Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands

Everything's Permitted, and No One's Listening
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Nov. 5 2007 1:01 PM

Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands

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Alex,

A lot of people I know got turned on to Cecil Taylor at college age. He's part of the cult art of that time of life. Around 19 or so, I think a certain kind of person starts to get attracted to people who truly believe in "rebel" systems in art and writing and music and theater and whatever—meaning those talents who might seem to threaten the "established" systems. But also, people get curious about what it takes to hold art together, how much fragmentation or warping it can take before it isn't the genre that it purports to be, or the genre in which it is filed by stock clerks. Right? You become excited by extremes—very few notes and chords or very many notes and chords. You get truly excited by abstract and intuitive motion partly because you're new to the concept. You start reading stuff that you didn't get in high school and you say, wow, William Carlos Williams and the variable foot? That's like the everyday music of language. Pollock? That's what I feel like in my brain. Maybe later you come to understand that all these people have their own binding grammar, but that's secondary to the first excitement of, "Are people even allowed to do this?"

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My upbringing was as pop as anybody else's, but I heard Louis Armstrong at around age 8 and Miles Davis at around age 13, and became curious. Then I saw Miles Davis when I was, I don't know, 14, when he was turning his back on the audience for half an hour at a time, in front of a drummer playing whomping beats, and I thought the music was all right, but the bandleader was fascinating. When you're a kid, you have very blocky, prescripted notions of how adults think, and I spent a long time figuring out how the guy who played "Tune Up" and "My Funny Valentine" in the quintet with Coltrane became, 25 years later, the guy with wraparound shades and Korg synths and all that glossy trance-funk. It is a good and useful question. (And a lot harder to figure out than how, say, Mick Jagger in 1964 became Mick Jagger in 1990.) It made me listen to more of his music, and that led to listening to others' music, and etc., etc.

I always thought that people who have a classical-music upbringing—which usually means, I guess, that they're playing classical music on an instrument with some degree of skill or interest by the age of 10—are attracted to symmetry and elegance in their art and tend to be kind of Enlightenment-esque in their notion of what cuts any ice: formal excellence, discernible order. I think that there are many people with a "jazz" upbringing who basically feel the same way, until they're let loose to become adults.

Also, these categories used to be much easier to define: You grow up in a household where a certain kind of adult music or adult aesthetic held sway. It seems to me that is very seldom true anymore, because kids are encouraged to have their own music at a younger age.

Perhaps it mostly comes down to what's available. Cuban jazz musicians in their 30s, for example, tend to have a really imposing technically oriented mindset because of how they were taught—that strict tradition of musical pedagogy there—and because of the few jazz records that were available to them. But in the United States, 6- and 7-year-olds have iPods now. All the stuff we're going to be talking about for the rest of this conversation—20th-century jazz and classical music, I guess—will be understood through brains that have allotted large areas to Hannah Montana and Rock Band (the video game). Classical music used to be very important because 50 or 60 years ago, people grew up with pianos in their houses. That Rock Band game—which goes on sale in a few weeks—will put a set of electronic drums in, what, 3 million homes within a year? That will have an effect.

Anyway, let's talk about much tinier worlds. Jazz musicians are interested in everything, basically. First, as they develop, they're interested in what other jazz musicians are interested in. (In the '40s, when word got around that Charlie Parker liked and studied the "Firebird Suite," Jimmy Heath and Coltrane, teenagers then, used to go to the library in Philadelphia and listen to it with the score.) Then they're interested in whatever appeals to them, because they can extrapolate anything from it. Usually something about melody and harmony, but beyond that, absolutely anything. Jazz's openness is no myth. Musicians are just listening for ways to solve certain problems or expand certain things; they're all trying to make music that doesn't necessarily sound like what jazz is known to sound like.

But who are they doing this for? Can we talk some truth about concert audiences? I know so many people who are at least casual enthusiasts of jazz—many of them among that huge bloc of amateur jazz musicians—who don't go out anymore to see whoever's new. I used to think it's because jazz has become too thoughtful for its own good, but I am coming to think that it doesn't have to do with jazz at all. It probably doesn't have to do with expensive tickets, either. (A movie with popcorn and a soda costs only a little less than a set at the Village Vanguard.) People just don't go out to hear music anymore, the way they used to even 15 years ago. It's too much of a hassle. Maybe they read 75 recommendations for what to do in the New Yorker and 75 more in the Times, and they just say, fuck it, I can't decide. And so the audience issue that Coltrane dealt with—was his late music somehow breaking a contract with his fans? Was it too harsh? Is he allowed to do this?—is now completely moot. To exaggerate a little bit, everything's permitted, and nobody's listening.

Ben

Ben Ratliff has been a jazz critic at the New York Times since 1996. His new book is Coltrane: The Story of a Sound.

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