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Ginsberg's 'America' and Jazz

AAJ Staff By

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Any listener who has been touched by someone's music has recognized this honesty. But it's not something easily put into words. It's something visceral, something emotional, something spiritual.
Current events, such as they are, prompted me to go back and re-read Allen Ginsberg's poem " America ." There is much good literature on the relation between the Beat movement and jazz, I'll not try and revisit that topic here. I will however dwell on one characteristic all great jazz players' posses and which this poem exemplifies.

It's hard to read this poem and not be moved by its sheer frankness, or the power of its rhythm. But when put in some type of historical context that power is magnified and the poems worth becomes clearer, its value magnified.

This poem bears a date of 1956 at its conclusion. That Ginsberg should have had the courage to set down these thoughts during the black-and-white 1950's, when (we are led to believe) America was becoming a more homogenized society, is remarkable. "The Fifties" conjures up so many stereotypes in the mind of the average American that it's hard to dispel them all. Of course, these stereotypes—house in the suburbs with a new car and 2.5 children -were only ever truly the norm for a very small percentage of the populace, and only if you were white, male and had some good fortune fall your way. Yet that was the image America was conveying to the world, and to its own citizenry as the ideal.

Along comes Ginsberg who, in this poem as well as in most all of his other writings and actions, upsets that applecart so completely. In this poem he not only admits to but also CELEBRATES the fact that he is a poet, a Jew, a homosexual, a pot smoker, a leftist, has mystical visions, is lazy (or at least doesn't want to have a job), is "nearsighted and psychopathic anyway," and above all not very happy with the state of his country.

Any one of these things would make him an outcast if not a pariah in "normal" 50's society. Yet Ginsberg had the courage -no, let me state it more clearly than that—he had the balls to glorify his individuality in the face of a society that was not at all receptive to these things. He was "outside" of America, at least the America of popular opinion. Yet he was more American that most. He had faith in a country that had seen Walt Whitman before him record all that was best in her people and her spirit. He understood that the best thing he could do was to speak with his own voice, to give voice to his thoughts with as much sincerity and honesty as possible, to honestly explore his own true path and no matter what Time magazine told him, he would find America, his "America."

The courage to look for and speak with an individual voice -nothing is more central to the jazz musician. That combination of timbre, note choice, harmonic vocabulary, rhythmic vocabulary (sense of swing), use of space, structure -all these elements play a part in establishing an individual voice. Think of any of your favorite musicians. In your mind you can immediately conjure up the aural memory of their sound. Think about Ben Webster and how his breath would surround his fluttering vibrato. Think about Johnny Hodges and how he would seemingly take an eternity to stretch up to that ultimate note. Think about Wynton Kelly and the "flowers" (as Miles Davis used to say) in his piano chords, giving each note so much presence it's as if you can practically touch them. Think about Red Mitchell and the way he could make a bass sing so beautifully.

These players, and so many more, were able to find their own sounds. A few notes is all it ever takes to recognize someone who reaches that pinnacle. It's one thing all jazz players strive for.

But there is even more to it than just sound. To really speak honestly -to play with sincerity is somewhat more elusive. (Not to imply that any of the players mentioned above were anything but sincere. It's just that their sounds, their timbres were so outstanding, they exemplified that particular aspect). How can you define this? How can you identify when someone's playing is sincere? Or honest? It would be a cop-out to say that it's subjective. Any listener who has been touched by someone's music has recognized this honesty. But it's not something easily put into words. It's something visceral, something emotional, something spiritual. Something beyond words, beyond thoughts. Something that once you experience you long for all the time, and you miss terribly when it's absent.

It's the sound of John Coltrane playing "I Want to Talk About You." It's the sound of Ornette Coleman playing "Lonely Woman." It's the sound of Louis Armstrong playing "Heebie Jeebies." It's the sound of Jaco Pastorius playing "Portrait of Tracy." It's the sound of Charles Mingus playing "What Love?." It's strength, and passion, and the willingness to be honest with yourself and those around you, to look at everything for what it is and accept it and find what beauty there is and celebrate it with all it's imperfections. It's the courage to say "this is what I believe now, this is the best I can do now, but I believe there can be better, from myself as well as you." It's the sound of imagining things the way they could be and calling out those things that are ugly, that are bad. It's the sound of challenges -challenges being issued and challenges being accepted. It's the willingness to make mistakes. It's the willingness to fail. It's the openness to failure that leads to greater successes.

But none of this happens without the courage to speak honestly, without fear of how you might be accepted, or interpreted. There can be no curbing of ideas or emotions, there can be no polite constraints due to external stimuli. Fearlessness. To speak honestly without fear. Cecil Taylor, Tony Williams, Charlie Parker, Steve Swallow, Gerry Mulligan, Eric Dolphy, Scott LaFaro. Feel free to make your own list -it can go on forever.

I am touched by the power and the beauty in the music these people have created, just as I am touched by the power and the beauty expressed in Ginsberg's poem, in his vision of "America." I am sometimes afraid that it is becoming harder and harder to speak one's mind with this type of honesty. While our country and our culture becomes ever more numb to the shocking and the bizarre, we have a harder time with honest opinions, honest thoughts, carefully expressed. It's often difficult to have a discussion, a debate which doesn't result in one party shouting down the other. I don't like the idea of a society where the only voices heard are those who scream the loudest. Every voice has value. Every opinion, when thoughtfully arrived at, deserves to be heard. This is "America." This is jazz.

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