. While one might assume that autobiographical statements offer the most authentic and reliable information about jazz history, Heble argues that they too can be dramatically contorted by context, editing, and exaggeration. The three autobiographies discussed include Charles Mingus's Beneath the Underdog , Billie Holiday's Lady Sings the Blues , and Duke Ellington's Music Is My Mistress. Heble discusses the effect of white editors, who played a dramatic role in reshaping and filtering each of these works. (Mingus's book, for example, was trimmed to a publishable size from a 1000+ page collection—and in the process, as Janet Coleman put it, "whitened up beyond repair.")

Likewise, white writer William Dufty played a critical role in assembling interview transcripts into the final version of the Holiday book—and in the process left a trail of exaggeration, fantasy, and lies. (Consider for example the leading statement about Holiday's parents, which contains striking inaccuracies regarding their age, marital status, and closeness.) When one considers the fact that outright racism played a huge role in the personal and professional lives of these musicians, the issue of white editorship brings any autobiographical discussion of racism into serious question.

Along similar lines, these autobiographical documents frequently convey an attempt to redefine identity and history using creative improvisation. Mingus's book, for example, describes a fantasy orgy; Ellington posits an unrealistically positive world view, omitting discussion of the many negative forces which shaped his career. Other threads running through these three autobiographies are the concept of the slave narrative as realized through 20th century texts, the surprising parallels between jazz writing and jazz improvisation, and the concept of multiple identity (personal, professional, and cultural).

Essay 4

The following chapters are somewhat less poignant. The next essay in the series deals with Sun Ra's forceful efforts to redefine black identity in the context of a futuristic, spiritual, largely invented construct. Ra played a significant role as teacher, retaining Arkestra members for decades while espousing positive values of collectivism, historical consciousness, and freedom of expression. Paralleling his independent school of thought, Ra retained the rights to publishing his work by creating Saturn Records.

(Ironically, although his label might be considered 100% authentic, his records were often poorly produced and/or mislabeled, and they rapidly ran out of print. In the long term, Ra pursued his artistic integrity at the cost of preserving a historically long-lived discography.)

Essay 5

A discussion of gender in music, co-written by Heble with Gillian Siddall, leaves the reader with more questions than answers. Women have certainly played a greater role in jazz history than is commonly acknowledged. The example of trombonist Melba Liston illustrates the resistance of the jazz community to accept woman instrumentalists (other than the usual singers and pianists).

While today's listeners seem to accept the idea of women playing jazz, they rarely embrace women in practice. This is a long-recognized phenomenon, rooted in sociological bias. Heble and Siddall offer little in terms of solution.

Essay 6

The penultimate essay in Landing on the Wrong Note deals with the effect of market forces on improvised music. Jazz in general, it must be appreciated, consists of under 3% of record sales in this country. Innovative (i.e. "dissonant") jazz often faces significant hurdles between performance and documentation, essentially mediated by the facts of life. Record labels either need substantial extramusical funding support (e.g. HatHut and related labels) or they need to make money off of the records they release.

Since "alternative" or "innovative" (i.e. "dissonant") jazz tends to have a tiny audience of devoted listeners, the music that falls into this category frequently gets left by the wayside. Certain artists, such as John Zorn, have managed to flirt with public acceptance and still retain intellectual and artistic authenticity. However, most ground-breaking musicians tend not to be so fortunate. Again, Heble speaks in a analytical and historical sense without offering solutions.

Essay 7

Finally, Heble discusses the problematic issue of music associated with ethics. Using saxophonist Charles Gayle as an example, he touches on the question of whether brilliant music can be accepted if it comes packaged with ideals of hate, intolerance, or racism. It's an old and tired issue, with historical precedents in the work of Wagner and Pound, and no real possibility for resolution.

Gayle is an apt subject because he frequently espouses an intolerant pentacostelist preaching mentality, which has appeared on his recordings. Gayle has little respect for gays, premarital sex, or abortion, and he makes his views amply clear through specific verbal statements incorporated into his music. While Gayle is a powerful and innovative performer, it's hard to separate the music from the ideas. Thus the counfounding problem: does one support art tethered to hate? Of course there are no easy answers.


As one can see from this summary, Heble touches on a broad spectrum of issues in Landing on the Wrong Note. His discussion of linguistic aspects of free jazz (in the first essay) is by far the most potent and thought-provoking. The remainder of the book deals with important historical, cultural, and ethical issues but leaves many questions unanswered. The problem, in essence, is that when one considers art as an isolated form of expression, it can be discussed much more rigorously and definitively. When art mixes with culture, things get more complicated.

For the tiny fraction of the tiny fraction of music listeners who treasure innovative improvised music (ie. "dissonance"), Heble's book is thought-provoking and powerful. Of course Heble falls victim to the same market forces he describes in his sixth essay: most readers are not interested in serious academic discussion, and would prefer to sit down with something lighter and more easily digested. No easy solutions for that problem either, other than to emphasize the value of this kind of work within the celebration of the "dissonance" that has driven and continues to drive jazz forward.

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