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Some Notes on Jazz Writing and Scholarship

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.


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